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
Since Frozen is the highest-grossing animated film of all time a summary shouldn’t be necessary, but we’ll do one anyway, for those of you living the childfree dream:
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.