After I saw Frozen last week, I texted my best friend. Per her request, I sent her a list of the elements that her kids (ages seven, five, and three) might find scary: Rampaging snow monster, heroine freezing into solid ice, seemingly noble prince who turns out to be evil.
My friend quickly texted back to say that the prince sounded scariest of all. And she was right.
In Frozen, our heroine Princess Anna embarks on a quest to bring back her sister, Elsa, who has run away after inadvertently revealing her magical, winter-creating powers. Elsa accidentally strikes Anna with a shard of ice that pierces her heart; Anna believes that a kiss from the charming Prince Hans, whom she thinks is her true love, will save her from death. But just when he should be saving the princess, the male lead reveals himself to be a greedy, throne-usurping would-be killer: Hans leans in, supposedly about to give her that kiss ... then sneers, “Oh, Anna, if only there were someone who loved you.”
Ouch. That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child, and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members.
It’s not like Disney has never given us heartbreaking moments before. (Bambi’s mother, anyone?) And it’s not that there’s no purpose behind the film’s cruel twist, either: The naïve and lonely Anna has fallen in love with and become engaged to Hans in the course of just one day. As her other love interest, Kristoff, tells her, this is not exactly indicative of good judgment.
However, there is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old. Children will, in their lifetimes, necessarily learn that not everyone who looks or seems trustworthy is trustworthy—but Frozen’s big twist is a needlessly upsetting way to teach that lesson.
Before the shattering reveal takes place, the audience has already enjoyed more than an hour of Hans’s niceness. He’s kind to people and animals; he saves Anna’s sister, Elsa, from being killed; he even offers free winter cloaks and soup to the poor.
It seems strange, then, to argue in this context, “Don’t give your heart to someone you don’t know,” when we as an audience get to know Hans better than almost any other Disney prince before him. He isn’t just a handsomely vague presence who dances divinely, like Cinderella’s prince, or a prince who only shows up at the beginning and end of the movie, like Snow White’s prince.
Hans even comes across as a nice, normal person when no one’s watching him, gazing with frank and friendly interest after Anna as though he really likes her, rather than obviously seeing her as a stepping-stone to the throne. Hans has personality, and, more importantly, character—or so it appears.
There are those who point out moments in which Hans signals beforehand that he might not be all he seems. But even Frozen’s biggest fans acknowledge that these are blink-and-you-miss-it moments. They’re so short they really shouldn’t even be called moments. More like nanoseconds. “Not only is Anna fooled by him, but the audience [is] as well,” reads the Frozen Wikia page on Prince Hans. “This makes Hans one of the sneakiest and most sinister Disney villains.” But Hans’s revelation feels so abrupt that it seems more like a poor writing choice than like a clever concealment of the truth.
I’m not saying Frozen is a bad movie; for the most part, it’s actually a pretty good movie. It’s sweet and funny, and shows—through the actions of Anna, Kristoff, Elsa, and others—what real love actually looks like and what it can accomplish. And if it had been a movie made for adults, we might be hailing it as sophisticated and smart for its knowing subversion of classic tropes, and its reminder that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
But young children, in general, are not that sophisticated. They're more like the viewers of old melodramas, wanting the hero and villain clearly delineated from the start, so they can enthusiastically cheer and boo in the right places. And in real life, there are certain people whom kids are taught to trust and consider “heroes” rather than “villains”: Mommy, Daddy, family friends, teachers, neighbors, firemen.
In real life, of course, there are tragic situations in which a child’s trust is misplaced, and that child has to be protected from those who were supposed to take care of him or her. But isn’t that all the more reason for stories to function as a safe place, where children can find role models and people to trust? As C.S. Lewis put it in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” (Lewis, it’s worth pointing out, was arguing against those who took the position that fairy tales are too frightening for children. Were he alive today, though, the existence of Frozen suggests that he might find himself arguing against those who wanted to make them overly frightening.)
Often, children today hear of bravery and heroic courage from the aforementioned role models—as well as from Disney princes and princesses. From Snow White to Sleeping Beauty to The Sword in the Stone to Beauty and the Beast to Tangled, the heroes and heroines of animated films have offered examples of bravery, loyalty, kindness, and self-sacrificial love.
Frozen presents commendable examples of some of these virtues in action, but it missed an opportunity to teach a gentle lesson about why it’s important to be courageous but also be smart and stay safe. Why couldn’t Frozen’s viewers have discovered Hans is evil earlier on, before Anna does? That version of events would have taught kids the same real-life lesson—don’t automatically trust everyone you meet—while letting them root for Anna to learn it too. It would have made its point in a way that actually appealed to its intended audience members rather than abruptly betraying their trust in a seemingly virtuous character.
This kinder, gentler approach makes all the more sense when you consider that the film itself has its own subplot about the pain of illusions destroyed too suddenly and too soon. Olaf, the cute little comic-relief snowman, has a whole song about how he longs to see a summer and know what it’s like to be warm. Kristoff mutters, “I’m gonna tell him,” to which Anna retorts, “Don’t you dare!”
Olaf, conveniently, never has to confront the truth: In the end, his problem is solved by a magical spell that gives him his own personal snow cloud to follow him around and keep him cool on even the hottest days. Why? Because this is Disney, where escapism reigns supreme and it’s safe to fantasize about all good things coming true—at least, some of the time.
We don’t actually live in a Disney-movie world, of course. And kids have to learn that, just as their parents had to learn it before them. As long as there are Disney cartoons, kids will have to learn that fantasy is lovely and exciting but not real.
But do they have to learn it like that?