The Cold that Bothers Us
The Pixar conquest of Disney—the ongoing effort by the new recruits from Pixar to change the Mouse House's shallow culture of self-indulgence and self-esteem with something much more morally serious—has been an uneven battle up to now. But Frozen is an unqualified victory for Pixar's morally serious and culturally edifying storytelling, and its stratospheric success with audiences and critics may well turn the tide of the war. It's a profound movie on many levels.
The most obvious lesson of Frozen—the one made explicit in the movie—teaches viewers that love is not about how you feel. It's about putting other people's needs ahead of your own. This theme by itself profoundly inverts the old Disney culture; it's a big win for the Pixar invaders. But Frozen not only makes this point, it also traces some wide-ranging consequences. It shows us why people are investing too much importance in romantic love relative to other kinds of love, like sisterhood. The responsible grown-ups who tell you not to burn down everything else in your life for the sake of "true love" are not your enemies; they're your friends. They're the people who really love you.
When Enchanted subverted these same fairy-tale conventions—getting engaged to someone you just met—it was only going for laughs. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of laughs in Frozen. It's the funniest movie I've seen in years. But there are not a lot of laughs on this particular subject. Frozen is not overturning the Disney view of marriage for fun. Frozen is playing to win.
Everybody's a Fixer-Upper
That theme alone would be enough to make Frozen an early contender for the most culturally regenerative movie of the year. But there's more going on.
Under the surface, Frozen deals with two other subjects that are, if anything, even tougher for our culture. One is the corruption of human nature. It used to be that pretty much everyone agreed there was a systematic moral dysfunction in human nature. Christians hold to this teaching in an especially strong form, of course, but we are by no means alone. Aristotle believed it, as did Kant. There is a whole song in Frozen about how nobody is what he ought to be: "Everybody's a Bit of a Fixer-Upper." The villains in Frozen are willing to kill, but the main threat to the heroine's life actually comes from the selfish actions of a sympathetic character—someone who loves her. This person, we are repeatedly and emphatically assured, would never harm her. After the potentially fatal blow, the question emerges: how could this person possibly do this? The character held up as the voice of wisdom gives us the answer: because all people have that selfishness inside them, and under the right circumstances, it will surface. Even to the destruction of those we love most.
This theme, of course, relates to the main message that love is not about feelings. We prioritize our own feelings rather than other people's needs because other people are so disappointing. And our lives fall apart when we prioritize our own feelings because we are just as disappointing as everyone else.
We Need Each Other
The other submerged theme in Frozen, one buried even deeper, is the tension between social rules and individual freedom. Without giving too much away, I can say that Frozen is the movie Brave was trying to be. Here's what Brave attempted to say: society needs rules, and individuals who are not well served by the rules must learn to subordinate their own desires to the good of their neighbors as embodied in the rules. At the same time, social authorities must recognize that the rules should accommodate the needs of individuals—including the needs of those unusual individuals not well served by the same rules that serve everyone else.
There was internal conflict over Brave at Disney, and it shows. But Frozen succeeds brilliantly where Brave faltered—better, perhaps, than Brave could have. Because in Frozen we see what happens to individuals who try to flee from society in order to escape its rules. They fall apart. Their lives become arbitrary and meaningless. And they learn to hate. "The cold never bothered me anyway," Queen Elsa sings as she builds an ice castle to live in, alone, at the top of a remote mountain. She doesn't realize that the cold is seeping into her heart.
We all need freedom, but we also need each other. See this movie.
Editors' note: This review is adapted with permission from Jay P. Greene's Blog.