It is safe to say, Disney’s Frozen is a worldwide hit. After all, it is a newly minted Golden Globe winner and currently in the works to become a Broadway musical. But, like many of Disney’s masterpieces, Frozen was inspired by a fairy tale — this time Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” In the original story (also known as Snedronningen), a kind-hearted and innocent girl named Gerda sets out to find her best friend Kai, who is abducted by the Snow Queen after getting his eye pierced with a sliver from a broken magical mirror. Even after the project was plagued with multiple false starts and extensive rewrites that delayed the project for decades, the screenwriters for Frozen remained faithful to the original story’s themes of isolation, loss, and unselfish acts of love, while the author’s chilling atmosphere also persevered. And the names of three major characters (Hans, Kristoff and Anna) are a hat-tip reference to Hans Christian Andersen himself.
Frozen takes place in a fictional Scandinavian kingdom. The two princesses, Anna and Elsa, are close playmates until Elsa’s magical ability to emit ice from her hands leads to a near-death accident for Anna. Terrified of causing any more harm, Elsa heeds her well-meaning parents’ advice to “conceal, don’t feel” and isolates herself from her sister and the rest of the kingdom. The sisters come into conflict when Anna decides to marry a dashing foreign prince she’s known for only a single day, and Elsa refuses to give her blessing. In an overwhelming swell of frustration and fear, Elsa unleashes her powers, plunging the entire kingdom into a perpetual winter, and runs away to a distant mountaintop to live freely in icy seclusion. Anna, who is a refreshingly scrappy young protagonist with plenty of quirks (she has noticeable freckles missing from most of Disney’s “Princesses” and an endearingly relatable clumsy streak), embarks on an adventure to save her kingdom and make amends with her beloved sister.
There is a spectacular amount of detail in the construction of Arendelle, the fictional country Anna and Elsa inhabit, that makes the fairy tale visually captivating. Elsa’s ice castle, a manifestation of her isolation and new-found empowerment, is beautiful. In order to get the colors and lighting just right, designers and engineers were sent to Norway and to the ice hotel, Hotel de Glace, in Quebec City. The research compiled during their stay in the real-life ice structure inspired Elsa’s impressive ice palace. The intricacy of Elsa’s palace is a major contributing factor to one of the most memorable moments of the film when Elsa triumphantly decides to “let it go” and test out her powers for the first time, no longer terrified of hurting others for simply being who she is.
The bond of sisterhood is not a tale told often in the Disney world. The driving force of Frozen is the sisters’ steadfast love for each other. While the theme of fear versus acceptance and love is not groundbreaking, there has never been a Disney film based predominantly on a quest of sisterly love and protection. Despite her uncontained magical powers, Elsa is not evil, and is never portrayed as a villain to root against. She is very much unlike the frosty Snow Queen of Andersen’s fairy tale. In fact, the “baddie” of the movie appears in a third-act reveal that had even adult audience members gasping with surprise. The complicated relationship between the estranged sisters and Elsa’s self-imposed isolation from everyone she cares for makes the film compelling and original, and the burgeoning romance between Anna and the gallant Kristoff takes the back seat to the sisters’ relationship. Instead of a fairy tale wedding, the film has audiences hoping for a peaceful reconciliation between the sisters and, most importantly, Elsa’s self-acceptance — making for a truly refreshing ‘happily ever after.’
For more on literary film adaptations, check out the nominees in our 2nd Annual Literary Fauxscars.