Queen Elsa “letting it go…” (Copyright 2013 The Walt Disney Company)
Now I may be partial, since Disney’s “Frozen” was the first movie I got to take my daughter to, and it would have held a special place for me even if it had not been good. But this update of the fairy tale “The Snow Queen” is not only one of my favorite movies of 2013, it is Disney’s best (non-Pixar) animated film since “Beauty and the Beast.” The animation quality is outstanding; just the amount of time and manpower that went into “making” the snow must have been overwhelming. It looks and moves more like beautiful powdery snow than the snow you typically see, like some kind of dream snow that exists atop mountains untouched by man. The songs are fantastic. Composers Bobby Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”) and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez have created biggest Broadway-style songs in any Disney musical, and, unlike Disney’s unfortunate pop-music score era (see “Tarzan” or “Hercules”), you actually come out of the theater still humming them. The performances were also uniformally great, especially Kristen Bell as exuberent-yet-resolute Princess Anna (I had no idea she could sing like that), stage vet Idina Menzel as her sister, the cursed Queen Elsa, and Josh Gad as snowman Olaf. But the truest sign of a great film is that it sticks with you well after you’ve gotten home from the theater. And “Frozen” has done that for me. While the animation, songs, and performances are all memorable and worthy of accolade, it’s the story which won’t let me go. For in the story of these two sisters, we see the story of humanity’s struggle with the captivity of sin and the freedom that can only come through sacrificial love.
Warning: from this point on are major spoilers. Seriously, I’m going to tell you how the movie ends. If you don’t want to know, you have to stop reading now (but please come back after you see the movie, which you should).
The story starts with two young princesses, one of whom, Elsa, has the gift/curse of creating snow and ice. While the two are playing with these powers one night, Elsa accidentally and seriously injures sister Anna. To prevent such a thing from happening again, Elsa is pretty much locked away from the rest of the world (including her sister), with her parents urging her to try to control her uncontrollable powers by trying to suppress it, and her emotions, through her own self-will (“Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let it show”; ”Getting upset only makes it worse. Calm down”). She tries to follow the rules to prevent her power from dominating her, leaving her broken, scared, and isolated.
The efforts of Elsa and her parents to control her unwanted powers is an illustration of our inability to control our biggest problem–sin–through our own efforts at following rules and trying to be “good enough.” Such efforts are legalism, the attempt to become righteous through self-willed obedience to the law. Legalism cannot save us, although most of the world’s religions tell us that it can–that simply by following their behavioral mandates (through acts of devotion, mediation, self-denial, etc.) one can become righteous. But the Bible teaches us this is impossible. We, by nature, are sinful creatures (Psalm 51:5; Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 3:10-18, 5:12-14, 17-18; Ephesians 2:2-3). The self-driven works of the law cannot lead to being righteous, being justified, being free from sin, but only to bring us into deeper bondage to our sin (Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:11a). Thus, trying to overcome the curse of our sin by trying to follow rules and being “good enough” not only does not overcome our sin, it just adds guilt, shame, and defeat on top of it.
After showing us the dangers of legalism, the movie goes the other direction. After becoming queen, Elsa fails to control her powers, which are discovered by the people, now frightened by her. She flees to the mountains, where she decides she’s had enough of trying to be good enough. Instead, she embraces and relishes her powers as she creates a new world for herself. These lyrics to the show-stopper “Let It Go,” demonstrate the nature of her “breakthrough”: “It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I’m free!” She celebrates the fact that she can finally be “herself,” noting, “That perfect girl is gone.”
In the culture of the day, Elsa’s “liberation” would seemingly be something to celebrate. We daily hear societies mantras like “be true to yourself” and “if it feels good, do it.” But this flight away from legalism leads to another equally dangerous error–lawlessness. Even after the apostle Paul talks about how the law can lead to death, he then explains that it is not the law itself that condemns us, but the self-righteous efforts to follow it; he urges us not to go back to sinning however we want (Romans 6:1-2). Sin leads to death (Romans 6:23). Embracing or approving of it is not a sign of liberation, but evidence of God’s judgment (Romans 1:28-32).
And, consistent with this truth, Elsa finds that her new-found “liberation” is a lie. When confronted by her sister, who explains that her new freedom to do what she wants has plunged the kingdom into an eternal winter, she laments, “I’m such a fool, I can’t be free, no escape from the storm inside of me. I can’t control the curse.” The same is true of us when we try to be free in trying to sin as an expression of our freedom—in the end, we are still slaves to that sin, being dragged down by our chains to death, both now and in eternity.
But there can be freedom from sin. Elsa could not find it in legalism, she could not find it in lawlessness, but she would find it in the sacrificial love of another. Elsa has accidentally injured Anna, who’s heart is now freezing and who can only be healed with an “act of true love” (trust me, it works). Several twists and turns later, Elsa is about to be struck down with the villain’s sword when Anna, giving up her last chance to save herself, throws herself in front of Elsa and, as she freezes to (apparent) death, saves Elsa’s life. This selfless act, and not the kiss of a hero, is the act of true love which brings Anna back to life. It is also this pure act of selfless love, not fear-driven legalism nor “freedom”-driven lawlessness, that frees Elsa from the slavery of being unable to control her curse. Because of love, she can now use her powers for good. She thaws the winter, retakes the throne, and they all live happily ever after.
This picture is not just a fairy tale, it is the truth of our reality. We cannot be righteous by following laws. We cannot be “free” by flouting our sinfulness. We can only be redeemed by the One who loved us so much that He gave His life to set the captives free, to save us from the sin that controls us, and to become our righteousness (Luke 4:18; John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21). It is only in trusting the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ that we can truly be free of the sin which enslaves us.