Mental Health Awareness Month: How “Frozen” Thaws Fearful Hearts

Year: 2013
Runtime: 105 minutes
Directors: Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck
Writer: Jennifer Lee (Story by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee & Shane Morris)
Stars: Idina Manzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana

By Calum Cooper

When reflecting upon the cinema that we consumed as children, we often remember most fondly the tales that excited us, humoured us, or maybe even frightened us. For many, regardless of generation, Disney has been a big contributor to such memories. But the best children’s tales contain valuable messages, or even truths, in their stories. Although I was a teenager in his last year of high school when Disney’s “Frozen” (2013) was released, it is a film that I believe will allow children and adults alike to recognise and understand lessons in mental health for generations to come.

Everybody and their granny knows the story of “Frozen”, but just to recap: Princess Elsa (Idina Manzel) of Arendelle has the power to control and create ice and snow. As a child, she accidentally injures her little sister Anna (Kristen Bell) when playing with her powers. Anna is cured, but it costs her memories of Elsa’s power, which are only getting stronger. In an attempt to control them, their parents decide to isolate Elsa in the castle, keeping her away from everybody. Even Anna.

frozen elsa
Idina Menzel in Frozen (2013) © 2013 Disney

Years later, their parents are killed, and Elsa ascends the throne of Arendelle. During the celebrations, an argument between the sisters over a proposed marriage causes Elsa to lose her temper, exposing her powers. A scared Elsa flees into the mountains, unleashing an eternal winter in the process. Although surprised, Anna sets off after Elsa to set the kingdom free and mend their broken relationship.

 

“It is a film that I believe will allow children and adults alike to recognise and understand lessons in mental health for generations to come.”

“Frozen” has stood the test of time due to how playfully it inverts tropes found within Disney Princess stories. Marrying a man you’ve just met is questioned; nature is as dangerous as it is beautiful; the songs feel more spaced out once the plot kicks in, and lessons on love come in the form of sisterhood rather than romance. It is a fun and vibrant film with both charm and heart to spare. But having revisited it numerous times since its release, the film has resonated with me more on an emotional level with each viewing. For I believe it understands some of the darkest facets of mental health and expresses ways to deal with them healthily that different ages and generations can all understand.

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Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel in Frozen (2013) © 2013 Disney

It is Elsa who embodies this. Elsa is one of the most interesting and engaging characters to emerge from a Disney title in years for how she channels and eventually comes to terms with her own mental health. Some commentators have compared her to other characters of hidden power, such as Carrie White. But where Carrie’s power was something she was inquisitive about once she knew she had it, Elsa’s power is something she lives in fear of for most of the film.

Elsa is shown to be, at the very least, less adventurous than her sister in their first scenes together. She even worries that they’ll wake up the castle by playing. This makes her hurting of Anna all the more devastating for she plunges into a well of regret and stays there throughout the story. Her powers are a physical manifestation of her own emotions: able to produce beauty in positive environments, but become dangerous when Elsa is scared or sad. With her parents’ – we’ll say questionable – methods at dealing with something they don’t understand, Elsa only becomes more afraid of her powers, and thus herself. She fears she’ll hurt those she cares about and thinks isolation is the only way to deal with emotion. She even operates on the words “conceal, don’t feel”, convinced she is a monster waiting to erupt into being.

“Rather than face her fear, Elsa hides from it, both physically and mentally, with all her guilt and anger exploding out of her in the form of ice and snow whenever she feels overwhelmed.”

This is the equivalent to bottling up your feelings instead of addressing them, a cycle that is hard to break once you’re in it. Rather than face her fear, Elsa hides from it, both physically and mentally, with all her guilt and anger exploding out of her in the form of ice and snow whenever she feels overwhelmed. But anxiety and self-hatred thrive under fear. By the time she summons winter, Elsa has reached such a level of self-loathing that the remote mountains of Arendelle seem to be the only place she believes she can be at peace with her magic. Without fear weighing her down, she is able to create sentient snowmen, an entire castle, and even a wardrobe change, during the “Let it Go” song. But in solitude, there is no one of which to share her creations with.

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Eva Bella, Livvy Stubenrauch, and Katie Lopez in Frozen (2013) © 2013 Disney

Anna is key to helping Elsa with her struggle. While Anna’s adventure contains all the kinetic ambience and humour of any good Disney film, her personality and eventual conclusions showcase one of the best solutions to Elsa’s battle with fear. A much bubblier character, albeit with some naivety, the moment Anna discovers Elsa’s power, her instinct is to find her and talk things over. She wishes to finally open the doors that Elsa has forcibly closed in front of her for years. While Elsa’s habit of shutting others out causes conflict in this approach, Anna’s willingness to listen and be there for her sister is what ultimately ends the eternal winter, with Anna making a courageous decision that both subverts Disney trademarks and gives Elsa the answer to conquering her fear.

“We may feel vulnerable when we start addressing our fears, but if we are willing to be vulnerable then we are also open to the greatest changes, and support from those we love can make all the difference.”

The answer is actually very simple: love. In the context of the film, it is love between sisters, but this can be translated to any bond – of brothers, parents, friends, and yes romantic partners. Once Elsa realises this she finally begins to control her powers and by extension her feelings of anxiety. Acceptance and trust solved the crisis where fear and self-loathing started it. We may feel vulnerable when we start addressing our fears, but if we are willing to be vulnerable then we are also open to the greatest changes, and support from those we love can make all the difference. This realisation makes Elsa a more dauntless character in “Frozen II” (2019) but more importantly concluded her arc and the message of this film with poignancy and maturity. 

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Livvy Stubenrauch in Frozen (2013) © 2013 Disney

“Frozen” is a film which has earned its popularity and its status as a future household classic. It provides everything you could want in a jovial Disney film – gorgeous animation, great humour, and catchy songs. Yet its deeper subtext on mental health and how we cope with fear is what places it in league with the likes of “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and “The Lion King” (1994) as one of the best films to come out of Disney animation. While some parents may understandably be sick of hearing the soundtrack over and over again, obsession with this film may one day provide growing youngsters with a means to understand some of their emotions better. I know it certainly did for me.

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