As the father of a toddler, the movie Frozen—and all the songs that go with it—are kind of important in my family. We watched it for the first time several months ago when my daughter was sick. I think I got through forty-five minutes then. It is hard for a toddler—sick or otherwise—to sit still for an hour and a half. Since then, the movie has been on countless times at Grandma’s or Auntie’s house, and I have sat and watched it, but could never seem to make it past the hour mark. Although I have serious gripes with the storytelling and narrative pacing, I was always curious about how the movie ends. That’s partly why I picked it up last night on my way home from work. My wife wanted to have a movie night, I knew my daughter loved Frozen, and what the heck, there was still some mystery in it for me. My daughter sat with me for the first hour or so (per the usual) and then she climbed all over the place as I watched the last half hour. I was floored, and not just by the ending, but by the whole experience.
First of all, as a parent, there is nothing greater than seeing your kids happy. And having my daughter light up when a song came on and then get up and dance around in a way that only she can had my eyes watering at several points. Say what you will about Disney and kids movies, but Frozen means something to kids, which makes it mean something for parents. But unlike most kid movies that try to keep adults entertained by sprinkling in adult jokes, Frozen’s message has real impact. In fact, it kind of changed my outlook on life, at least for now.
For those of you that don’t know, Frozen is about a young queen named Elsa who has great power to control ice. As a child, she inadvertently injures her younger sister, Anna, resulting in guilt and fear that would haunt her the rest of her life. On her coronation day, Elsa loses control of the powers she has tried so hard to conceal, and flees to a snowy peak to isolate herself while the surrounding lands are consumed by an eternal winter. Everything moves on from there.
The moral message of the film is conventional in many ways. It is about letting go of fear and letting love in. But there’s more to it than a simple platitude. I know this, because I know how Elsa feels. I know what it means to be afraid, and to try so hard to hide who you really are (or who you think you really are) from other people. Ever since I was a kid, I have suffered from depression. I am suffering from it right now. And some of the effects of depression are compulsive thoughts, intense feelings of guilt, and a firm conviction that you are fundamentally fucked up. That’s a pretty nasty combination of feelings that can take a person to a very bad place mentally. I’ve been there, and I’ve been there recently. So when Elsa says things like “this storm will rage inside forever, I can’t control it,” you can’t truly know what that means unless you have felt a similar storm that you try your damnedest to calm, but can’t.
That’s the thing with depression. People on the outside think that depressed people can will themselves out of depression if they only try hard enough, but the depressed person is working hard all the time. I am a parent who loves my daughter, and everyday I play with her and make her smile and laugh and this brings me great joy. And every moment I feel like I am fighting a war against myself to defend against destructive thoughts. Everything seems fine on the outside, but it is a constant battle on the inside, and it is exhausting. People don’t understand how much effort it takes to be depressed. So as I am watching Elsa, I feel like I am watching an externalization of my own inner struggle. I understand her pain and anguish, and not just in a general sense. I understand it in its particularity.
That might sound weird considering Elsa has magic powers, and I’m just a depressed thirty-year-old with a 9-5 job who just can’t seem to get his shit together. But imagine if the cause of all of Elsa’s soul crippling fear and guilt wasn’t magic ice powers, but a perceived inner deficiency that was hidden from everyone. Imagine if that “swirling storm inside” was something that could never be externalized because it only existed within her own psyche. What if that deep conviction that she could inadvertently hurt and damage other people was purely internalized. Wouldn’t that be worse? Without any tangible thing to hold up and say “this is what I am afraid of,” wouldn’t that storm just destroy her? And if that were the case, wouldn’t it be obvious that the film wasn’t a feel-good fantasy story, but a story about the day-to-day struggles of depression? So yeah, I know how Elsa feels. I know the unique kind of pain (and it is a bowl-you-over-and-leave-you-trembling-in-a-heap kind of pain) that these self-destructive thoughts and beliefs can cause.
And this brings us to the ending, and the thing that ends Elsa’s torment. A profound love for her sister and her kingdom restores summer to the land, and from the look of it, everything is well and good. The complex tale of inner struggle is easily cured by that panacea of panaceas—love. But this ending isn’t as trite as it might seem. Because the sequel to Frozen that Disney will never make occurs two to three months after this great restoration. Fear and guilt start to creep back in to Elsa’s thoughts. She starts thinking about how she hurt the person she loves most in the world, and replays that primal scene in her mind in a constant loop. She looks in the mirror and sees a wounded and dangerous animal instead of a beautiful young woman. And over time, she will once again become convinced that she doesn’t deserve love. She will leave the castle and the people she loves and seek solitude on the mountain. And after great struggle and the love and support of her family, she will eventually make her way down again. But even this won’t be the end. The same process will happen again and again. And each time she will feel like the storm raged harder and longer than the time before.
Maybe the tale of depression is too depressing to tell. And maybe hope for a lifetime of emotional ups and downs is too hopeless a proposition. But damn, do those times of joy and love and surrender feel fucking good.