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Movie vs Myth: Frozen

Updated: Jan 1, 2024

Released in 2013, Disney’s ‘Frozen’ boasts a colourful cast of characters, an unforgettable soundtrack, and a surprise villain twist that shocked viewers. The film made $1.282 billion at the box office, with the film’s most popular song selling 3.5 million copies by December of 2014, only a year after the film’s release. As with many of Disney’s films, ‘Frozen’ was inspired by an old fairytale, in this case the story of ‘The Snow Queen’.

‘The Snow Queen,’ or ‘Snedronningen,’ is an original Danish fairytale written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1844. It tells the story of children Gerda and Kay, and their experiences with a cold Snow Queen and a magical mirror.

The story begins with a creature – either a hobgoblin, a devil, or a troll, depending on the translation, creating a magical mirror. The mirror reflected only the bad parts of the world, which it enhanced, refusing to show any good. When this creator and his students attempted to carry the mirror up to heaven to mock God and his angels, they dropped it. The mirror hit the ground and shattered into hundreds of pieces.

Meanwhile, living in a small town quite unaware of this were a boy named Kay and a girl named Gerda, who were close friends. Their houses were next to each other, and so close that Kay and Gerda could jump through the windows into each other’s homes. One day, when the two were out, Kay cried out in pain. He had been struck with two shards of the broken mirror. One lodged itself in his eye, the other in his heart. From that moment, like the mirror, Kay could only see the ugly things in the world, and his heart froze into a lump of ice.

From that moment, Kay become quite cruel to Gerda, who could not understand why her friend had changed so. The next winter, when Kay was playing with his sledge in the snow, he happened to see a sleigh, ridden by the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The woman was the Snow Queen, and she took Kay into her sleigh and carried him away into the sky.

Devastated, Gerda went on a long journey to find him. On her journey she sought aid from rivers, flowers, and crows, who were all unable to help her. Eventually she met and befriended a robber-girl, whose reindeer told her that Kay had been taken by the Snow Queen. The robber-girl asked the reindeer to carry Gerda all the way to the home of the Snow Queen, and the reindeer agreed.

When Gerda arrived at the palace of the Snow Queen, she found Kay all alone. The Snow Queen had left him there with a puzzle made of ice while she travelled. When Gerda saw Kay, she was overcome with emotion and hugged him, weeping fiercely. When her hot tears fell on his chest, his frozen heart thawed. Seeing Gerda for the first time in so long, Kay began to weep also – washing the second shard out of his eye. Together, Gerda and Kay left the palace of the Snow Queen and went home.

Though ‘Frozen’ is inspired by the legend of ‘The Snow Queen,’ the plot bears very little resemblance to the original fairytale. It instead tells the story of princess Anna and her sister Elsa, who is born with uncontrollable magical powers and accidentally plunges their kingdom into an eternal winter. The film is the success in a long history of Disney attempting to adapt the story for the big screen, with the earliest discussions regarding the possibility of a Snow Queen film taking place in the 1930s. The project was eventually shelved, but that doesn’t mean that Disney gave up on the idea and it was picked up again in the 2000s, going through many iterations before it became the film it is today.

Though on the surface, ‘Frozen’ does not appear to have much in common with the original story, there are more similarities than you might think. There is even a nod to the original author’s name, with the famous Easter egg of the character names; Hans, Kristoff, Anna, Sven – Hans Christian Andersen.

In ‘Frozen’ Princess Anna takes on the role of Gerda while, surprisingly, Queen Elsa takes on the roles of both Kay and the Snow Queen. Like Gerda and Kay, Anna and Elsa initially have an incredibly close relationship before it is shattered when – out of nowhere – Elsa’s behaviour changes, she becomes withdrawn and refuses to have anything to do with Anna. Of course, this personality change is not caused by a shard of mirror in Elsa’s heart, but instead the result of her losing control of her magical powers and injuring Anna.

Elsa also fulfils the role of Kay when she loses control of her powers during her coronation and flees, prompting Anna, much like Gerda, to go on a quest to bring her lost loved one home. Rather than being kidnapped by the Snow Queen, however, Elsa becomes the Snow Queen. She embraces her icy powers and builds herself a snow palace – inadvertently also plunging the rest of the kingdom into an eternal winter. While Elsa is sympathetic, she serves as an antagonist just as much as the original Snow Queen did – inadvertently causing the problems that protagonist Anna faces during the movie.

Elsa is not the only character to serve a dual role in this movie. On her journey to recover her sister, Anna encounters the troll-raised loner, Kristoff, and his pet reindeer, Sven. While Kristoff may at first glance appear to be the film’s version of Kay, narratively he serves a similar role to the robber-girl of the original story. Much like the robber-girl, it is Kristoff and Sven who know the location of the Snow Queen’s palace, and help Anna make the journey there.

It is when Anna reaches the ice palace that we are met with one of the biggest changes from the ‘The Snow Queen’ story. Rather than a tearful reunion and journey home, Elsa loses control upon learning the damage her powers have caused. Her powers lash out without her control and, much like Kay, Anna finds herself with a frozen heart.

This is the second time in the film that Anna has been struck by Elsa’s powers. In ‘The Snow Queen’ Kay is struck in the heart and the eye, for Anna it is her heart and her head. He fist blow occurred when Anna was a child and caused a streak of her hair to turn white. While further dire consequences are hinted at, they are thankfully avoided by a family of wise trolls who cure the wound. In order to cure the injury, the trolls must remove all memories that Anna has of magic. On screen we see the memories of Anna playing with Elsa’s magic be replaced with normal winter scenes. Though the effect and injury is different from ‘The Snow Queen’, Anna losing all memories of the world’s magic can be seen as comparable to Kay losing the ability to see the world’s beauty.

Unfortunately, a blow to the heart is not so easily remedied as a blow to the head. Anna returns to the trolls to learn a cure, discovering that only an ‘act of true love’ can cure a frozen heart. This can arguably be said to be the case for the original story – it was love for Kay that had Gerda setting off on the long journey to find him, and her tears at their reunion which melted his heart.

In ‘Frozen,’ Anna and the others interprets the act of true love as a ‘true love kiss’, which in their defence is often Disney’s solution to a terrible curse, and sets off to find her fiancé Hans and the cure, this made more urgent by the severity of her affliction. Unlike Kay, whose frozen heart merely made him unfeeling, Anna’s frozen heart makes her body extremely cold – eventually culminating in her entire body freezing solid into a block of ice.

In the end it is not a kiss which saves her. Anna performs an act of true love by sacrificing herself to save her sister’s life. In doing so, she inadvertently melts her own heart, curing herself. Chris Buck, director of the film, has said that they made this decision because they wanted to challenge the idea that it must always be true loves kiss that solves the problem, that it must always be the man coming in to rescue the woman. While this is an admirable sentiment there is something ironic about it, because the original fairytale doesn’t involve a man saving a woman. Instead, it is a story about a girl saving a boy.

As with many of Disney’s stories, while ‘Frozen’ does contain elements of the original fairytale, it is far from a faithful adaptation of the work, and though the influence of ‘The Snow Queen’ is clear to see throughout the film, the story it tells is its own.


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