Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Sins of Elsa

I was late seeing the recent Disney smash Frozen.  The older I get, the less likely I am to rush to a theater to see even a film I want to see (I can wait for Netflix), and of late I've been ambivalent about Disney productions.  The technical artistry of things like Pixar's digital animation has been impressive, but their stories have never strayed far from the formulaic.  They even have seemed to recognize this, with works like The Incredibles and Enchanted gently (or not-so-gently) sending up aspects of the cultural legendary framework which Disney has milked so effectively.

But when some of my kids whose judgement I respect mentioned that they liked Frozen, I took Ellen to see it.  And then we went to see it again the next week, and again when another one of my kids came up for the weekend.  I think this set a record for me, and certainly for Ellen and me seeing a movie more than once in a theater.  Like millions of other, I love the movie, and for one surpassing reason: the story.  As a storyteller myself, that's what I look for and appreciate the most of any movie.  Acting mastery, superb direction, special effects – all of these are a distant second to the story itself.  And in Frozen, the story was the core of it.

I heartily commend both the screenwriters and the staff poets (i.e. the songwriters) on their cooperative effort in writing a truly original story that was masterfully implemented.  I gather (from one of the after-the-fact did-you-know snippets that emerge) that the story was proceeding along more formulaic lines until the screenwriters heard one of the songs – the now-iconic Let It Go – which changed their perception of the character of Elsa and thus the trajectory of the tale.  The result was a sharp break from the stereotypes of the past, and a story that resonated with millions because of the complex and sympathetic characters.

Though the central character is Princess Anna, a close second is her sister Elsa, the one with the mysterious magic.  The main tension line of the story originates when they are children, and in a careless moment of play Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her nascent powers.  Though Anna is healed of the injury, the event is very traumatic for Elsa, causing her to fear the expression of her magic and withdraw from interaction out of fear of exposure, and of harming others.  This withdrawal of her beloved sister mystifies and hurts little Anna, as poignantly expressed in the opening song, Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

The story's crisis unfolds after the girls are grown (and have lost their parents in a tragic accident), on Elsa's coronation day.  Anna loves her sister, but there's ambivalence due to Elsa's never-explained relational distancing.  Elsa is frightened by the public presence required of her new position, but resolves to step into it out of a stern sense of duty.  It's clear that she's accepting the crown under duress, and is willing to squelch her personal preferences in order to fulfill her responsibilities.  But things fly apart when the long-suppressed emotional fault line between the girls emerges at the coronation party, and Elsa's powers are inadvertently unleashed.  Terrified that her secret has been exposed and that she might endanger others, Elsa escapes into the mountains, not realizing that she has brought about the very thing she is seeking to avoid: her land is gripped by a devastating winter even as she flees.  The rest of the story revolves around Anna seeking her sister to rectify this situation, forcing them to face some of the difficulties of their relationship.  The drama heightens when Anna is inadvertently and lethally cursed by her sister, the resolution of which ultimately exposes a secret villain, reveals the True Love (with the help of a reindeer), and forces Anna to make a desperate choice between self-preservation and protection of Elsa.

Though the story has formulaic elements (what story doesn't?), I'm convinced that a good part of its appeal is that it focuses on sibling reconciliation, and that even the “villainess” Elsa is a sympathetic and nuanced character.  She isn't portrayed as a “bad person” (to use the meaningless cultural idiom), in the sense that Syndrome or Scar are “bad people”.  It's clear that she means well, and even her relational isolation is undertaken out of concern for others.  But the film masterfully portrays how she is in the grip of deep fear, and ultimately the story's deepest problems stem from this.

Much of the complexity of the tale can be understood through the scene Let It Go, which will surely survive as one of the masterpiece scenes of Disney movies, possibly of all movies.  The orchestration is beautiful, the vocals by the inimitable Idina Menzel are flawless, and the animation is unparalleled.  The scene is a visual and aural feast that sticks in the mind and imagination.  (If you haven't seen it, you can catch it here.)  This soaring anthem to autonomous individualism does reflect much of our cultural attitudes, and has come under some criticism for that (including such lines as “No right, no wrong, no rules for me!”)  If that were the only moral lesson of the film, that critique would be more justified.  But in the course of the tale the storytellers do a wonderful job of placing Elsa's “liberation” in the full context of her life and relationships, showing that autonomy is only the illusion of liberation, but that love and courage are the foundation for true freedom.

They also show something which vindicates some things I've been learning over the past few years: that fear can give rise to sin.  Many of us have an adolescent understanding of sin, thinking that only really “bad people” (like Syndrome or Scar) actually sin.  The rest of us may be misunderstood, or make mistakes, or have bad days, but because we're “not bad people”, we don't truly sin because we don't mean to sin.  Yet here we have Elsa, who is living a life steeped in fear.  I'm convinced that's one of the reasons so many identify with her – existential fear is part of the human condition, and especially part of our post-modern culture.  But Elsa sins, sometimes severely, not out of raw malice but out of fear.

Let me give two examples.  Admittedly, Elsa's inadvertent freezing of her country doesn't qualify, because she didn't know that she did it, and is dismayed when she learns of it.  Even her freezing of Anna's heart, though tragic, was done by an accidental unleashing of powers Elsa was still learning to control.  But when Elsa creates a snow monster to eject her sister and companions from her presence, that's a deliberate, conscious misuse of her powers.  She creates this being to do her dirty work because she doesn't want to do it herself.  How well this portrays the manner in which we fearful humans surround ourselves with things to distance ourselves from those around us, enabling us to dismiss and deprecate at a distance.  We don't have to make a hard decision, we can always hide behind our policies and practices and habits.  We aren't sinning, we're just being consistent. (“I never give money to those kind of street people – you never know how they're going to use it.”)  We think that we have moral distance from our actions or inactions because we aren't directly performing them, just as Elsa undoubtedly didn't think she was the one who chased her sister down a mountain and off a cliff.  She just made a monster to protect herself – in other words, out of fear.  This makes me wonder how many “monsters” I have made out of my fear, and what sins I have indirectly committed through them.

Another example is a subtle one: the sin of dereliction.  In the middle of Elsa's declaration of personal autonomy, Let It Go, she pulls the newly-placed crown from her head, glances at it with contempt, and casts it aside while singing, “ I'm never going back / the past is in the past.”  The modern mind, valuing personal autonomy above all and viewing positions of political power strictly in terms of privilege, sees this as an unmitigated good: Elsa is doing what “her heart tells her” (i.e. what she feels like doing at the moment), and if she gives up an exalted role in the meantime, what does that matter?  In fact, it could even be interpreted as a noble act, the sacrifice of privilege for the sake of self-expression.

But this ignores corporate responsibility.  A crown cast aside on the ground is a much worse insult to a kingdom than a flag burned, and when it's the sovereign who does the casting, the offense is even more severe.  By this impulsive action, Elsa was expressing contempt for her people, her lineage, and ultimately herself.  The wise King Lune of Archenland would have some things to say to young Elsa regarding her responsibilities:

“The king's under the law, for it's the law that makes him king.  Hast no more power to start away from thy crown than any sentry from his post.”  (C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy)

The crown Queen Elsa wears is both privilege and burden, just as our roles as fathers or legislators or managers are both privilege and burden.  If we abdicate those roles, even from a mistaken sense of humility, we sin against those to whom we are responsible.  We also open the way for the unqualified and undesirable to step in where we stepped out.  In an ironic (and unintentional, I'm sure) twist, an afterscene that appears late in the credits shows the snow monster which Elsa created wandering around the shattered ruins of her abandoned ice palace.  He finds the crown which she so carelessly cast aside and places it on his own head.  This image is intended to be humorous, but it has a dark undertone of truth: if we do not fulfill our roles faithfully, others will – perhaps even the constructs we created to distance ourselves from our moral responsibility.

The film does a good job of resolving many of these moral quandaries, but you have to consider the whole story, not just one slice of it.  As with all good stories, there is much to be learned from it, for those willing to learn.