Thanks to Master Cat! Cory Milles for this heart-melting breakdown of Disney’s smash hit.
Writers: Jennifer Lee (screenplay); Hans Christian Anderson (story: “The Snow Queen”); Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and Shane Morris (story)
Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Genre: Buddy Love
Opening Image: A single snowflake drifts through the sky, its crystals developing into a unique shape, followed by more snowflakes doing the same. As the title lingers on the screen, it quickly fades to an image from the perspective of under the ice as men saw through it.
Set-Up: In the Kingdom of Arendelle, Anna (voice, Kristen Bell) and her older sister Elsa (voice, Idina Menzel) play together, living a life with a happy childhood. Anna wakes Elsa up, asking her if they can build a snowman. While Anna is a normal child, Elsa is anything but: she has been born with the power to create ice and snow from her hands, and she can manipulate it at will. The girls play in a giant room in the castle, with Elsa creating huge mounds of snow for Anna to slide down and hop across. They continue to giggle and play until Elsa starts to lose some control of her abilities, and she accidentally hits Anna in the head with her powers, knocking her unconscious.
Strands of Anna’s hair are turned white, and their parents rush her to a group of mountain trolls. The troll elder is able to save Anna just in time, but he cautions the king and queen to shield Anna from Elsa’s powers to prevent another accident. He alters the memories Anna has of Elsa’s powers, making her forget the uniqueness her sister possesses.
Theme Stated: As the troll elder heals Anna, he tells the king and queen that they are lucky the magic did not hit her heart. “The heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded,” he tells them. He then addresses Elsa, saying that her powers can be something of great beauty, but she must learn to control them, and that fear will be her greatest enemy. This bit of foreshadowing will be the focus of the story: Anna will need to learn what it truly means to love, and Elsa will be the key to all of this.
Set-Up (Continued): Anna and Elsa grow up in the same household, yet totally separated from each other in an effort to protect Anna. Anna can’t understand why her sister won’t play with her anymore, coming to her door and continually pleading with her to build a snowman like they used to. As they grow in age, their father cautions Elsa to wear gloves to prevent her powers from manifesting; they must remain a secret from everyone. “Conceal; don’t feel,” he tells her.
Eventually, their parents are lost at sea, and Anna is lonelier than ever before. She longs for a time when she can interact with the world outside.
In the Set-Up, the Things That Need Fixing are evident: Anna is lonely, Elsa is afraid and must contend with her powers, their parents are gone and can no longer guide them, and the two must reconcile with each other, finding the love that they once had.
Catalyst: As Elsa comes of age and is heir to the throne, the time for her coronation is at hand. “For the first time in forever,” as Anna sings, the kingdom is actually open. For Anna, this is a joyous occasion, as she will have the opportunity to interact with the world outside. For Elsa, this is yet another time of fear for her, as she must control her abilities.
Debate: As the castle walls fill with guests, both girls wonder what this will mean for them and for their future. The Duke of Weselton arrives and is eager to trade with Arendelle, suspicious about why the kingdom’s walls have been closed for so long.
Anna is eager to meet “the one” to share her life with, while Elsa is afraid of what might happen if she cannot control her powers. Can she harness them for this one day? Will her sister still love her? Will the subjects of the kingdom accept her or see her as a monster if something goes wrong?
Elsa is able to control her abilities when she takes off her gloves at the ceremony, but the day is not over yet. After the ceremony, she and Anna speak to each other for the first time in years, beginning to rekindle their love. While Elsa is still apprehensive about any social interaction, Anna meets a young prince named Hans, the youngest of 13 brothers. As the day passes, Anna falls more and more in love with him, ultimately accepting his proposal of marriage. When the two go to ask for Elsa’s blessing, Anna is angry when Elsa does not give it. She lashes out at her sister, unable to understand why Elsa doesn’t want her to be happy.
In a slip of her emotions, Elsa unleashes her powers in front of everyone at the ball. Fear fills the room, which only causes things to get worse for her. She flees as Anna watches in shock, their world turning into an icy wasteland in a matter of minutes. The Duke of Weselton wants to hunt her down, accusing her of sorcery and of being a monster, but Anna has another plan.
Break into Two: Anna goes after Elsa, leaving Prince Hans in charge of her kingdom while she is gone. She must leave her familiar life of safety and isolation and step out into the upside-down world of the frozen outdoors.
B Story: While Anna attempts to cope with the freezing cold, her horse runs off, and she stumbles upon a small trading post and enters it, where she also meets Kristoff (voice, Jonathan Groff), who sells ice for a living.
Fun & Games: At the trading post, Anna is able to find some winter clothes, but Kristoff has an argument with the owner and is thrown out. Anna bands together with him, needing his help on her journey.
Meanwhile, Elsa has found refuge and has used her powers — for the first time without repercussions — to create a magnificent ice palace. It is the only time she has ever felt truly free and uninhibited. She can embrace her abilities, seeing them as something wonderful rather than as a curse.
Anna, along with Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, journey up the mountain. Kristoff questions her future marriage to Hans, but they are soon attacked by a pack of wolves. Further on, they encounter a jovial talking snowman, Olaf (voice, Josh Gad), who is eerily similar to one that Anna remembers Elsa making in their childhood. Olaf joins them, singing about how he desires to see summer weather, not knowing what this would entail for him. But Olaf’s appearance is an indicator that they are close to finding Elsa. He leads them to Elsa’s ice palace, while back at the kingdom, Anna’s horse returns without her, and Hans recruits some men to go and confront the queen.
Midpoint: Arriving at Elsa’s ice palace, Anna marvels at what her sister could create. She finds Elsa inside and pleads with her to return, claiming that together, they can solve the problem. Elsa refuses, relishing her freedom, but Anna tells her that her actions have caused a winter condition that only Elsa can reverse. The stakes have been raised, and only get higher when Elsa begs her sister to leave, accidentally hitting her in the heart with an icy blast. This brings the theme forward in a literal way. Anna doesn’t realize it at first, but if she doesn’t find help soon, her heart will freeze, killing her.
Bad Guys Close In: Elsa kicks Anna and Kristoff out of her ice palace, creating a huge ice creature to chase them off. Anna and Kristoff are pursued by it until they fall off the mountain to the snow drift below. When Kristoff realizes that Anna’s hair is turning white from the blast to her heart, he races her to the only ones he knows who can help: the trolls that raised him, the same ones who had saved Anna once before, to which he was a witness. The trolls believe that Anna and Kristoff are in love, although they both deny it. They hint at the theme, singing that sometimes people do things out of fear that they would not otherwise do, and that love will help show them the way.
The elder troll comes forward and says that there is nothing he can do to heal Anna; only an act of true love can heal a frozen heart. Anna realizes this must mean “true love’s first kiss” from Hans, and Kristoff races her back to Arendelle.
Meanwhile, Hans and his band of men have arrived at Elsa’s ice palace, only to confront the snow creature and fight it. The Duke of Weselton’s men storm the palace and attack Elsa, causing her to unleash the full brunt of her powers, almost killing them in the process. During the battle, she is knocked out and awakens in a prison cell back at the castle, her hands manacled by iron. Hans tells her that Anna hasn’t returned, and Elsa despairs.
Kristoff arrives at the castle gates, leaving Anna in the care of her staff to bring her to Hans for a kiss. When Hans arrives and Anna tells him this, he reveals his true nature; he was merely using her to obtain the throne.
All Is Lost: Hans leaves Anna in a cold room to die, then informs the staff that Anna is dead, and lies as he declares that they had said their marriage vows. Assuming the position of the throne, he charges Elsa with treason and sentences her to death. The whiff of death is in the air for both Anna and Elsa.
Dark Night of the Soul: As Anna struggles to stay alive, Olaf appears and kindles a fire to help her. He muses about how much Kristoff helped her, and as he looks out the window into the distance, he sees Kristoff racing back toward Arendelle. Anna then realizes that it is Kristoff, not Hans, who can give her “true love’s first kiss” and save her.
Break into Three: Anna and Olaf attempt to make it out of the castle to meet Kristoff, who is racing toward Arendelle and the swirling vortex of snow and ice that envelops it.
Finale: Anna and Olaf find a way out of the castle and step onto the icy fjord, her heart freezing more and more by the minute. As Kristoff races toward her, Hans finds Elsa alone on the ice, telling her that Anna has died as a result of her inability to control her powers. Anna sees Kristoff getting closer, but then spies Hans raise a sword from behind Elsa, ready to kill. Digging down deep, Anna leaps in front of the sword, freezing into solid ice right as Hans slices downward, his sword shattering upon impact.
Elsa sees what her powers have wrought and despairs, realizing the sacrifice Anna made for her. It is at this moment that Anna begins to thaw; the act of true love had come from within, healing her frozen heart. Elsa realizes that love conquers fear, and she soon embraces this as a way to balance her abilities.
Final Image: As the kingdom returns back to normal, Elsa sees her powers as a beautiful gift, not as a curse. Hans is returned to his own land, and the Duke of Weselton is forever banished from Arendelle. Elsa vows to Anna that they will never close the gates of the kingdom again and proceeds to use her abilities to inspire awe in the townsfolk, creating a winter wonderland in the palace courtyard.
Love has conquered all; it has healed a frozen heart and has reunited the two sisters once again.