Truth in Beauty: Cinderella and Frozen

Sacrificial love. Redemption. Forgiveness. In Disney movies? Yes!

Movies have power. It’s refreshing to see that power used to portray truth with such stirring beauty and artistry. I’m glad these are my daughter’s favorite movies. They’re teaching her to have courage, to be kind, to forgive and to put others ahead of herself. Not bad for Disney!  

 

This past Friday night, my wife and I took our five year-old daughter to see Cinderella. She loved it, and was thrilled to be able to wear a pretty blue dress to church on Sunday. As a dad, I love that she loves this new Cinderella movie because it is beautiful, earnest and filled with wonderful truth powerfully displayed to her young imagination. In some ways, it reminded me of her other favorite Disney movie, Frozen.

In many ways, Cinderella and Frozen are complete opposites: Frozen is a musical animated movie.Cinderella is a live-action movie with only one song, sweetly sung by Cinderella’s mother in the beginning of the movie and then by Cinderella herself near the end. (Frozen hardly goes five minutes between its big musical numbers.) Frozen is filled with layers of irony and is a twist on every standard fairy-tale formula, while Cinderella embraces the traditional fairy tale in a way no major Hollywood film has done in years. But in their hearts, the movies have the same wonderful quality: significant, life-enhancing truth portrayed with beauty and excellence.

Some might scratch their heads at that assertion being applied Frozen. After all, what’s stuck in most people’s heads from the movie is a chart-topping hit song with the line, “no right, no wrong, no rules for me.” The irony is that this super-catchy and overly popular song, which lodged itself in all of our heads last year, is sung by Queen Elsa when she is wrong, and she realizes within 10-15 minutes of the movie how wrong she is to think she can run away and be free. (“I’m such a fool. I can’t be free. No escape from the storm inside of me.”)

What Frozen does so well is to topple two fairy tale myths that Disney has helped popularize and then answer those myths with a compelling portrayal of true love. Think about the two deadliest ideas little girls might pick up from a standard Disney fairy tale:

1. If you meet Prince Charming and fall in love at first sight, you’ll live happily ever after. Frozen topples this myth by unmasking “Prince Charming” (Hans) as a con man out to steal a throne for himself.

2. You can find true freedom by running away and “finding yourself” in self-expression and individualism. Elsa tries this (“Let It Go”) and it fails – miserably, tragically.

In place of these two myths, Frozen offers one of the best movie definitions of love, from Olaf the Snowman: “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.” (I first realized how much I likedFrozen when my daughter, then 4, quoted that line perfectly when I asked her what love is.)

While Olaf gives the definition of love, it is Anna (who says she knows nothing about love) who provides the most compelling embodiment of it. Anna’s devotion to her sister and her steadfast refusal to abandon her makes her a Christ-like figure of redeeming love. It is Anna’s true love which thaws Elsa’s frozen heart.

Elsa’s story is compelling to me as someone who has worked with teenage girls in Christian schools for years. Elsa’s parents first try to save her from her “curse” by well-intended legalistic restrictions. (“Conceal. Don’t feel. . .  Be the good girl you always have to be.”) Elsa breaks free from these restrictions and runs away, so she can give free feign to her powers. But her recklessness hurts those around her, those who love her most, especially Anna.

In the end, what saves Elsa is neither the law not lawlessness, but a sacrificial act of true love. When Anna is willing to lay down her life for her sister, it reverses the curse and winter turns to spring as true love melts a frozen heart.

Unlike Frozen, Cinderella is an earnest embrace of the traditional fairy tale, refreshingly free of the irony, role-reversals and snarkiness so prevalent in Hollywood’s take on traditional tales. Disney hired the perfect director for this film in Kenneth Branaugh. His Shakespeare films were the perfect preparation for the beautiful and powerful way he handled this beloved story. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen.

The moral heart of the movie is found in Cinderella’s mother’s dying words to her: “A great secret that will see you through all the trials that life has to offer . . . Have courage and be kind.” Yet as strong and clear as this message is, Cinderella is not merely a moralistic tale. It, too, rises above moralism and becomes a redemption story. Redemption for Cinderella comes from a supernatural source, her fairy godmother.

Cinderella is actually driven to the point of despair and hopelessness by her evil stepmother and stepsisters. She loses her faith and is about to give up entirely when her fairy godmother intervenes. Later, in the stirring climax of the movie, as she is leaving her home with the King, she turns to her stepmother and utters three strong and powerful words: “I forgive you.”

Sacrificial love. Redemption. Forgiveness. In Disney movies? Yes! I have been such a fan of John Lassiter’s work with Pixar that I was excited when took over Disney animation. Frozen is his greatest triumph to date with Disney, their #1 movie of all time. Cinderella is proof that Hollywood can make successful big-budget traditional movies with heart and without undermining beloved stories. While it’s not likely to reach Frozen‘s box office numbers, it’s already made almost half-a-billion worldwide.

Movies have power. It’s refreshing to see that power used to portray truth with such stirring beauty and artistry. I’m glad these are my daughter’s favorite movies. They’re teaching her to have courage, to be kind, to forgive and to put others ahead of herself. Not bad for Disney!

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.