In Defense of Prince Hans
The villain of Frozen is really an innocent bystander.
8:35 AM, May 14, 2014 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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.
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