Wednesday, September 14, 2016


If the MCU is now in Disney, then my favorite Disney superhero must be Elsa
Well, or Darth Vader. Same thing, sort of. Let's go over wwhy.

In short, an authentically Evil character is one who has lost everything very painfully, and has no hope or fear left in them. In that moment of utter despair, they realize true existential freedom. Only then are they able to radically remake the world, with no attachments or hesitations. Only then can they be completely awesome.

Many audiences feel that Elsa isn’t a villain. She’s simply too cool and - sympathetic isn’t even the word - connects to us on an emotional level. I think that undersells Elsa, and Disney. Instead of making a movie with a very weak, shallow villain (Prince Hans), they’re still really exploring a very deep concept with Elsa. It’s the most morally interesting Disney movie that I know of, *because* she’s the villain.

Read the actual lyrics of Elsa’s key song, Let It Go

The snow glows white on the mountain tonightNot a footprint to be seenA kingdom of isolation,And it looks like I'm the queen.
The wind is howling like this swirling storm insideCouldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried!
Don't let them in, don't let them seeBe the good girl you always have to beConceal, don't feel, don't let them knowWell, now they know!
Let it go, let it goCan't hold it back anymoreLet it go, let it goTurn away and slam the door!
I don't careWhat they're going to sayLet the storm rage on,The cold never bothered me anyway!
It's funny how some distanceMakes everything seem smallAnd the fears that once controlled meCan't get to me at all!
It's time to see what I can doTo test the limits and break throughNo right, no wrong, no rules for me I'm free!
Let it go, let it goI am one with the wind and skyLet it go, let it goYou'll never see me cry!
Here I standAnd here I'll stayLet the storm rage on!
My power flurries through the air into the groundMy soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all aroundAnd one thought crystallizes like an icy blastI'm never going back,The past is in the past!

Those are some really interesting lines! And this isn’t looking for subtext or metaphors. A Disney character is outright saying that right and wrong no longer exist. This is combined with being free from fear, an emotion that rules our lives constantly.

Most Disney villains have much pettier motives, like stolen power or jealousy. Not “no human morality applies to me anymore.” This is real ubermensch stuff, and it’s great.

The closest line to a metaphor I highlighted was “No footprints to be seen”, which is good snow imagery, but also emphasizes the line later on about her past being wiped away completely. She’s undergone the singularity and all of her old self is meaningless.

Is she radical though? Well besides her hermitage, she just froze the entire world. She did not consciously intend to or was even aware of it, of course. But uh, when you’re realizing “No right no wrong no rules for me” at the very same moment you change the nature of the world, yeah, it’s about your moral development.

So what does Elsa do with this existential freedom?

The popular reading of the movie is that Elsa submits to despair upon hearing her sister Anna is dead, but Anna commits an act of True Love, sacrificing her life for Elsa, and that breaks the curse of her ice magic. Then Anna is okay again, Elsa learns to use love to control the magic, and all is well.

I find this unsatisfying.

  1. Certainly for a character pushed past the singularity to existential freedom, being affected by sisterly love again would represent regression for her. It would really be a corruption of her progress to radically remake the world. (And to put it lightly, the first time new-Elsa encounters her sister, she is not comforted by her presence or love.)

  1. Additionally, sisterly love as True Love seems insufficient. The lesson the trolls are teaching us is really “question your assumptions about True Love.” We go in (or are supposed to go in) assuming Anna’s spontaneous romantic attachment to Prince Hans will culminate is a kiss that saves her. That infatuation is a false love though, so she needs something else. It’s a great twist.

    But once we’re measuring purity of love, and questioning our assumptions, why stop at sisterly love? It’s great, sometimes even better than romantic love, but is it the one true best love? Is it a universal love that encompasses the entire world, or is it attachment to a single person again?

    The riddle the trolls offer us means we should continue to explore what we mean by True Love, and how it applies to the authentically Evil monster.

  1. Lastly, sacrifice. Stories with an act of sacrifice are cheapened if the sacrifice is fake. Turns out you didn’t have to die after all! It’s good that the character expressed this willingness to give up their life, but it’s still not paying the cost (or in some stories, it’s *expecting* that magic will save them.) It’s not bad, but it could be better.

So, what happened then?

There have been other things going on in this movie of course. One thing that receives basically no commentary is that Anna changes her outfit piece by piece throughout the movie. First she gets new clothes at the trading post, then she wraps herself in a cloak, puts on long gloves, etc etc. Near the end as the ice sickness takes hold of her, her hair goes white. And at the very end, she’s walking more like a huddled wreck than the proud ebullient teenager she was, and her hair becomes much more contained and trim in the snow.

This is what Anna looks at the last moment of winter as she offers up her life to protect Elsa.

She looks familiar. Where have we seen this before?

What. What. What??? This is what Elsa looked like, immediately before her apotheosis. Over the course of the movie Anna slowly transforms until she can believably look exactly like this too.

I refuse to believe this was a coincidence. Artistry and effort went into that character design. The scenes for her to transform like this piece by piece were planted throughout the movie. It was building up to this. (And the story of the hero who goes out to hunt a monster and becomes the monster in the process, is well-established ground to build on.)

Remember this is arguably *the* most important shot of the movie. Everything has been leading up to this act of True Love, a sacrifice of (supposedly) sister for sister. What do you think the conversation around this shot was like?

“Yeah make sure to have Hans at the right, his sword raised, pointing a line slightly above Anna so that we read that she is beneath him, and as we read to the left we then see Anna, who is protecting Elsa who has crouched on the ground.”
“Cool. What should Anna look like?”
“Oh, I dunno. How about exactly like Act I Elsa?”

And then after the moment of sacrifice, Anna and her costume are first turned to ice, and when they thaw, her hair is back to auburn and she sheds that costume. The Elsa-shadow she became, is gone. *That* is who is sacrificed.

What the hell does it mean.

  • Is the movie saying that the past-self must willingly sacrifice itself for the present-self?
  • Is it saying that the highest True Love is the love of the self for the self and the willingness to give up everything for it???
  • We must truly love who we are and give up our past to grow on?

And remember, this moment of sacrifice is what frees the world from being trapped in ice. It is what remakes the world again.

Here’s my theory, but where I go now goes more into speculation than the mere observation I’ve done so far:


What’s going on here is that *Anna* is giving up the image she has of Elsa in her head. The Elsa since Let It Go is an entirely different being than the sister Anna grew up with, and Anna’s love remains for that sister. She’s barely met this ice monster, and the one meeting they did have was traumatic to say the least. And yet, Elsa is so terrified of the old world that she can’t return to it without the fear of melting (like say, a snowman fears summer.)

An act of True Love is to say “I love you stranger I’ve never met. I’ll give up the memory of my sister for you.” And Anna, because she is full of radical love, does this exact thing. The sacrifice is not of herself, but of the attachment of her old sister.

And with that completely unselfish love, Elsa can carve out a small space of her new free identity, within the old world she once lived in and feared. Much like making a tiny snowstorm on a summer’s day.

(Which is why the movie doesn’t have a third outfit for Elsa. A traditional reading of the movie might be that Elsa finally found some balance, synthesis, between the Act I and Act II presentations she gave. But she continues wearing the Act II dress, not a third dress. This is because she continues being the same person she has been since Let It Go. Only the world has made a space for her, by no longer treating her like her old self.)


I don’t know the answer but this ethical message is *way* more interesting than any other movie of this decade.

So let’s review the *entire* movie with this new understanding.

First off, the very first scene of a movie. “Frozen Heart.” It’s a somber number about a legion of undifferentiated men cutting ice to be sold later. It’s a quiet introduction to the movie, and plot wise connected to almost nothing else in the movie (except some inspiration for Kristoff as what he wants to become.) Why is it there?

Resist cynicism. This song isn’t present in a massive, well thought out movie “just” because it’s pretty. There are any number of pretty songs that could be used. Why not Circle of Life, or an aria about the decadence of modern life regarding Christmas toys? Perhaps a glitzy tune about dinosaurs. No, this song is used because it fits the movie. Why does it fit? Well for one, it’s about ice.

What is ice? Specifically in the movie Frozen, what does ice represent.

It doesn’t take a close reading to see that ice represents freedom in this movie. It also represents raw, untamed, primal power. It also represents femininity. These are all important elements of the movie, AND very closely linked to ice.

(In contrast, warmth is associated as masculine. Prince Hans and his thirteen brothers are from the Southern Isles. Hans is often depicted with fire, and when he goes, the fire leaves too. The whole scene at the trader post.)

And the opening song, setting the situation, is about a legion of men cutting that ice into very orderly packages, to be sold for profit. This song is frankly, about economically motivated men exploiting the awesome power of the feminine for money. Turning freedom into order.

We then immediately cut to a scene of young Elsa who has magic ice powers but wants to keep them hidden. Why? We just saw what her society does to ice.

(The fact that young Kristoff sees this in a ritual of masculine observation is telling. The fact that one of the last acts of the movie is Elsa awarding Kristoff title of “Official Ice Cutter” *simultaneously* while giving him permission to court the kingdom’s only eligible princess is, honestly, somewhat disturbing. I don’t agree with *all* of the messages in this movie.)

If you still disagree with me, read the lyrics of this song now.

Born of cold and winter air
And mountain rain combining
This icy force both foul and fair
Has a frozen heart worth mining

So cut through the heart, cold and clear
Strike for love and strike for fear
See the beauty, sharp and sheer
Split the ice apart And break the frozen heart

Hyup! Ho! Watch your step! Let it go!
Hyup! Ho! Watch your step! Let it go!


Ice has a magic, can't be controlled
Stronger than one, stronger than ten
Stronger than a hundred men! Hyup!

Born of cold and winter air
And mountain rain combining
This icy force both foul and fair
Has a frozen heart worth mining

Cut through the heart, cold and clear
Strike for love and strike for fear
There's beauty and there's danger here
Split the ice apart
Beware the frozen heart.

Jesus Christ that is terrifying! If you don’t like calling “Let It Go” the villain song, then this would make a pretty good next contender.

It is very much about gender.

(It’s also worth noting that in this movie, every time a man has romantic interest in a woman - Hans, Weselton, Kristoff - it has an economic motive or context. When Kristoff meets Anna he is bemoaning both his loneliness, and his lack of success as an ice cutter.)


Secondly, what is Olaf?

Olaf is Elsa.

Generally, Elsa is in fact responsible for everything her ice powers do, even when she isn’t consciously aware of it. They represent her emotions, and fear, and other struggles going on inside her. This includes her ability to radically freeze the entire world.

It also includes the elemental creatures she constructs. She rarely has any on-screen time with them, because when they appear, they are now different representations of Elsa. The ice giant she creates, as she immediately leaves the scene, attacks invaders and tries to defend her borders, at the exact moment she is feeling incredibly defensive. (What happens to the ice giant probably legitimizes this fear of hers.)

More specifically, Olaf appears first when she constructs a snowman to play with her sister. Elsa not only creates him, but then she play acts as being him.

Guys, I don’t actually think that’s the snowman talking.
I think maybe the voice is coming from...

Olaf is Elsa’s id.

He has simple desires (“I like warm hugs”.) His language is transgressive, in a way that’s fun when you’re young (he basically sounds like an 8 year old that just discovered the word “butt”.)

So his sudden appearance in the aftermath of Ice Witch Elsa is the part of her identity that admits “Yes, of course it would be good if I could return to Arendelle. The benefits of it are obvious.” (And not in a past focused way either.)

What would happen if the newly monstrous, frozen beauty of Elsa, all untamed power and isolation, returned to Arendelle at this point?

She would melt.

So that won’t work, and Olaf shows us why Elsa can’t go home quite yet.

Once we’re at the end and Elsa is shielded from her old life by Anna’s love, she learns that the solution isn’t “Olaf can never go to summer” or “Olaf must change to be sun-proof” or even “Olaf will experience beauty then die for the sake of it” but “You can carve out a space for Olaf (me) and take the ice with you, in the broader world.” His survival is a mobile-personal-sanctuary metaphor, and so is hers.


“This is all well and good to declare Anna’s True Love for Elsa to be the sacrifice of an old memory, for the sake of a brand new person. Except, what about Prince Hans? Isn’t the moral of the movie not to trust new people?” you might ask.

Not really.

For one, yes it’s highly relevant that the movie spends a whole song and multiple arguments on “can you love someone you just met.” The “yes” side of that argument is presented sympathetically and is not an obvious straw man. We *should* seriously consider that question.

More importantly though, Anna is definitely attached to the past in her infatuation with Prince Hans. She is attached to a long-standing fantasy she has of what true love and masculinity will be like. There is a ton of emphasis on her expectation to meet a man just like him. And so when Hans appears, she projects her past  desires onto him ignoring the actual dude right in front of her.

Said dude is in fact very different, but she can’t see that. Much like her relationship with her sister in the middle of the movie, who is different from what she expects.

Similarly, Anna is not expecting love in the form of Kristoff, so a decent amount of the movie is about her coming to realize what she could find in him. None of her problems are solved by attachment to the past.

Anna is heroic of course, and once she realizes what is blocking her, she sacrifices her past for loving the people who are actually there. Go her. Such an act saves the world.

(There’s also the theme that Hans is about deception. Probably not the best thematic consistency for a movie where a “snowman” is both a mask and a real desire. But sure, to engage with that: note that even if Hans never did anything obviously evil, all his actions still go the same way. He could have kissed Anna, and if he did so it would have failed as they did not have True Love, she would have still almost died, etc. Everything else he does makes sense in his Heroic Prince persona. That scene exists basically to just mock our conceptions of how a Disney world is supposed to work.)


Speaking of the world. This movie really is radical. Elsa’s magic freezes everything we know of, and unfreezes it too. But more than that, does she change the underlying rules of society?

Once she discovers the protective powers of love, Elsa declares “I like the open gates.
We are never closing them again.” She has literally torn down the barriers between rich and poor.

And this line is in no way unearned. We understand that those barriers, which divide people from their rulers, were a result of the psychological problems Elsa was struggling with. And we understand that Elsa is capable of dramatically reshaping everything. She is still currently a monarch, but in a very different, less stratified society.

[I don’t really like saying *every* movie is anti-capitalist… but this movie did start off with a metaphor linking gender dynamics and economic exploitation, and ends with restructuring society to break down class borders. So yeah, it has some messages in that direction.]

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