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Attempts to read Disney’s monster hit as an allegory of the Gospel greatly overstate their case.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray. (Pentecost Sequence)
Beware the frozen heart. (Frozen)
As I mentioned in my last post about gay themes in Frozen, I’m mixed on Disney’s monster hit; I like some elements much more than others. Certainly I’m not surprised that it’s a smash: It’s beautifully designed and animated (apart from a poorly designed but surprisingly endearing snowman sidekick), with energetic songs and two princess heroines — a welcome first for Disney — one of whom has Frozone/Iceman-style superpowers she hasn’t yet learned to control.
There are other things to appreciate. Fans celebrate Frozen as a Disney fairy tale that notably doesn’t revolve around the tired theme of “following your heart,” and cheer its pointed subversions of the romantic fairy-tale tropes of True Love, Love at First Sight and the all-transforming power of True Love’s Kiss. A Disney story about sister-love is a rare thing (though this one, in my view, keeps the sisters estranged too long; I much prefer Lilo & Stitch for this reason).
It’s also worth noting that Frozen, like Disney’s recent The Princess and the Frog, is set in a diegetic world with overtly Christian — indeed Catholic — elements. (Among other things, The Princess and the Frog is perhaps the only Disney fairy tale culminating in a church wedding in a specific, real-world church, St. Louis Cathedral of New Orleans.)
In Frozen, Anna turns in her loneliness to the pictures on the palace wall, including a portrait of St. Joan of Arc (“Hang in there, Joan!”); and Elsa’s coronation takes place in a rustic Scandinavian cathedral with a bishop presiding and a choir singing in a loft overhead.
Even so, I’ve been surprised at the popularity of efforts to interpret major story elements in Frozen as a Christian parable. I’m not talking about merely commenting on the climactic act of self-sacrifice as reflecting Christlike love, etc. That, I don’t object to. I mean interpreting the film’s structure and themes as, in effect, an allegory of the Gospel — one rivaling or even surpassing C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
I believe I first encountered this idea at FirstThings.com, where blogger Gene Fant called the film
an astoundingly clear parable of the Christian Gospel, perhaps even superior to that of the Stone Table scene in the first Narnia film in terms of simplicity and clarity. In fact, I suspect that when the film is released on video, it will become a staple of evangelistic presentations to children.
Taking the Narnia comparison a click further, Houston Baptist University assistant professor Collin Garbarino suggested — in a blog post that has gone viral, making major news outlets and leading to an appearance on Fox News — that Frozen might compare favorably, not only to the Hollywood version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but to C. S. Lewis’s beloved allegorical fairy tale itself:
Disney’s Frozen might be the most Christian movie that I have seen this year. That’s saying a lot since Man of Steel was self-consciously trying to be the most Christian movie of 2013. I could probably write a post about how Frozen is a better allegory for the Christian gospel than C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but if I did, my colleagues at HBU might run me out of the university on a rail.
These aren’t isolated instances of enthusiastic hyperbole. Well, they aren’t isolated, anyway. See also Beliefnet.com’s slideshow “The Gospel According to Frozen” and Mockingbird’s “Sin and Redemption in Frozen,” among others.
The common crux of most of these religious readings of Frozen is the climactic, self-sacrificial act by which Anna saves Elsa before being restored to life — an act that, according to Frozen’s theologically minded enthusiasts, recalls the saving death and resurrection of Jesus.
Obviously, it’s possible to connect elements of Frozen’s story, including Anna’s movingly selfless, sacrificial act, with the Gospel story. By itself, that’s hardly surprising or remarkable; many fairy tales and family films are in some way stories of salvation of some kind or other, and death/rebirth themes aren’t uncommon.
For instance, Disney’s last animated fairy-tale, Tangled, also ends, like Frozen, with a sacrificial death and resurrection. Flynn Rider, fatally stabbed by Mother Gothel, sacrifices himself to free Rapunzel from Gothel by shearing off Rapunzel’s magical hair, which has the power to save his life. Rapunzel then sheds a magical tear that brings Flynn back to life.
That’s not all. Tangled opens with the heroine losing paradise through the treachery of an evil enemy, living out her life as a prisoner (we are all by nature enslaved to sin), unaware of her true heritage, but strangely haunted by a solar symbol that’s actually the royal coat of arms (God has placed eternity in our hearts). Flynn Rider, initially a dashing rogue, acts in a way as a Christ figure, helping to liberate Rapunzel from imprisonment, restoring her to her proper dignity (represented by the tiara from the castle), conducting her to her true home and finally dying to save her.
Is this allegorical reading of Tangled illuminating? Not especially. One could apply this similar readings to any number of fairy tales and animated films; there are similar death/resurrection scenes and other relevant themes in everything from Beauty and the Beast to Wall-E.
I don’t mind batting around Christological resonances in any story in the world if someone has a mind to. But extravagant claims that a movie is one of “the most Christian” of the year, or a better allegory than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, are going to need to make a stronger case. (When the Fox News host suggested that “we haven’t seen themes like this” in Disney movies before, Garbarino emphatically agreed. So the stakes for Frozen are higher than this.)
Who is really saved?
Here is a key question: Who is really saving whom? Who is in deepest jeopardy? Who is saved from the greatest threat?
In Tangled, Flynn saves Rapunzel from Mother Gothel — but Rapunzel equally saves Flynn from death, from his mortal wound. Rapunzel, not Flynn, is the one with heaven-sent power over the forces of decay; he sacrifices himself to save her life, but it’s her magical tear that revives him.
Morally, too, Rapunzel saves Flynn, not vice versa. Rapunzel may be physically and even mentally in Gothel’s thrall, but Gothel’s evil never infects the princess’s heart; in spirit she remains always the child of her true parents. Her goodness is responsible for Flynn’s moral change; his sacrificial act is as much his own redemption as her salvation. These are complicating factors that undermine a Flynn-as-Christ-figure reading of Tangled.
Similar thematic mixing affects the sacrificial climax in Frozen, though in different ways. Who is really saved in that climactic sacrificial act, Elsa or Anna?
Anna sacrifices herself to save Elsa from a fleeting, mundane threat: a treacherous enemy lurks behind Elsa with drawn sword to cut her down. In principle, this is a trivial threat to Elsa — one that, with her powers, she could easily ward off if she were alerted to it.
By contrast, Anna is in far more serious, profound and thematically important physical peril. Anna’s heart has turned to ice, and the ice is insidiously spreading through her whole body, swallowing and devouring her humanity.
It’s worth noting that the original Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen, the nominal inspiration for Frozen, climaxes in a scene strikingly similar to the one at the end of Frozen: a heroine weeping over the frozen body of a victim whose heart has turned to ice. In Anderson, however, the frozen victim’s icy heart is thawed by the hot tears of the other person’s love.
In The Snow Queen, a heart of ice — logically enough — cannot thaw itself. Being frozen, it has no warmth, no ability to love; a person in this condition can be saved only by another heart’s warmth.
This seems to me to make the best possible imaginative or poetic sense of the pictorial symbolism of the idea of a frozen heart: In fairy-tale logic, a frozen heart is best imagined, I think, as a loveless heart. This is how fairy tales work. As Thomas Howard writes (as it happens, in one of the most penetrating analyses of Lewis’s fiction ever written):
One of the obvious properties of fairy tale or myth…is the way everything is visible, literal, and explicit. The elements that might be merely psychological or metaphorical or implicit in realistic narratives appear quite unabashedly as real people or places or situations in a fairy tale or a myth. In a fairy tale you find yourself, not in a psychological “dark forest” that is really only a patch of perplexity or discouragement: you get into a real Black Forest with great gnarled beeches and willows all gaunt and bearded, reaching their knotted limbs down at you. (Narnia and Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C. S. Lewis, p. 109)
Andersen understood this. Thus, in his story, emotional coldness and the literally frozen heart are indistinguishable, inseparable, identical.
In Frozen, this fairy-tale logic becomes hopelessly confused. Here there is no reason why one cannot be both afflicted with a frozen heart and also have a heart full of love. Even if the ice has spread through one’s body and one is about to freeze solid, one may still be capable of a selfless act of love, saving oneself from freezing. The fairy-tale logic strains against itself: Love is warm and thawing — yet the frozen heart in the icy breast is not incapable of it. Within the heart of ice burns the fire of love.
If the imagery is interpreted allegorically, and specifically soteriologically — as intended in Andersen, and suggested by the film’s theological enthusiasts — the difficulties increase. Not that the filmmakers are beholden to follow the specific symbolism in Andersen’s tale. But it’s strained and unconvincing to impose an allegorical Christian reading on a story and then ignore the symbols that most obviously resonate with the Gospel story, that were originally created for precisely this purpose.
In The Snow Queen, the heart of ice corresponds not only to lovelessness, but to fallenness, to concupiscence, if not original sin. In Andersen’s tale, snowflake-sized shards of a shattered, dark-magic mirror created by the devil, also identified as an evil “troll,” swirl across the face of the earth. If the shards get into one’s eye, one’s vision becomes darkened so that the good and beautiful appears ugly and distorted. If the shards lodge in one’s heart, one becomes cold and loveless, eventually freezing solid.
Note the parallels to Jesus’ teaching on the eye and the heart in Matthew 6:21–23 as well as Ezekiel 36:26, in which God promises to replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. Note, too, the parallels to the Easter Sequence verse quoted above: Bend the stubborn heart and will / Melt the frozen, warm the chill. We appeal to God to bend our stubborn hearts and melt what is frozen in us; soteriologically speaking, we can’t do it ourselves.
Likewise, one whose heart or eye are afflicted by Andersen’s evil shards cannot heal themselves. Only one innocent of the evil — in Andersen’s tale, a child whose “innocence and purity of heart” Andersen explicitly links to Matthew 18:3 (“unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”) — can overcome the evil effects of the frozen heart.
Watching Elsa weeping over Anna, I half thought that, despite Anna’s obvious goodness, Frozen might follow Andersen on this key point: Elsa’s tears of love would bring Anna back. After all, the film itself has set us up to believe that Anna needs a savior; that, with her heart of ice, she can only be saved by the love of another: a kiss of true love, for instance.
But no. Olaf the snowman provides the movie’s interpretation: Anna’s heart is thawed by her own act of love. Interpreted allegorically, we would have to say that, in Pelagian fashion, Anna has saved herself.
No, no, Frozen’s theological enthusiasts object. The point is that Anna saves Elsa. But what does Anna sacrifice herself to save Elsa from? A fleeting, external, comparatively trivial danger, no different from similar dangers she has already warded off.
Elsa’s plight at that moment is dwarfed by Anna’s. Anna, not Elsa, is the one suffering at the core of her being from a debilitating, deadly condition. Anna, not Elsa, is in need of transformative change, new life, regeneration.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. (Or maybe I don’t. Either way, have your say it in the combox, and I’ll address it in Part 2.)
More to come.