Frozen: 5 Ways Disney Upends Its Own Fairy Tale Tropes



Disney’s latest full-length animated feature Frozen is a lovely movie, and in some ways a throwback to its early animated triumphs. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, it has many familiar Disney elements: princesses, a prince, adorable sidekicks, a hummable score, heart-thumping action and stunning animation.

But at the same time it’s also an almost radical departure for a Disney princess movie—and that’s probably why it is resonating with so many audience members, particularly girls and women. It does this by undermining some of Disney’s most familiar fairy tale tropes:

1. Sisters Before Misters. This meme has been bouncing around the internet, and it’s a perfectly apt way to characterize how it departs from other Disney princess movies. Think over the many princess movies of the past—if they had sisters, they were usually evil stepsisters. (In The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast, the protagonists’ sisters from the source material were either literally excised from the story or made virtually irrelevant.) In most, though, they had no sisters—or even female friends (the lone exception I can think of is The Princess & The Frog).

Frozen is a departure because not only is there a sister storyline, the emotional through line in the movie is the love story between the sisters, instead of the usual romantic storyline.

True, Pixar (which is a Disney company) had a story with a mother/daughter emotional through line in the movie Brave, but Merida was the lone protagonist in that story. Which is another way the Frozen departs from the usual tropes:

2. There are two female protagonists. Unlike most princess movies, the two major female characters are on almost equal footing. While Anna (Kristen Bell) gets a bit more screen time, both she and Elsa (Idina Menzel) have a major presence in the story, and both have major character arcs.

3. Both protagonists are complex and flawed. Again, an argument can be made that Merida in Brave is quite flawed, but I would argue she doesn’t even come close to the complexity of both Elsa and Anna.

In most stories, Elsa would probably have been cast as the villain. Here, a young woman who possesses frightening powers is not the bad person, but someone who is unfairly isolated and repressed because she is different. Anna is naïve because she has also been sheltered too much. Unlike most princess characters, she’s allowed to be wrong about people and situations.

4. It upends our expectations about who will be the hero of the story. AGAIN, SPOILER WARNING: Hans (Santino Fontana), the prince Anna falls in love with at the beginning of the movie, turns out to be an evil schemer who is looking to use her just to grab power for himself. Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a lowly ice-seller, turns out to be a better romantic possibility for Anna, but is not the hero. It is, in fact, Anna who saves both herself and Elsa.

5. Elsa has no romantic storyline. And, boy, is that driving some people nuts! It’s practically the ONLY major criticism I’ve seen in viewer reviews of the movie. Personally, I think it’s fantastic to see a story about a young woman without the addition of a romantic story for her. A few people have put forth the theory that Elsa’s story is a metaphor for being gay. That’s definitely one possible interpretation, though she can stand as a symbol for anyone who has ever felt different and felt the need to hide that part of themselves from the world.

Even though Anna has two romantic possibilities in the story, there is no guarantee at the end that she will end up with Kristoff, which is another departure. As in the movie Tangled, the story also has a male romantic figure who is NOT a prince. Which is cool.

Now, not to sound like I’m complaining, because Frozen is an awesome movie.

But, hey, Disney, how about a movie with a female protagonist who isn’t a princess?  It’s been a while since Mulan came out.

Just a thought.

In the meantime, enjoy this:

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Reel Life: Frozen and the Quest for a Happy Medium (


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