Love, Fear, and Letting Go

Posted April 12, 2021

Elsa from Disney's Frozen movie
Slash-and-burn crop fires used to darken the sunsets over my African home during the spring months, glowing along the horizon for nights on end.

I know you've heard it.

Maybe you heard it in the movie itself, maybe on the radio at the store, maybe at your niece’s 6-year-old birthday party (and then again at each of the birthday parties of each of the 6-year-old friends she invited), we’ve all heard Frozen’s hit single:

"Let It Go"

The song bursts onto the movie’s scene at a moment when we desperately need to… well… let go, release the power and potential inside, whip off the gloves and shrug aside the cloak of narrow-minded expectations that the controlling world has set upon us — I mean Elsa. It’s no wonder that the song took the world by storm.

I hummed along with the hit for years before I finally started paying attention to the rest of the musical. A few dozen hours and one major obsession later, I began discovering the lyrical turns of phrase that brought the rest of Frozen’s songs to life in the telling of a more holistic story than the one I’d heard from “Let It Go.” I had lost something by playing only the hit as a single, something beautiful. And now it’s got me thinking that maybe, just maybe…

We’ve been singing “Let It Go” all wrong.

Or maybe not. I’ll admit that we are singing it (and occasionally enjoying it) in many ways that are not “wrong,” and I don’t want to belittle the impact of the anthem. But, taken as a whole, the rest of Frozen’s songs are full of hidden phrases and subtle plot hints that make the well-worn musical come completely alive in the context of a new interpretation.

First, the familiar interpretation. 

“Let It Go” is, at one level, a song of freedom and self-expression. After years of suppressing and hiding her gift, Elsa is finally able to shake her hair down and whip up a snowman and an ice palace. Elsa dazzles. Elsa inspires. Elsa blasts her way onto the stage and into control of her future and her gift and her life. Elsa shakes off the cloying fear of what others might think of her and steps confidently into herself.

Bam. We are starstruck. We need this healing, this heroine. Goodbye fear and hiding, helllloooo sweet freedom.

Elsa slamming doors of ice in her ice palace

But wait. What’s this? “Let It Go” ends with a defiantly slammed door. Another door. Elsa’s defining moment of “freedom” ends up shutting her away behind the very thing that hurt her all those years of her childhood.

This abrupt reversal makes about as much sense as a snowman in summer… until we step back to look at the song’s placement in the rest of the Frozen storyline. Before this moment, Elsa has just exploded in fear after her successful coronation, fleeing horrified crowds — and her own horror within — and freezing over the poor fjord town in the process. The world that Elsa just left behind is far from free, wrapped in the consequences of her curse. Thus we come to the crucial “Let It Go” moment with our hearts still in our mouths, and aching.

In this context, “Let It Go” is but another hiccup in Elsa’s journey. (Albeit one of the best hiccups I’ve ever heard. Idina Menzel is amazing.) It is a misunderstanding of freedom, a step backward or sideways instead of the hoped-for arrival. Yes, it is epiphany, as Elsa realizes that her former life of fear has trapped her behind closed doors. But even as she seeks freedom in finding herself, she traps herself in a new and more insidious prison. Her independence becomes isolation, one that Elsa insists has never bothered her anyway.

“Let It Go” isn’t an arrival. It’s a new look on a familiar Lost.

Elsa’s Declaration of Independence is sandwiched between two scenes of quite bothersome cold, as her people and her beloved sister struggle through the frozen aftermath of the Fear that she thinks she’s letting go. The plot is only thickening, far from resolved, and Elsa’s triumph rings as hollow as her crystalline cathedral as the door slams on the final note.

But then… the scene switches. And our aching hearts are seized with a new and desperate hope. Because there, struggling through Elsa’s snowstorm, hurt but unhindered… is Love.

Frozen is a story of Love breaking through Fear’s isolation and suffering.

Love bursts on the scene in its own way — with no song and no splendor, only a persistent and stubborn presence. For laughs, Love is dragging a now-ridiculous summer ballroom dress through waist-deep snow, frozen crispy in a mountain stream, flummoxed by hungry wolves and shelves stocked for summer. Love is Anna: vivacious, impulsive, adorably stubborn, disarmingly real.

Anna from Disney's Frozen movie, stiff and cold in a thin dress in a winter landscape
Slash-and-burn crop fires used to darken the sunsets over my African home during the spring months, glowing along the horizon for nights on end.

And comically oblivious. Anna represents one of the movie’s most brilliant and beautiful ironies: Love doesn’t know itself at first. Anna has suffered for years both outside and within Fear’s closed doors, begging for an entire song’s lifetime to open up and play. We get a sense that Love’s antidote within Anna aches to ooze through cracks and past defenses straight to the fragile hearts locked away. But then, oh the irony… When the castle doors opened in that early scene, Anna flung herself through them and straight into the first open arms she found. She trotted in giddy euphoria around the castle grounds, dueting her newfound happiness in the song that gives us our first foreshadowed clue at the movie’s theme and resolution:

Anna and Prince Hans from Disney's Frozen movie, singing Love is an Open Door

Aha. Once we’ve blinked away the dazzling spotlights of “Let It Go,” we see the threads of hope woven throughout Frozen’s more modest moments. 

The bizarre and ballistic trolls bumble their way into the story with the awkwardly aware observation of Anna’s budding romance, declaring innocently and yet keenly:

Mama Troll: “…Love’s a force that’s powerful and strange. People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed, but throw a little love their way and you’ll bring out their best.”

But as quaint as all that sounds, Love doesn’t win — initially, at least. Love pursues, Love persists, Love is present, and in reward…

Love's heart is pierced. Fatally.

I find no scene and song more powerful than the reprised duet sung between Anna and Elsa once Love has finally reached the Ice Palace. Anna pleads with her isolated sister to thaw the walls between them, saying:

Anna: “Please don’t shut me out again, please don’t slam the door. You don’t have to keep your distance anymore. 

’Cause for the first time in forever, I finally understand. For the first time in forever, we can fix this hand in hand. 

We can head down this mountain together; you don’t have to live in fear. ’Cause for the first time in forever, I will be right here.”

Elsa resists, insisting all parties are better off this way, clinging to the freedom she’s recently claimed:

Elsa: “Yes I’m alone, but I’m alone and free. Just stay away and you’ll be safe from me.”

But Anna sees through the hollow promises of “freedom” and “safety,” and calls out the pain Elsa’s isolation has caused. As Elsa’s panic mounts over her discovery of Fear’s consequences, their voices crescendo together:

Anna: For the first time in forever (Elsa: Oh, I’m such a fool, I can’t be free!)

You don’t have to be afraid (No escape from the storm inside of me!)

We can work this out together (I can’t control the curse!)

We’ll reverse the storm you’ve made (Oh Anna please you’ll only make it worse!)

Don’t panic (There’s so much fear!)

We’ll make the sun shine bright (You’re not safe here!)

We can face this thing together (No!)

We can change this winter weather (I — )

And everything will be all right (I can’t!)

And with that duet’s final climax, Elsa’s ice blades explode in a protective circle around her, piercing Anna through the heart. The music collapses ominously with echoes of the prologue’s warning: Beware the frozen heart. Elsa’s Fear outsources to the ice giant Marshmallow who banishes Love from the castle in a harrowing mountain chase.

Anna's heart is pierced by an icy blast of fear from her sister Elsa

I could say more, but of course I don’t want to spoil the twist (someone somewhere hasn’t seen it yet… right?) and the crucial decision of the movie’s climax, where Love’s truest act of sacrifice above and against Fear begins the thaw of frozen hearts and frozen worlds. I will end with this, because it is worth thawing the edge off my words:

Elsa's power is beautiful.

The power itself is not the enemy, as the movie movingly demonstrates by the end. Power is just power — containing within itself the potential for beauty or destruction. It is precisely that potential that gives power its… well, power. But neither isolation nor independence are ideal responses to power; both lead to fear and suffering. The musical Frozen, taken as a whole, presents an alternative path:

Frozen invites us to throw open the doors when we hear Love knocking, to soften under the powerful and strange force of Love that we will never understand and never control.

There. Take it or leave it, but at least go listen to the rest of the musical and let its moments surprise you. And with that final plea, I promise I will let it go.