“Frozen” and the Limits of Narrative

If you’ve spent much time around me the last few months, you’ll know that I’m a bit obsessed with Disney’s Frozen.  I am something of a self-anointed apostle of the film, telling anyone who’ll listen that if they haven’t seen it before, they need to betake themselves to the cinema or the video store forthwith.  I usually get a few raised eyebrows.  Sure, Pixar may have removed the stigma of “kids’ movies” and made it OK for adults to get excited about them too, but Disney?  C’mon.  Well, with 2009’s Tangled, Disney substantially closed the quality gap between their own animated fare and that of their recent acquisition Pixar.  With Pixar having clearly lost their way in recent years with universally-maligned Cars 2 and mediocre Brave and Monsters University, those of us who had enthusiastically embraced the idea that “kids’ movies” could be a medium of thoughtful and beautiful film were left casting about for a successor.  With Frozen, Disney Animation rose to the occasion, producing what is surely its finest film since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, and one which easily could hold its own against the creations of Pixar’s golden age (2001-2010)—indeed, in terms of sheer visual beauty, it far surpasses them.  Perhaps most remarkably, Disney succeeded in re-invigorating the form of the children’s animated musical, a form that had long since been left for dead in the brave new world of computer animation, producing a mixture of fun comic relief songs, heartfelt arias, and impressively-crafted duets, which, far from marking mere musical interludes within a film that didn’t really need them, played crucial roles in moving the plot forward.

But the biggest reason for my enthusiasm for Frozen was its stark repudiation of “the Disney worldview” for lack of a better term—which is essentially the modern American ethos in a nutshell: you have to learn to “be yourself,” to break free from the constraints of society’s expectations (often in the form of a bumbling and oppressive parental figure) and do your own thing, which usually includes “following your heart” in pursuing a love-at-first-sight infatuation that is described as “true love.”  It is an outlook in which freedom is defined in starkly individualist terms, in which one’s identity is crafted in opposition to one’s social relationships, rather than in terms of them, and in which love is irrational, emotional, and rarely expressed toward one’s family (indeed, often expressed in opposition to one’s family).  Not all of Disney’s films quite do this—some of the better ones such as Beauty and the Beast (1995) and The Lion King (1994) are much more nuanced, if not downright critical, of this viewpoint—but most do (notably The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1993), and Mulan (1998)).  Frozen, however, brilliantly deconstructs it from start to finish.  Each of the two sisters, Elsa and Ana, who are the film’s main protagonists, embody this “Disney worldview” early on in different ways.  For Ana, it is in her head-over-heels infatuation (which she describes as “true love”) with the dashing Prince Hans, whom she has just met and agrees to marry.  For Elsa, it is captured in her selfish rejection of her responsibilities toward her kingdom, when she decides not to try to control her powers anymore but to embrace who she is, no matter what anyone else thinks.  This is powerfully captured in her song “Let it Go,” which in the film has the sound, the look, and the basic message of a typical modern pop princess hit.  Elsa sings:

“Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door

I don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway

It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry

Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
Let the storm rage on.”

This is the highlight song of the film, the big single on the soundtrack—like A Little Mermaid’s “Part of That World,” Aladdin’s “I Can Show You the World,” or Mulan’s “Reflections.”  But unlike those films, the context of this song in the story makes it clear that we are not supposed to sympathize with Elsa—or perhaps more precisely, that while we have some sympathy with her plight, we cannot condone her attitude or actions.  She is embracing a course of action that is destructive to others.  As the film unfolds, this becomes ever clearer, and Elsa eventually learns that she can’t “Let it Go” but must instead learn to love; Ana, for her part, learns that the “true love” she has with Hans is nothing but a sham, and that real love is quieter, steadier, and more self-sacrificial, and is indeed pictured not first in a romantic relationship, but in the love of siblings.

At least, so I have told everyone.  Unfortunately, when I say that “the story makes it clear,” perhaps I am too optimistic about modern audience’s (particular children’s) narrative comprehension skills.  This was brought home to me rather jarringly last Saturday night when I got to take my kids to a special showing at a local cinema of the “Sing-along” version of Frozen, which has the words of the songs on the screen for kids to sing along with.  Anyone who grasped the logic of the film’s story, it seemed to me, would be decidedly unenthusiastic about “Let it Go.”  Not these kids.  They sang along with “Let it Go” with far more gusto and enthusiasm than any of the other songs, actually drowning out the film with their volume toward the end of the song in a rather frenzied display.  And then when the song plays again at the end credits, a cluster of girls stood there singing along until the very end, clearly heedless of the meaning of the film.  I suddenly realized that our culture today is no longer a narrative culture (theologians’ enthusiastic investment in the category of “narrative in the last twenty years has come a few decades too late), but a culture of image and sound-bite.  The paradigmatic form of communication now is neither the novel or the feature film, but the music video or YouTube clip.  That is what grabs people, what sticks with people, and anything much longer is wasted on them.

Of course, no doubt you will reply, “They’re just kids—what do you expect?”  Indeed.  It is of course not really the kids who are to be blamed here.  Rather, we must marvel at the unbounded cynicism of Disney, which while making a film that undermined its own consumerist message, preaching instead dedication, commitment, and self-sacrifice, still knew that the most marketable message in the film was that of “Let it Go.”  Why else would you repeat the song at the end credits, when it has been totally discredited?  Why else would you market the heck out of it as a hit single?  (The single has been certified triple platinum, and the music video now has 170 million views on YouTube.)  Disney knew that this message would resonate with today’s consumers, and that whatever the film as a whole said, this bite-sized four-minute message would sink much deeper into their consciousness than a ninety-minute narrative.

All of this is worth remembering for us theologians and writers, who are also in the business of persuasion.  Of course, we cannot compete with this impressionistic messaging on its own ground (though we can certainly try, like Rob Bell).  But we should not deceive ourselves that by resorting to “the power of narrative” we can necessarily win arguments or converts by “out-narrating” the opponent.  Perhaps this worked once, but not so much anymore—it probably stopped about the time theologians started catching onto it.  Rather, most people we are trying to communicate with no longer have the patience to hear a narrative to an end, and are much more likely to latch onto some particularly catchy moment of it than to grasp its argument as a whole.  Our task, then, should not be one of attempting to adapt to the ever-more-ephemeral modes of communication that predominate in our culture, but the much more difficult one of re-training our culture’s imaginations so that they may hear our message again.

5 thoughts on ““Frozen” and the Limits of Narrative

  1. "most people we are trying to communicate with no longer have the patience to hear a narrative to an end, and are much more likely to latch onto some particularly catchy moment of it than to grasp its argument as a whole."

    Perhaps this is the logic of the "tweet-bombing" mode of communication, and the other rhetorically excessive portrayals of complex issues as really very simple that we’ve seen in recent months. The culture can’t follow a real argument, so we’ll just try to be more obnoxious than they are – wisdom as a shrieking, mascara-dripping crazy woman, Orthodoxy as a black hole for father-hungry hipsters, alternative appetites as "foodie" heresy, etc.

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  2. Brian M

    Interesting thoughts; I’d stayed away from the film, but your laudations make me want to see it. One quibble: I’m not sure that the rejection of true love in this film is really as stark or revolutionary as you portray it. Prince Charming has been dead for years, at least since Shrek. You mentioned Pixar’s Brave as mediocre at best and it was astonishing how negatively the Father (not to mention the suitors) were treated in that film. To quote catholic critique Steven Greydanus, "Hollywood animated heroes and/or love interests are allowed to be redeemed rascals (Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, Sinbad) or they may be seemingly unmanly misfit/underdogs who make good (How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Rio, Happy Feet, etc.). But your actual manly hero is practically a thing of the past, alas." Put in another way, wouldn’t a straight-up romance have been the real surprise?

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      No, I think you’re more-or-less right, which is why I didn’t emphasize that as the main "revolutionary" thing in this film. What’s revolutionary on that front is that "true love" in the end is expressed in an act of sibling love, not romantic love. And while it is true that in the context of recent films, it would’ve been surprising if the early romance between Hans and Ana had proved to be real, their love song, "Love is an Open Door" still expresses very current cultural ideals of what love should be—it’s all about spontaneity, freedom, personal fulfillment, and "compatibility."

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  3. Jeremy VanGelder

    I think a lot of this has to do with the scale of the narrative presented. A pop song is more easily absorbed than a symphony. A YouTube video is easier to digest than a feature film. I think this is why our Savior taught in parables that are closer to YouTube length. Still with the depth of an infinite mind behind them, but short and sweet. So I don’t think we should give up on narrative yet, but we should keep it in a scale our audience can absorb easily.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      To be sure, to some extent the shorter will always be easier to absorb than the longer. But my sense is that the degree to which this is the case has increased dramatically, particularly in response to modern entertainment technology (following the logic explained by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows). It takes us much more effort to learn to absorb something as lengthy as a symphony or a novel than would’ve been the case a century ago. At least, such would appear to be the case, though I wasn’t alive a century ago, I recognize. You will recall also that the shortness of Jesus’s parables does not seem to have maximized comprehension on the part of his hearers; quite the opposite.

      But perhaps more than that, I would dispute your point that all we are dealing with is shorter narratives, like parables. Rather, the form has changed, so that we are less often presented with linear narratives, and more often with impressionistic collages of image and sound, ideas which relate to each other in a loose web of associations, rather than moving from point A to point B in either discursive or narrative form. Some pop songs are narratives, to be sure, but many, including "Let it Go," are not really.

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