Walt Disney’s animated movie Frozen has been around for quite a while now. Tons of people have seen it since it came out in 2013 making it the “highest grossing musical and animated movie of all time”, and many thoughts about that film have been shared. I confess that I like it a lot. Well, ok, my daughter just turned six. She fell for it like all the other girls in her age group, so eventually I kind of had to watch it, too. Frozen is funny and witty and, yes, cute. Its characters are relatively complex, the animation is marvellous, and the songs are, well, catchy.
The question about Frozen that keep nagging me does not so much concern the musical or visual style or the jokes in the film or suchlike. I don’t mind what the Disney people did to Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen (Snedronningen, 1845) either. Why not adapt it and turn it into something completely different? What I have been wondering about is what kind of time and place the film is set in. There seems to be a pretty simple and straightforward answer to this: „Frozen“ is set in the Kingdom of Arandelle, in a land of fjords and mountains that looks a lot like Scandinavia. The clothes worn and the technology used by the characters hint at the mid-nineteenth century, the time Andersen wrote and published his story. It happens to be the same temporal setting Kenneth Branagh transferred his movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark to (Hamlet, 1996).
Obviously, there has never been any kingdom called Arandelle in real history. Nonetheless, IMDB lists numerous convincing reasons (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2294629/trivia) for supposing that Arandelle is not just anywhere in Scandinavia, but rather more precisely, in Norway, albeit in some kind of Norwegian “fairy-tale” parallel universe, although the Norse language that we hear spoken by the bishop in the coronation scene is, according to IMDB, Icelandic (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2294629/?ref_=nv_sr_1). This is hardly surprising since there can be little doubt that most Americans do not differentiate much between separate places or even countries let alone different ages in Scandinavia, real or fictional, especially when the story is a Disney fairy-tale fantasy in the tradition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Cinderella (1950). The name Arandelle harks back and the place itself bears great resemblance to Rivendell, the Elven outpost in Middle-Earth in H. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954/5). It can thus be assumed that the events recounted in Frozen take place in a Scandinavian kingdom named Arandelle, in some romanticised version of a non-specific “fairy-tale” past.
Prince Hans, the sinister character who first pretends to be deeply in love with Princess Anna and then tries to kill both her and her sister, Queen Elsa, in order to become the sole ruler of Arandelle, is a Prince of the Kingdom of the Southern Isles. In the Norse kulturkreis of old, there once actually was a kingdom named Suðreyjar (“Southern Isles”), in English commonly known as the “Kingdom of the Isles”, comprising the Hebrides, the islands of the Firth of Clyde and the Isle of Man and existing from the 9th to the 13th century. A third country that is named in the film is the Duchy of Weselton, an important trading partner of Arandelle. Arandelle and the Southern Isles are both kingdoms and therefore formally equal in terms of premodern constitutional thought. Weselton, however, being but a duchy, is a political entity whose ruler, the Duke of Weselton, enjoys a lesser rank than the princes who rule over Arandelle and the Southern Isles, respectively. This does not necessarily mean than either Arandelle or the Southern Isles enjoy a position of souzereignty over Weselton. We do not know whether Weselton is part of any kingdom at all or whether it may be an independent country in any modern or premodern sense. On two instances, Weselton is called “Weazletown” in the movie, once by mistake and once in mockery of the duke. This may allude to Weselton being the name not only of the duchy but also of a town therein. In recent European history, most dominions whose names are derived from those of a town have been relatively small: Luxembourg or Brandenburg come to mind. It may be supposed that the Duchy is Weselton is a dominion that is smaller and less powerful than Arandelle. According to the duke, Weselton is Arandelle’s “closest partner in trade”, but it seems that maintaining a good business relationship is much more crucial for Weselton than it is for its partner. The queen of Arandelle can easily afford to send a court official to the duke to present him with a spontaneously written decree according to which “Arandelle will henceforth and forever no longer do business of any sort with Weazletown”, as a punishment, and kick him out of Arandalle. Prince Hans is first knocked overboard by Princess Anna in a sudden outburst of violence and consecutively sent back to the Southern Isles as prisoner of a man who speaks in a French accent and is addressed as “Mylord” by said court official. The way the prince and the duke are treated and the fact that all foreign emissaries patiently remain in Arandelle’s royal castle to see out the unnatural winter crisis point to a very strong political position Arandelle is in vis-à-vis its neighbours.
Arandelle is presented as an absolute monarchy without any signs of the monarch sharing his or her power with any other person or institution. There are not even any visible advisors. Nonetheless, there is no palpable tension. The absolute royal power is not called into question, and the population seems to be quite content with that state of affairs. This may seem strange, for, as a Disney production, the film is 100 per cent American. The constitutional situation of Arandelle around the time of the events narrated in Frozen is a far cry from what Americans, who typically are very proud of their special relationship to Democracy, would normally call ideal. It seems that either all that democratic idealism simply does not apply in dealing with animated movies set in some non-distinct “fairy-tale” past or that the film-makers assumed that American audiences could not imagine a society outside the US, in some sort of past, and with a monarchical system of government to be anything else but some sort of dictatorship, albeit perhaps a benign one. Arandelle’s constitutional situation becomes increasingly odd when King Agdar and Queen Idun lose their lives in a shipwreck. We do not know who runs the country in the absence of a monarch of age. The regime of strict seclusion imposed on the girls by King Adgar upon the accident in which Princess Elsa hurts Princess Anna with her ice magic survives him until Queen Elsa turns 21 and is crowned with a tiny diadem in a pretty austere ceremony. On the day of the coronation, the gates of the castle are opened to the public, and the girls’ monastic lives come to an end. The crowds flocking to the castle refer to Elsa as “Queen Elsa” even before her actual coronation. Hence she must have become queen either automatically at the moment of her father’s death, similar to the constitutional situation in the UK, or she has somehow become queen at some point after the shipwreck and before her coronation. Her right to the throne is not disputed by anyone. It seems fair to assume that the monarchy of Arandelle is hereditary, as most Americans take it for granted that monarchies are always hereditary, and that the succession of a female monarch does not constitute any difficulty.
The coronation ceremony is carried out by a man dressed in episcopal robes and referred to as “bishop” in the end titles of the film. In fact, the actual norske kirke, the Church of Norway, is Lutheran in doctrine but has retained the Apostolic Succession and an episcopal structure. However, the ceremony contains no obviously Christian elements. There is no cross in the small churchlike hall where the coronation takes place. Instead, there is an emblem faintly resembling a fleur-de-lis behind the altar and on the bishop’s mitre. That symbol also features on the banners and elsewhere. Arandelle’s monarchy is intrinsically connected with some religion that looks like a politically correct, non-offensive reflection of Christianity, rather than actual. No reference to God is made in the ritual. Right after Queen Elsa has been crowned by the bishop, she picks up the orb and the sceptre and briefly presents the insignia of royal power to the people assembled while the bishop speaks some solemn words of acclamation, presumably in Icelandic. This concludes the ceremony. During the presentation of the royal insignia, the queen is prohibited from wearing her gloves.
At the ensuing party, it becomes clear that Queen Elsa has finally taken over the full royal power – seemingly from some invisible regent or council. The only other person of any apparent import is the court official who presents Queen Elsa and Princess Anna to the guests. He is the same official who later reads the queen’s decree to the Duke of Weselton. The queen refuses to give her consent to her sister’s marriage and things come to a head when the queen stops the party and the queen’s magical powers get out of hand. It is not clear why Anna needs Elsa’s consent. Queen Elsa could have become her underage sister’s guardian upon her own coming of age or the coronation or both; or the consent of the King or Queen of Arandelle in his or her capacity as head of the royal house is necessary for any marriage in the royal family to be legal. Queen Elsa, in panic, leaves the quickly freezing castle and her capital behind to find refuge on North Mountain where she builds herself a castle of ice and continues to rule as queen. In “Let It Go” she sings: “a kingdom of isolation; it looks like I’m the queen”. Seconds later she tosses away the diadem with which she was crowned Queen of Arandelle. In doing so she may renounce her role as Queen of Arandelle but not her royalty.
Meanwhile in the royal palace of Arandelle, the underage Princess Anna has suddenly taken power, only to put Prince Hans “in charge” in her absence while she goes after her sister. Surprisingly, the constitutionality of this is not doubted by anyone present. It may be argued that the exceptional circumstances simply call for a drastic measure, but it is striking how the whole machinery of the Kingdom of Arandelle suddenly comes to a complete standstill as a result the unexpected departure of its head and how easily the queen’s little sister can take and delegate control – to a foreign prince. There are two possible explanations. Either we are dealing with a coup d’état here or there is indeed some constitutional mechanism that automatically transfers the absolute royal power to the person next in the line to the throne in a serious emergency, regardless of that person’s age. However, considering that before Queen Elsa turned 21 the two sisters were completely powerless and confined to their respective parts of the palace with some mysterious person of group of persons running the palace and the country, the notion of such a constitutional mechanism seems highly unlikely.
As a consequence of these chaotic and presumably unconstitutional events, Prince Hans takes the risk to try to dispose of the sisters and assume absolute power for himself. He may be lying to the courtiers and to the foreign dignitaries in the castle about what happened to the sisters, but again nobody challenges his judgment and actions.
When Queen Elsa is restored to power and Princess Anna has been revived, the Queen deals with her opponents in the way described above and all contradictions are reconciled. Even though the immensely destructive potential of the Queen’s magical power has become apparent, she is no longer regarded as a “sorcerer” or a “monster”. On the contrary, her power is more undisputed than ever and she manages to turn her magical power into a harmless asset conjuring an ice rink in the palace courtyard for everybody to enjoy. Kristoff the ice dealer and Anna the royal princess seem to be a couple in the end; class distinctions are not an issue at all, in spite of the hitherto clearly non-democratic structure of Arandelle’s society. The castle is open and stays open to the public. Maybe things have suddenly changed for the better after all.
And what about the trolls? Apart from the fact that the trolls are not ghastly, huge and vile as they are elsewhere in literature, e.g. The Lord of the Rings, but a bunch of cuddly, funny, singing, dancing “love experts”, what will their future role be in the new order established by Queen Elsa’s magical reign? Will they be able to shake their own patriarchy under the rule of head troll Pabbie? Will they be integrated into human society or remain their distance? What about Marshmellow the snow monster, who, in the after-credits extra shot finds and dons Queen Elsa diadem and suddenly turns friendly? And finally, what about Olaf the cuddly snowman? Does he really have a future? What are the implications of the Queen’s ability to create intelligent life from water that hasn’t even been there before? Is that sort of thing really healthy? Does God approve of this? So many questions …