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?