Exploring Dante’s Inferno in Disney’s Frozen

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Disney’s Frozen might be the most Christian movie that I have seen this year. That’s saying a lot since Man of Steel was self-consciously trying to be the most Christian movie of 2013. I could probably write a post about how Frozen is a better allegory for the Christian gospel than C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but if I did, my colleagues at HBU might run me out of the university on a rail.

But I don’t want to talk about the Good News in Frozen, I want to talk about the Bad News. Don’t worry. I’m not going to spoil anything that’s not already in the trailer.

Elsa is a young queen, and she can’t seem to control her supernatural ability to freeze things. She runs to the mountain to get away from her problems, and once there she creates a palace of ice and sings with gelid abandon. Her song is one of defiance. She doesn’t need anyone else. She will be true to herself for the first time. She needs freedom.

Except, is Elsa really free? She’s trapped herself in an ice palace, and she’s all alone. She’s not free. By indulging her gift, she’s imprisoned herself.

While watching this scene I was overwhelmed with memories of Dante’s Inferno. In the Inferno, Dante takes a trip through nine circles of hell, telling about the sinners and punishments he sees along the way. When Dante gets to the very bottom of hell he finds Satan. But the bottom of hell isn’t a fiery pit, as most of us would suspect, it’s a frozen wasteland, and Satan is frozen up to his waist in ice.

Satan has six great wings, and every time he flaps them, they produce an icy blast that further freezes him in place. His wings were a gift, but since he is trying to use his gift to serve himself rather than God, his wings have become a curse.

Satan and Elsa suffer from the same desire. They both long to be free. Elsa wants the freedom to be herself by shedding obligations to family and society. Satan wants to fly. Nothing says freedom more than flight. In both instances their desire for freedom imprisons them in ice. Ice of their own making.

I also detect echoes from Milton’s Paradise Lost when Elsa sings, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!” Disney depicts Elsa’s fall in a manner consistent with the Western literary tradition’s picture of humanity’s decent into sin. We call license “freedom,” and it enslaves us. Luckily for Elsa, a redeemer is coming to rescue her instead of leaving her trapped in her frozen hell.

I don’t know if the filmmakers were actually reading Dante and Milton when they wrote Elsa’s scene. But at the very least, the same eternal truth seems to have inspired them all. Real freedom can never be found through allegiance to self.

37 thoughts on “Exploring Dante’s Inferno in Disney’s Frozen

  1. I had some of the same thoughts about this movie when I took my kids to see it last week. Definitely up there as one of my favorite Disney movies (may have moved into the top spot actually). Fantastic themes, stunning visuals, and the snowman was hilarious.

  2. Wow… great post. I had all the same thoughts that you had. But I didn’t have the words nor the background in literature to back up the viewpoints. I will say that the movie went from good to great when the act of love in the end wound up not being the same old romantic story every other Disney theme seems to have had. at least most. Unfortunately I know many that did not like it for that same reason. Sad really. What good is a movie or a song if you cant grow from the message it gives. there are many bad movies and songs but this movie was a great one.

  3. SPOILERS ALERT!!!!!!

    Is it just me or was the film particularly refreshing when it came to thinking about the nature of love? Love is explicitly distinguished from euphoric infatuation, and seemingly being kindred spirits. Elsa is rightly suspicious that you would really be in love with someone you met only earlier in the evening. Love is later defined as favouring someone else’s interests over your own. Finally, the main love celebrated at the end of the film is (for once) not a romantic love. All those things are so rare these days in films, maybe especially children’s films and I was really encouraged to see them getting airtime.

  4. I’m a little not okay with this article, since Elsa wanted freedom from hurting people, people treating her like a monster (or the danger of that happening), and the constant fear of who she is.
    Indulging in her power without the ability to control it does sink her kingdom in an arctic wasteland, but she indulges well enough at the end because she’s come to understand it.
    I take your point, but I think the foundation for the kind of allegory you’re arguing for is a bit off.

    1. Jessica, this morning I read on IMDB that Elsa was originally written to be the film’s villain. However, The producers liked the song “Let It Go” so much that they told the director/screenwriter to rewrite her. This information concerning the development stage helps clarify things. We’re picking up on two different aspects of the character that really do seem incongruent. I’m seeing thematic remnants of the villain, and you’re seeing the details of the rewrite. It’s hard to talk about what the filmmakers intended when they don’t all intend the same thing.

      1. Hello professor Garbariono, my name is SunGyo Kim. I’m a theology student in Seoul Korea and now prepareing to enter the gradute course. I was very appreciated after reading your article of Frozen. Your article was introduced by some korean internet news channels so I could find you. One of my concerning is ‘how to understand contemporory culture by Christian World View’. And your idea helps me very well.
        But when I saw the movie first, I was different. For me, ‘Elsa’s let it go’ looked like ‘Übermensch of Nietzsche’. Some christian pholosophiers said Nietzesche opened the post-modernism and they could find many Nietzshe’s philosophical ancestors nowadays. So I think Elsa is a simbol of Nietzsche and it means the people who follow him, eagering to find free by detaching God, rules, orthodoxy and relationship others. How do you think about it?
        If you OK, I want to talk about it via e-mail and listen your comment.

      2. I definitely think one can draw parallels between Nietzsche’s Supermen and Elsa’s time on the mountain. All of these images have a similar perspective on the world. I’m thankful that audiences got to see Elsa saved from this self-centered attitude through her sister’s sacrificial love.

      3. Thanks for your response. And there is another information that could be ‘fact’. People know that Disney changed Elsa’s character because of the song “Let it Go”. But Frozen team denounced that’s rumor. I read an article informed interview of Forzen team. In this interview, Elsa’s character is changed through long time naturely, not because of Elsa’s song. But it is true that first Elsa was real villian.

        ” I definitely think one can draw parallels between Nietzsche’s Supermen and Elsa’s time on the mountain. All of these images have a similar perspective on the world. ”

        So you agreed parallels between Nietzshe’s Supermen and Elsa’s song. In this point, We could try to explain more things. Why people like ‘Let it go’, why the song is So powerful, and what’s the problem of the song’s world view. Nietzshe removed all upper things including metaphysics to find human nature. In her case, I mean Elsa, she was trying to not feel lower things ‘magic’. On the mountain, she completely removed upper things. But really removed it? No. Still she confused and suffered. She tried not to feel upper things like rules, right and wrong. However the crystals kept grow.

        And I have new parallels of Frozen, specially ‘trolls’. I’m worry that it needs long story. Here is your own personal place, not me. I want to keep in touch with you for Frozen. So I think e-mail would be better. If you allow me, I’ll send you and lets have a discussion. I want to share my idea and listen your opinion.

  5. It took a bit of nudging but I was able to get your feminist acquaintance’s actual reason for her conclusion out;

    MaryAnn Johanson your hostess Elixe
    • an hour ago

    The fact most certainly is NOT that it’s “pretty obvious” that a Baptist writer does not want to equate Elsa with Satan when he’s actually, you know, comparing them. Not with Christianity’s ongoing vilification of women and feminism. Not when the writer in question states publicly that “much of my thinking has been formed by the fifth-century bishop Augustine of Hippo.”

    Augustine’s views on women are appalling, and are hugely responsible for the Catholic Church’s retrograde attitudes toward women to this day.

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