Frozen: How Disney Inadvertently Produced the Most "Christian" Movie In a Year Full of "Christian" Films
2014 could go down as the year of Christ-themed, Bible-centric movies. That is, it could if the films were more memorable. We have already seen Aronofsky's "Noah", the Newsboy's brand-building "God's Not Dead," and the re-edited History Channel's "Son of God." Upcoming titles include "Believe Me" starring Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation, yet another low-budget "persecution fantasy" titled "A Matter of Faith," another white Moses in "Exodus: Gods and Kings" (played by Christian Bale and directed by Ridley Scott) and of course that already-infamous "Left Behind" remake starring Nic Cage, the film that still seems like a giant practical joke.
That's a lot of "Christian" movies in one year.
Full disclosure: I actually quite enjoyed "Noah," though I understand some of the Christian community's discomfort with it, not to mention Aronofsky's own comments that it was the "least biblical biblical movie ever made." And though I am wildly tired of caucasian Moses-figures leading a bunch of white people out of slavery, I will likely go see "Exodus" because I am intrigued by the combination of Ridley Scott and Christian Bale.
So, in a year that is incredibly full of references to God and the Bible in movie theaters, how is it that Disney's latest princess-in-distress tale has pointed me to Jesus more effectively than any of the others?
While there is much to like about "Frozen," and a lot of conversation and feminist rhetoric has surrounded its reception, I have been remarkably struck and encouraged by its relatively simple core message. If you haven't seen it, the movie revisits and subverts most of the Disney tropes: a strapping Prince Charming, the unstoppable power of "true love's kiss," and the very definition of love itself. While some are singing Disney's praises for courageously doing something new and refreshing, others remain critical, making the point that this movie wouldn't be considered "different" if Disney hadn't repeatedly glorified the tale of a-helpless-princess-needing-a-muscular-male-hero for the past six decades. Regardless of this back-and-forth, the movie is a vessel of one core truth: Love is the action of placing the needs of others above yourself.
I suppose a SPOILER ALERT is in order here. The rest of this piece WILL spoil the end of the movie. But if you haven't seen it yet, you really need to. So stop reading and find your closest Redbox. Seriously.
Without rehashing the story in too much detail, the central tension in "Frozen" is built on the strained relationship of two sisters (Elsa & Anna). Elsa goes into self-imposed exile, while Anna relentlessly pursues a close friendship with her older sister over the course of their lives. The exiled sister leads a tortured existence, while the younger sibling does not understand what is keeping them apart. Upon reaching adulthood, Anna falls quickly for a handsome, charming prince from a neighboring kingdom. They sing a rousing song, "Love is an Open Door," before he proposes hours after they meet, and she agrees to marry him.
Pretty standard Disney fare, so far.
However, the script turns wildly at this point, and both Elsa and Anna's decisions come under close scrutiny. Elsa flees the kingdom she is intended to rule, and while searching for her Anna meets a goofy, bumbling (though admittedly still handsome) man who begrudgingly helps her on her quest. The conflict between the sisters escalates, Anna's life is endangered, she realizes that only an act of true love can save her, and her fiance is revealed to be an evil man who manipulated her into agreeing to engagement so he could take over the kingdom.
The film builds wonderfully to its climax, and I was genuinely surprised by some of the twists. In two instances, not just one, it seems as though Anna will finally receive "true love's first kiss." And it doesn't happen.
Let me say that again. In two instances, Anna seems about to receive true love's kiss, but it doesn't happen.
As the tension rises, Anna sees her bumbling male companion struggling towards her. The audience knows he can alone save her with a kiss, and we yearn along with Anna for him to swoop in, but Elsa is similarly in danger nearby. Anna, literally on the brink of death, exerts her last burst of energy to move away from the man who can save her, placing herself in harm's way, saving her sister and sacrificing her very life.
It was at this point that my jaw hit the ground. I just watched one individual literally lay down her own safety in favor of the very person who repeatedly refused her offers of friendship and intimacy. Combine this with the fact that she could have allowed the handsome man to save her with a kiss, but she instead chose death. Her reason for this choice: she loves her sister, even more than herself, it seems.
And this is a Disney movie??
Now, to be fair, Frozen is not without a typical, overly saccharine, happy resolution. Though my melancholic, artsy critic side would have loved the movie to end there, Anna's act of true love ultimately saves her, she does share a kiss with the man she loves, and the kingdom is restored.
But I'll take what I can.
I love a lot about "Frozen." I love that it passes the Bechdel Test. I love the music. I love that Olaf and Sven are genuinely funny, goofy sidekicks. I love that the women don't need men to validate their existence, nor save them. I love that young boys seem as smitten with the movie as most young girls. And most importantly, I love that its definition of love subverts our culture's outlook and creates a space in the viewer's heart in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes sense.
In theological terms, Anna experiences Kenosis. Anything resembling selfish will is emptied out of her, and her selfless act thaws her sister's hardened heart, ultimately redeeming and restoring their relationship and family.
Paul articulates a similar process in his letter to Philippi. Christ, having every reason to hold on to his equality with God, instead "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (Phil 2:7). And this, being possible because of God's unconditional love for the world (John 3:16) despite humans repeated refusal of God's love, our stubborn willingness to exile ourselves from God (Ezekiel 16). Knowing my own tendency, just like Elsa, to prefer isolation over accepting someone's love that I don't feel I deserve, made Anna's climactic decision emotional for me to watch.
This Gospel may not be explicitly proclaimed in Disney's latest, but if you're interested in a film with a Christian message, you can't do much better this year. Plus, that "Let it Go" song is just so darn catchy.