Warning: This review and commentary on the film Frozen is chock full of spoilers. You probably won’t enjoy it if you haven’t seen the movie, and I strongly recommend you see it. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE SEE IT! You won’t regret it.
That said, this is my story, and not strictly a review of the film. There are plenty of those, and many of them are very good. But this is my story.
It’s been a long time since I identified with a character so strongly; it amazes me that a cartoon meant for children could touch me so deeply, but from the first few minutes, I was enthralled. Anyone who has had the pleasure of watching Disney’s Frozen can attest to it’s beautiful animation, the likability of the characters, and the enchanting storyline. I was repeatedly blown away by the delicate way they navigated very mature story lines of loss, self discovery, isolation, and inner turmoil. This isn’t Pixar Cars, people.
I’ve read reviews and prose on how Elsa’s turmoil symbolizes various things, and I am not going to comment on that here. After all, how we view something is largely colored by our experiences and prejudices, and I’m sure that Disney and it’s extremely talented team that made this movie did not have my personal storyline in mind. That said, after sitting down and analyzing what made silent tears start flowing about 20 minutes in, and on and off, and on and off throughout the film until the end, this is what I’ve come up with.
I am Elsa.
No, no, not because I’m a beautiful, ice wielding super woman. (I WISH!) I certainly don’t have parents that locked me away from the world for being different, and I’m thankful and grateful they are still alive and well. But I do have a little, red-headed sister. And, being different, I have lived through a very trying time in my life when she, and many other people who love me, were shut out of my life and sometimes even my heart.
For me, it wasn’t a magical gift, after all we live in the “real world.” It was something, however, that made me different and set apart from other people. Since I was a young girl, I have struggled with mental illness; when I was a child and teenager, we thought it was depression. We were wrong – it was bipolar disorder, but at that time, a steady stream of anti-depressants were introduced to numb me. Conceal, don’t feel. This worked for a time, it got me through my adolescence.
My early twenties were hard, with a lot of pressures. My husband and I chose to get married young. We were kids, really, and the realities of adulthood, finances, and marriage itself were overwhelming for two people with such limited life experience. We faced many trials as a couple and as the world seemed to bury me, I buried my emotions and frustrations, trying to be strong. Conceal, don’t feel. The “storm inside” continued to swirl and I could push it down, but it was always a threat, below the surface. I tried to be “normal,” I tried to ignore this monster inside of me, but it was always there. I prayed, I sang worship songs at church, I talked about it with people I consider wiser than me. Be the good girl I always have to be.
In my mid twenties, I finally thought I “had control” of myself. Years of muscling through life’s obstacles made me feel “strong.” I felt pretty successful, with a good marriage, and some stability. We were buying a house, we had an adorable child. But deep inside a real storm was brewing. I had lost weight with extreme calorie restriction; too much, too fast. For a person who doesn’t suffer from mental illness, this isn’t always a problem, though I think anyone who makes a drastic, quick change in their body is bound to have some issues. For me… it was a recipe mental breakdown.
Moving to a new house, in a city I knew nothing about, with no friendly neighbors right beside me, I was isolated. I may as well have lived in a beautiful ice castle. My husband was by my side, of course, but with our work schedules, I was alone with Xander much of the time. The changes in my body had began a veritable landslide in my brain chemistry and I was fading fast. It first manifested as the worst depression imaginable.
You know the scene right after Elsa and Anna’s parents pass away, where Anna begs Elsa to please finally have some contact with her, and both of them sit on either side of the door? Elsa’s despair at the loss of her parents was hard enough, but she was also losing the only two people who knew her pain, who knew what was going on inside of her. For the first time, not only did she face her powers and the crippling fear of what they could do, but she also faced them completely and utterly alone. Anna was right there to reach out to, but Elsa had been taught to keep her powers hidden.
Only she couldn’t.
I started to cry at this scene. The pain that Elsa feels, she finally can’t keep it in at all. Years of stuffing it down, pretending not to have this difference, it finally explodes out of her in her grief at her parents untimely death, and it’s not pretty. It’s messy, and jagged, and sad. And on the other side of the door, poor Anna wonders why she and Elsa can’t be close. She wonders where her sister went. Why she doesn’t want anything to do with her.
Three years go by. Three. Years. Did that impact you, the way it did me? Elsa was stuck in her semi-self made prison, hating herself, hating her powers, isolated completely, dreading the day when she would finally have to be exposed to scrutiny. Terrified that people would find out who she really was. Again – facing all of this completely alone. And poor Anna was stuck on the other side of the door, wondering why her sister didn’t love her any more, never knowing all the while that what Elsa really hated was herself.
Fast forward to the party, where after a brief and totally touching reunion with her sister, the pressure in Elsa finally culminates, and she snaps, hurting and scaring a lot of people. That finally happened to me, when I had my first manic break and spun out of control. And my first reaction?
Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care
What they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway
It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
Just like Elsa, I finally let go of pretending to be normal, and I gave myself over fully to the mess that I had brewing inside. Some of what came out of me was beautiful. I was more creative than I had been in years, and more social. I was so outgoing and if you didn’t know something was wrong, you could have assumed I was just full of life, and carefree. And you couldn’t have been more wrong.
I hurt people. I hurt myself. I did things that weren’t good for me, or anyone else. “No right, no wrong, no rules for me,” is a world that doesn’t exist, in real life or even in this fairy tale story. Elsa’s beauty and skill made a masterpiece, but her rage and self focus wasn’t without consequence and it affected everyone around her. Now thank goodness my explosive behavior wasn’t an eternal winter, and that my actions affected a small number of people and not a village. But it really did affect people.
Anna fights through a harsh, intense winter to get to her sister, and she makes Elsa see that there are consequences to what she does, and that her isolation isn’t the answer. I read a review of this movie that said that Frozen teaches us that defiance and selfishness is the right thing, but they obviously focused only on those lines of “Let it Go” claiming freedom and throwing off restrictions, and chose to pay no attention to the heart wrenching lyrics of “For the First Time In Forever (reprise).” “I’m such a fool, I can’t be free – no escape from the storm inside of me!” Elsa realizes that she doesn’t live in a vacuum, but her self loathing turns her back to fear, instead of listening to Anna’s invitation to solve these problems as a team. We see Elsa’s gorgeous castle, a creation of her self acceptance, turn grotesque and frightening as she tries once again to pretend her magic doesn’t exist.
Like Elsa, I was lucky to have people who loved me who never gave up on me. They fought through my winter: my bad moods, my self loathing, my desire to keep up my selfish behaviors so I didn’t have to try to get better and fix my mistakes, or even just to hide away all together so I couldn’t hurt anyone anymore. Like Elsa, my heroes, my love warriors didn’t give up on me. And like Elsa, when things couldn’t have possibly gotten any worse, many people, helped me see that with true love, healing is possible. I even have a few stories up my sleeves of some dramatic sacrifices made on my behalf, selfless acts I can’t repay.
Finally, Elsa and I share the most important thing of any of this: a happy ending. Nothing is going to take away my bipolar – it’s a part of my brain, and therefore a part of me, and my life. Nothing was going to take away Elsa’s wintery magic; she could stuff it, and fear it, and it would become a weapon to destroy her and others. Her other choice, and mine, was to own up to it, and figure out what parts of it are beautiful and well, magical. Bipolar makes me very receptive to other people’s emotions. It makes me creative, and theatrical. It makes me crave realism and transparency in relationships, and it has drawn people to me who are kind, loving, and understanding. I honestly have the best family and friends in the whole world. Having bipolar disorder is kind of like what Elsa deals with – her magical powers are a part of her, but they aren’t all that she is. Even so, she can’t completely separate herself from them, and they will always be there. But to say that Elsa IS her magical powers is so one dimensional. She’s a sister, a leader of a group of people, and a woman figuring out who she is for once, not just what. And she’s extremely lucky, because she has an ally on her side, Anna, who wants to be there for her as she does just that.
I too have those people in my life. So many people, beyond what I deserve. This movie, for me, is a painful but beautiful reminder of things I have experienced. I hope it touches you too.