Fifteen years ago I had a discussion about movies with a genuine public intellectual, one of the great foreign-policy minds of his generation. At the time, he had young children. He tried to convince me that A Bug’s Life was a great act of cinema. “For the first 20 viewings or so, it’s just a good movie,” he explained. “But after the hundredth time, you start to really appreciate the genius.” I laughed nervously and made a silent vow never to get myself into trouble the way he had.
This morning I watched the movie Frozen for perhaps the seventieth time. I don’t keep a strict count. And like my friend, I’ve come to believe a number of truths about it: For starters, Frozen is—hands down—the best animated film of all time. It is also the best filmed musical since The Sound of Music. But the most important realization I’ve come to is that the villain of Frozen, the dastardly Prince Hans, isn’t actually a villain. Or rather: Hans may be a villain in the movie, but his villainy is accidental.
Herewith follows an exercise in narrative forensics as I attempt to convince you that as Frozen was written, Prince Hans was never intended to be evil. Spoilers will abound and dignity will be in short supply. You have been warned.
I. Born of Cold and Winter Air
In the (fictional) Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle, there lives a king and queen with two daughters. The eldest daughter, Elsa, has magical powers that control ice and snow and one morning, while horsing around, she nearly kills her baby sister, Anna. The king and queen take the girls to see a clan of trolls, who save Anna’s life and then warn Elsa
that with great power comes great responsibility that while her powers can be a source of great beauty, she must learn to control them, lest she become a danger to everyone around her. “Fear will be your enemy,” they warn. The trolls remove Anna’s memories about Elsa’s powers and the king and queen vow to keep the girls apart and teach Elsa how to manage her icy magic.
Sadly, the king and queen die when their ship is lost at sea. (This ship may or may not be one of the sunken ships from The Little Mermaid. I told you there would be no dignity.) Left to fend for themselves as teenage girls, Elsa and Anna remain apart in the castle until Elsa comes of age to become Arendelle’s queen. After the coronation ceremony, Anna falls in love with a fellow she just met, Prince Hans, of the Southern Isles. Hans proposes, Anna says yes, and when the couple asks Elsa for her blessing, she says no. An argument ensues, and Elsa loses control of her magic, freezing everything in sight. With everyone now aware of her secret powers, the terrified young queen runs away to the mountains, leaving Arendelle completely snowed in.
Anna sets off to find her big sister and patch things up, putting Prince Hans temporarily in charge of the kingdom. She has adventures and finally finds Elsa alone in the mountains in a castle she’s built out of ice. When Elsa learns that she has doomed Arendelle to an eternal winter, she despairs and, fearing to even be around other people, loses control of her powers once again—this time striking Anna, and causing her to begin slowly turning to ice. Brought once more to the trolls, Anna is told that only “an act of true love” can save her.
Finally re-united with Prince Hans (after more adventures), Anna explains that she needs him to kiss her, because only an act of true love can save her life. And here we get the Shyamalan Twist: Hans tells Anna that he doesn’t love her and was only using her to become king of Arendelle. His plan is to let her freeze to death, pretend that they said their wedding vows before she expired, order the execution of Elsa (on grounds of treason), and, finally, claim the throne for himself. If he had a moustache, he would twirl it.
Frozen concludes when Anna escapes and throws herself between Hans and Elsa, just as the evil prince is swinging his sword down for the killing blow. Luckily, it is at this very moment that Anna turns completely to ice. The blade breaks as it strikes her and Anna is then saved because the “act of true love” was not a kiss, but her own attempt to sacrifice her life for Elsa’s.
Elsa, finally understanding that love is more powerful than fear, figures out how to thaw the fjord, save Arendelle, and become a beneficent queen.
They all live happily ever after. Except for Hans.
II. The Moral Sophistication of Frozen
There’s a great deal to love about Frozen: The animation is absurdly beautiful, as gorgeous as anything either Disney or Pixar has ever created. The musical numbers, by the husband-wife duo of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, is always catchy and never cloying. But it’s the writing, by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, which makes the movie so satisfying.
Frozen takes an unusually sophisticated view of love, for instance. One of the themes of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is how we learn to understand love through a series of progressions—that we can’t properly understand romantic love until we have experienced true platonic love. And that romantic love leads us higher still, to Divine love. Frozen skips this final step, but Lee and Buck are clearly showing that Anna’s attempt to find romantic love (with Prince Hans) can’t possibly succeed until she understands familial love (with Elsa).
For her part, Elsa is stoic in the face of her magical gift, which she sees as a dangerous curse. Her own view of duty and love runs in two directions—to her departed parents and her living sister—and even though this leaves her isolated and lonely, she bears her burden unflinchingly. As heroes, Anna and Elsa rank with Maria and Captain Von Trapp.
III. The Hans Heel Turn
As I said up top, after the fiftieth viewing or so, you begin to truly appreciate the craftsmanship which went into making Frozen. Every shot is framed thoughtfully and inventively; every note is purposeful. You can always tell great art by its economy of force and the filmmakers waste not a single beat. Watch carefully, for example, how Anna pauses for a split-second while running past Elsa’s door on her way to say goodbye to their parents. The animators took such care that you can actually see the hesitation in her center of gravity—just the slightest hitch in movement—which speaks of an unbearable sadness at the distance between her and her sister. It’s a heartbreaking moment and yet it’s utterly thrown away, so determined are Lee and Buck to show and not tell.
All of which is why Frozen’s one flaw is so glaring: When Prince Hans makes his heel turn, it’s a complete surprise—not because the writers have caught us with prestidigitation, but because his transformation is utterly unearned.
Throughout Frozen Prince Hans gives no indication that he’s deceiving Anna. When the two of them meet it’s cute—not only is Hans charming, but so is his horse, who sweetly nuzzles and smiles at Anna. (In the world of Disney, a character and his steed are always one of heart.) After Anna departs from their initial encounter, Hans falls into the harbor, and then looks up after her with a dopey, love-struck grin on his face. This moment is particularly significant, because he’s alone. If character is what you do when no one’s watching, in this beat, Hans is nothing less than your standard romantic lead. And once Anna heads into the mountains after her sister, we see Hans spending his time passing out blankets to the townsfolk and trying to make sure that the people of Arendelle stay warm and fed.
The best plot twists are those you can’t see coming, but after they’re revealed make you gasp in recognition when you revisit the story. Once you know who Keyser Söze really is, everything else in The Usual Suspects—from the coffee plantation to Kobayashi—makes sense. When Miranda Tate stabs Batman at the end of The Dark Knight Rises and reveals that she’s really Talia al Ghul, suddenly the entire movie falls into place like the tumblers falling home in a sophisticated lock.
Yet when Prince Hans pulls away from Anna, telling her devilishly, “If only there was someone who loved you,” it makes no sense. And watching Frozen after you know about Hans’s ultimate disposition is frustrating, because in a movie that’s driven by complex and interesting characters, Hans is Jekyll and Hyde.
Watch Frozen enough times and this misstep becomes even more obvious precisely because the rest of the film is so carefully wrought. It makes no sense: How could the writers, who did everything else so right, get Hans so wrong?
IV. Prince Hans: Victim of a Terrible Prophecy
The answer can be found on the second disc of the Deluxe Edition Frozen Soundtrack. (Yes, I know how that sounds. Remember: You were warned.) On this disc there are seven songs written and performed by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, which do not appear in the movie, because they were written for an earlier version of the Frozen script. (Frozen had a long and troubled developmental history.) And based on what we learn from those songs, the script changed radically from the penultimate version to the final cut.
In their outtake songs, the Lopezes describe how, in the draft of the screenplay they were first given, the story of Elsa and Anna revolved around a prophecy proclaimed by Arendelle’s trolls. Here’s how the troll prophecy is described in the song “Spring Pageant”:
Your future is bleak, your kingdom will splinter,
Your land shall be cursed with unending winter.
With blasts of cold will come dark art
And a ruler with a frozen heart.
Then all will perish
In snow and ice
Unless you are freed
With a sword sacrifice.
In this version of the script, the central conflict was whether or not Elsa was the fulfillment of the prophecy. At this point Hans was still cast as Anna’s love interest and, in fact, the two got married before the final denouement. (We know this from two of the other outtake songs, “You’re You” and “Life’s Too Short.”) And we even know that the story ended with Hans trying to kill Elsa (from the reprise of “Life’s Too Short”). From all of this it seems reasonable to surmise that in this version, Hans wasn’t a villain. If he was trying to kill Elsa, it was in order to save Arendelle in accordance with the prophecy. He thought she had to be sacrificed to lift the curse of unending winter. He might have been misguided or hasty, but he probably wasn’t evil. And in any case, he was playing his part in the prophecy correctly, since the “sword sacrifice” turns out to be Anna’s attempt to sacrifice herself in order to save her sister.
V. The Narrative Ripple Effect
Lee and Buck were absolutely correct to remove the troll prophecy from the story. By getting rid of it, they made Elsa’s character infinitely more intriguing. Once the prophecy was tossed, Elsa’s central motivation became her love of family and fear of harming them—which in turn created more interesting tensions between her and Anna. (In the earlier draft they had a paint-by-numbers sibling rivalry.) In fact, with the prophecy removed, the story achieved that rare state where the conflicts were so wonderfully organic and character-driven that there was no need for a “villain.”
Except for one thing. Lee and Buck still needed someone to swing a sword at Elsa during the climax, simply because they needed to give Anna a way to sacrifice herself for her sister—the “act of true love” that will save both Anna and the kingdom. And there Hans was, standing around clutching a sword.
With the prophecy gone, Hans had no reason to want to kill Elsa. The writers had to come up with a new motivation for why he’d do such a thing. So they retconned him into an evil scoundrel. Only it doesn’t quite fit, and the Hans of the first 95 minutes winds up being an entirely different character from the Hans of the last 7 minutes.
So the next time you watch Frozen (which, for me, will probably be tomorrow morning) have some sympathy for Prince Hans. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, he's not bad, he's just drawn that way.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.