Frozen is pretty great.
Like all Disney films it rewards re-watches. Unlike most Disney films, the reason this one merits a re-watch is the twist – the revelation that the character Hans, until near the end of the film depicted as the main candidate for heroine Anna’s love interest, is a psycho.
The first time you see the movie, you get absolutely no indication that Hans is a bad guy until near the end when he goes straight up Evil Mode. Before that point there are no subtle shots of him looking covetously at Anna or the throne of Arendelle. There’s no ominous music overlaying his entry into the scene. The movie treats Hans exactly as you’d expect it to treat an actual good-guy romantic interest character.
This is a beautiful choice because in my opinion it elevates the film into a powerful warning to its young viewers: Hans seems great. He seems sweet, attentive, brave, admirable but never intimidating. And it’s all fake. He’s a liar and a manipulator. (Subtext: In real life, the psycho boyfriend does not come with ominous music. In real life, the psycho boyfriend will slip past your radar just as Hans slips past Anna’s and past yours as the viewer of the film. Unless you pay attention to what Hans is doing.)
The story begins with Anna bursting forth from her lifelong isolation in the castle, overflowing with hope and optimism. She has practically never interacted with anyone but her immediate family and possibly some house servants, and by this point in the story her parents have been dead for an indeterminate period and her sister has been cloistered in her chambers for a decade. Anna is painfully isolated and naive about human interaction.
Then Hans (literally) bumps into her. There is a fairly movie-standard awkward first meeting between inevitable lovebirds. Hans introduces himself as “Prince of the Southern Isles” which is not quite a lie but, as we’ll find later, it’s certainly intentionally misleading, because the title gives the impression that he’s the heir to the throne, while he’s actually 13th in line.
The next time we see Hans, he is sweeping Anna off her feet at the post-coronation ball. They dance and talk through the night. Crucially, we don’t actually hear much of what they’re talking about – upbeat music plays over their excited, mute exchanges.
Remember that Anna has never even talked to a man her age before. I like to imagine that their conversation goes something like this:
Anna: “I really love music.”
Hans: “Really? I love music too! That’s amazing! We have so much in common. You know, sometimes I feel so isolated. Parties like this make me feel awkward.”
Anna: “That’s crazy! I feel isolated all the time! And this party makes me feel super awkward!”
In other words, Hans is playing Anna, at a level somewhere between Cold Reading and simple stating of human universals as if they’re secret or unique to him. And I feel supported in inventing this dialogue when we look at the lyrics of the song that immediately follows: “Love is an Open Door.”
Background: Previously in the film, Anna repeatedly tries to coax her sister Elsa to come play with her, but Elsa maintains her self-imposed sequestration, as manifested by a physical shut door. So the movie is continuing its (obvious) metaphor of “shut door” = “emotional isolation.”
When we listen to the lyrics of “Love is an Open Door”, it’s actually easy to be swept up in the optimism of young love, and not to realize that Hans is in fact parroting all Anna’s thoughts and feelings back at her.
Anna: Can I say something crazy?
Hans: I love crazy!
SAID NO GUY EVER. FIRST RED FLAG.
… generic love song lyrics with no specific content …
Hans: I mean it’s crazy.
Hans: We finish each other’s –
Hans: That’s what I was gonna say!
- Repeating Anna’s words, “crazy,”
- He obviously wasn’t gonna say “sandwiches.” Come on.
… more generic love song lyrics with no specific content …
Hans: Can I say something crazy? Will you marry me?
Anna: Can I say something even crazier? Yes!
- Repeating Anna’s entire first sentence back at her,
- Preying on Anna’s irrational love-addled state of mind to trap her into marriage.
On the first viewing of the movie, this is certainly an interesting scene. Anybody over the age of twenty is going to at least blink in surprise that this movie for children is choosing to lead its main characters into an obviously premature engagement. “Where are we going with this?” On a second viewing, you see it for what it is. Transparent manipulation.
(“Transparent,” but you didn’t catch it the first time, did you?)
Crucially, observe that Anna’s infatuation with Hans is entirely built upon conversation. Upon words. She has never seen how he responds to adversity. She’s never found herself in a situation where she disagreed with him about anything. In other words, she has no idea who he is.
Like a true haus, Elsa refuses to condone this engagement when she hears about it, and the conflict ensuing from this refusal leads to Elsa accidentally using her Ice Magic in public and fleeing the kingdom in fear. (There’s room for a whole essay on the use of Ice Magic as metaphor for an anxiety disorder.)
Anna goes after Elsa to try to bring her back, and enlists the help of the loner Kristoff in finding her. Kristoff is totally disinterested in Anna romantically and only agrees to help in exchange for payment. He proceeds to call her on her bullshit in general and also specifically regarding her engagement to Hans. (“Uh huh. What’s his last name?” “ … of the Southern Isles.”) Basically, Kristoff has no agenda except the obvious one of saving his ice business, which will obviously suffer due to an eternal winter. Also, Kristoff and Anna don’t really appear to have much in common on the surface.
Throughout the movie’s second act, while the story is mostly following Anna and Kristoff, Hans performs some generic acts of unimpeachable bravery and conscientiousness, all for show as we realize later. At the close of the second act, Anna returns to him and tells him that she’ll die of Ice Magic to the Heart unless he gives her True Love’s Kiss.
Hans: If only someone loved you.
Then Hans monologues about how he always planned to use Anna to climb to the throne of Arendelle. Then he puts out the fire and –
Ouch, metaphor. Ouch.
I think the lesson that is being taught with this character is an important one. It addresses one of the common Young Person Relationship Failure Modes, believing that you have “a lot in common” because you’ve both heard of the same band. It’s also really cheap to signal that you agree with somebody or share somebody’s tastes. “I love My Chemical Romance!” One month later: “Could you change the station? I’m so sick of My Chemical Romance.”
Anna doesn’t really have anything in common with Kristoff. However, they take a liking to each other largely due to proximity, and mutually seeing one another act admirably. They don’t have hobbies or class or even interests in common, but they do share a core compatibility of character. A glance at the success rate of arranged marriages should convince you that proximity is pretty much all that is necessary to form a lasting relationship.
I hesitate from writing with full conviction a sentence such as: “Frozen exposes the standard Hollywood Romance lie that romantic partners should have things in common.” Because it’s really nice to have things in common with your spouse, and there are certainly domains such as morality and ethics in which having different opinions can make things extra-difficult. Perhaps what Frozen accomplishes is that it points out how much we (projected through the obviously naive Anna) overweight these factors, and how this overweighting can lead to make very poor choices in partners.