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'Frozen' Doesn't Treat Its Audience Like Children. Good.

by Sam Adams
December 30, 2013 12:26 PM
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Danger, Will Robinson! Frozen spoilers ahead.

Slate takes heat for its contrarian editorial model -- and embraces it, via the #slatepitches hashtag -- but Amanda Marcotte's counter-contrarian piece on Disney's Frozen hits the bullseye.

In "Frozen Teaches Girls the Dangers of a Whirlwind Romance," Marcotte responds to an essay in The Atlantic by Gina Dalfonzo, titled "Frozen's Cynical Twist on Prince Charming."(I know that makes this a response to a response, but I'll keep it short.) Dalfonzo's concern is that the movie's major twist -- that the charming prince Hans is actually a manipulative villain -- is likely to shock and disturb young viewers. "That moment would have wrecked me if I'd seen it as a child," she writes, "and the makers of Frozen couldn't have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members."

Maybe, maybe not; I'd say Toy Story 3's near-Holocaust is a little "more surefire," but that's splitting individually rendered hairs. (If you want disturbing, try Tangled, which is a textbook portrayal of an abusive parent.) While I wasn't emotionally invested enough to be unsettled, Frozen's twist took me entirely by surprise, and I pride myself on being marginally more movie-savvy than the average seven-year-old. So let's stipulate that children will be surprised as well, and that if they've seen enough prince/princess romances to know the template, they'll be taken aback by the departure from it.


As a parent, I find it hard to imagine showing my four-year-old daughter Bambi, and I cringe at the emotional abusiveness of Rudolph's father in the Rankin-Bass cartoon. But let's be honest: As a child who spends much of each day with fellow four- and five-year-olds, she's already been exposed to cruelty and deception. But should entertainment provide a safe space where that never happens? Dalfonzo thinks so.

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.)

Considering that Lewis was writing in a time when the Grimm brothers' fairy tales were common currency -- just try "The Red Shoes" on one of today's easily scarred tots -- I don't think Frozen would faze him unduly. For me it's axiomatic that children are savvier than we given them credit for, and our culture's investment in their supposed innocence says much more about the adults were are than the children we were. (Two-year-olds can be adorable, but they're also sociopaths.) As Marcotte points out, Frozen is the latest step in Disney's open wrangling with the happily-ever-after framework it's done so much to promote. Like Brave, the first Pixar movie initiated since its merger with Disney, Frozen is a princess story that's not quite a princess story, disorganized in ways both frustrating and productive. It's about the princess! No, wait, it's about her sister! Hey, look at this cute snowman!

There's so much hand-wringing in the media as of late about the supposedly bad romantic decisions of young women, but what goes undiscussed is how we blanket little girls in fairy tales and other stories that cheer-lead the whirlwind romance. Then we get angry at young women -- or liberals -- because women so often have to go through a series of charming users before they learn how to date more effectively. Seems like the writers of Frozen are doing their part to correct that problem. Parents might not enjoy having to mop up the tears right now, but the long-term lesson to girls to proceed with caution is one they should be thanking Disney for.

Like any parent, I want to protect my child. But part of protecting her is preparing her for the fact that the world is not always a nice place.

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More: From the Wire, Frozen


  • Alex | February 27, 2014 10:06 PMReply

    Growing up in an abusive home, I always gravitated toward characters I could relate to. Belle because she was misunderstood. Mulan as well. Megara because she'd been hurt. And especially Gatomon from Digimon. So I really don't buy that abused children want stories with unrealistic ideals. Heroes, yes, but heroes who overcome real challenges. A child with an abusive father might feel validated by watching Frozen since it depicts a woman who falls for a man who turns out to be bad. A child being abused the way Elsa and Anna are might suddenly realize that their parents, however well-intentioned, are wrong.

  • Sam Adams | February 28, 2014 3:37 AM

    Curious: Did you see "Tangled"? To me (and especially as a parent) that was a kind of terrifyingly accurate portrayal of the dynamics of an abusive relationship.

    In re: Hans, I watched "Frozen" again, and the movie simply doesn't play fair with regard to his character. "Love Is an Open Door" works, in that you can read it as if he's taking all his cues from Anna, but he's clearly presented as a likable goof early on even when no one else is watching, which is just cheating.

  • Alex | February 27, 2014 10:14 PM

    By the way, am I the only one who saw the Hans twist coming a mile away? Like I didn't know how it was going to happen and I second-guessed myself a few times, but in "Love is an Open Door", he just seemed really insincere to me. Elsa's assertion that Anna couldn't marry someone she just met added to my feeling that he was bad news. I second-guessed myself when he seemed genuinely concerned for Anna and the people of Arendelle. When he arrived at Elsa's palace, I was sure he was bad again (I don't know why, something about the way he looked), but then he saved her, so I second-guessed myself again. And then he went and betrayed Anna and I wasn't at all surprised.

  • Oliver | January 3, 2014 2:31 PMReply

    I guess in the era of Phil Robertson (who thinks girls should get married before even the age of consent), the simple advice "You needn't marry so young, nor necessarily to the first guy who sweeps you off your feet" becomes controversial.

  • pop culture rebel | January 3, 2014 3:33 PM

    Disney: "taking care of your children when you're too dumb to" (pay no attention to the word SEX swirling in the smoke in The Lion King)

  • Alex | January 2, 2014 11:02 AMReply

    No it most certainly does. It's a good movie, don't get me wrong, and it's more empowering for young girls as Brave was for Disney too. However it still harbours a black and white view of good and bad with that pointless 'twist' with Hans? No need. The villain was AND only should have been Elsa's fear and peoples ignorance. They backtracked and in the last act ruined it with that additional 'bad guy' story which was so weak "oh i'm one of 13 brothers and i want my own kingdom" what? I prefer How To Train Your Dragon. Now that's not patronising.

  • S. Conner | December 31, 2013 1:13 AMReply

    I absolutely loved the twist. When he said he really didn't love Anna this was me.
    "O.O um wow, didn't see that one comin. Um boy do I feel sheepish. (-_-l)"
    But seriously I must applaud Disney. I was very surprised that they were actually taking the "good guy is the bad guy route". Another job well done.

  • Sam Adams | February 20, 2014 12:12 PM

    Being a wee bit obsessive, I picked apart "Love Is an Open Door" to see if it plays fair w/r/t Hans taking his cues from Anna, pretending to feel a connection that isn't really there. The song, at least, works that way, although the rest of the movie just straight-up cheats.

  • Terry | February 20, 2014 12:01 PM

    You knew he was a no good during "Love is an open door" when he sings "We finish each others.." and she replies "Sandwiches!"

    He then says "I was going to say that!"

    I figured Hans was either evil or he watched "Arrested Development".

    I went with evil.

  • Donella | December 30, 2013 9:14 PMReply

    There was a collective gasp from the audience at the twist and a child started crying in the theater.

    Great movie! And I don't normally watch kids movies.

  • Denny | December 30, 2013 4:09 PMReply

    The Hans twist is THE thing that treated its audience as children that can only understand black and white morality. Hans, like everyone else in this movie, was just a guy caught up in a crazy situation and was dong his small part to help out (when he had no obligation to and with no immediate reward at hand). They was no need for a traditional villian plotting for world domination or anything because Elsa's conflict was just that strong. "Fear is the enemy" as the trolls said, so "Fear" is the only antagonist Frozen needed. What they were doing before the third act was much more sophisticated and mature than turning an interesting character into a hammy Mustache Twirler cliche.

  • Visitor | January 3, 2014 11:58 AM

    Lol. Exactly, although I would not call the early parts of the film sophisticated or mature either. It just the same formulaic Disney "princess" movie like "Brave" and with generic music, characters, etc. The only reason it is considered good is because it is being judged relative to the worst films made nowadays, which are the worst films of all time, and because people have biased notions about animated films.

  • Ashlee | December 30, 2013 2:00 PMReply

    I think that it would be an awsom movie

  • Goku | December 30, 2013 12:37 PMReply

    Miyazaki has been making sophisticated children films forever. Disney is the instagram or tumblr of that wave.

  • Ashlee | December 30, 2013 2:01 PM

    Have you seen the movie

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