Anna’s problem is she’s genre-savvy, but she doesn’t know she’s in the wrong genre. Please contrast with Rapunzel in Tangled or Giselle in Enchanted, who may spawn into rough worlds, but bring a genre’s worth of sweetness with them. Anna looks like she’s got a universe of sweetness in those big eyes, but it’s a lie, as sure as Elsa’s big ol’ song Let it Go is a lie. It’s tempting, easy, to see Elsa as the broken one who needs transformation, but both sisters are deeply wounded. Both sisters have difficult paths to walk; if this is a princess movie, it’s far from an entirely light and frothy one.
In fact, Frozen may be more softly subversive at its core than I was initially willing to think of it. Observe how both girls try to find happiness. Elsa runs off to be herself by herself, where no one can see her to judge her and her crazy magic powers. Anna, she tries to find a boy, any boy, and neither of these paths are right. Elsa’s choice is based in fear — and so is Anna’s. Immediately marrying the first prince you see isn’t just youthful naiveté, it’s escape. It’s flat out running away. I don’t have to worry about Elsa’s continued rejection if I have a contingency plan, and now I have a boy, I have a plan, and everything will be all right.
Anna spends most of the movie in “everything will be all right” mode, and she’s wrong. Everything isn’t going to be all right; the gulf between her and Elsa could never be mended by just talking. I mean, we’re talking about years of this crazed mutual isolation, with Elsa hollowing herself out because she’s “bad” and she’s “innately destructive” and she “hurts people,” sure, that’s obvious. But Anna, well, again, she’s not dissimilar. Sure, she doesn’t have the intense guilt, the immense parental pressure. She’s just the princess, not the future queen, and she doesn’t have to amount to anything. But not having pressure while a silent sibling is bearing it and bearing it, having so much parental focus swung thataway, well, that’s not healthy either. Anna, she’s running herself in circles with no one and no one, and loneliness has a way of feeling like a deficiency. Why won’t anyone love me?
If Elsa feels like to be seen, to be exposed, is to be hurt, for Anna, it’s to be invisible. Take a look at these girls. Even after Elsa runs, she’s horribly visible. All the people she’s trying to avoid trek right for her, and she falls because she’s got no one to watch her back, because for all her bravura claims of “letting go,” walling off, running, shouting “go away” are all the patterns she knows at this point. You can’t break those patterns with a song.
Look at Anna, who can’t be found. She’s the protagonist of this story, because she has to do the finding. Rustles up Kristoff, treks up to Elsa, struggles to find her prince before time runs out. And when time’s actually running out, she’s only found by a snowman, of all people and things, who’s willing to die for a little summer. All he can give her is an epiphany — and it’s initially the wrong one, because this is a movie full of wrong epiphanies. I’ll talk a bit about those trolls in the coda, but part of the problem is how Anna hears. She’s genre-savvy, but in the wrong genre.
Look at it again. Both girls are dying of the cold. I see the movie, I’m disappointed that they’d literalized the original Snow Queen’s “frozen heart,” which has more to do with being alone and caring about nothing, nothing, nothing than, you know, literally turning to ice.
Except I looked at it again. Anna’s hair turns white before we start dipping into some freezy body horror, and Elsa, pale-haired Elsa’s been frozen for years. “Let it Go” isn’t actually about freedom. It’s about accepting that cold is all you’ll ever feel. And just because Anna presents friendly, sweet, extroverted doesn’t mean that her heart’s been healthy all this time. It’s partly cultural, maybe, that we see extroversion as a sign of happiness, but even if Elsa is all reserve and Anna is just that rambunctiously lovable, you don’t marry the first prince you see because you’re just so in love with life. Anna is looking for someone to save her. That’s how the story’s supposed to go if you’re a sad princess. If it’s not the prince, just Kristoff, then. Whoever! Even Elsa. Can’t someone just love me, the world looks so empty without love.
The only way Anna or Elsa get out of their cycles is that at the last minute, and I mean the literal last, Anna realizes why a snowman might actually risk oblivion for a little summer. What that actually means. Why asking Elsa to, you know, please remove the winter so we can have a better time, isn’t the right action. Anna realizes that kissing a boy isn’t going to fix her heart, and it never was. And even here she hesitates, because it looks like that boy might finally find her, and to say that none of her dreams and future matter at the cost of her sister’s life is not easy. She has to hesitate. The whole weight of the movie rests here on the definition of love, and maybe, just maybe, love is not a feeling, but a decision.
And this is what saves them both. Elsa would have done it for Anna, too, sure, but she can’t for two reasons. 1. Everyone knows where Elsa is, but no one sees Anna. She can surprise the prince, because she was never more than an afterthought anyway. 2. Part of what Elsa has to learn is that she’s worth saving. She has to learn that before she can understand she can survive without the cold and concealment she’s used to (notably, even the fragile snowman makes it). And Anna learns that she’s much more than just what she can cling to.
Both girls find their strength without losing their natures — Elsa doesn’t suddenly turn into a summer witch and Anna is still going to perky and like her lonely reindeer boy. And everything is all right only after both girls have reached their nadir.
May as well note: Anna would not have survived her moment of selfless sacrifice if she had not been at her freezing nadir.
It’s all maybe more delicate and complex than it seems at a first glance, and that middle, which wanders, does wander. Still, Elsa and Anna need to heal the gulfs in their hearts before they can be happy, be bold, and that takes love beyond fear. Everything else is just hopeful posturing and detours. But to get to our destination, to even realize what our destination is, we need the hope and the detours. A proper epiphany takes a journey, doesn’t it.
* On the trolls. I’m not sure how trustworthy those little jerks are. They have a way of giving advice that is technically correct, but phrased in such a way to be more harm than good. Look at poor little Kristoff. He speaks of them with love, but that’s how you tend to speak of family, isn’t it, even if they’re not so kind to you. The “Fix-er-upper” song makes nice enough lyrical points and contrasts the openly flawed humanity of Kristoff with the too-good, too-convenient appearance of the prince. I can even argue that this song helps Anna realize that real relationships are messy because people are messy, and if it looks too smooth, it is too smooth. Sucking a little is the human condition.
But it’s still an uncomfortable song, because there’s just that touch of meanness to it. And I can’t help but notice that every time you follow a troll’s advice, you end up in the wrong place. I’m choosing to see that as intentional. The misdirection can’t be all on the parents or all on Anna, because it happens twice. Watch out for trolls, I say. They may be right in some sense, but they have the empathy of a rock, and that skews everything.