Anna, Denmark, Elsa, Faerie Tale Theatre, faerie tale theatre reviews, fairy tale, fairy tale adaptation, fairy tale history, fairy tale origins, fairy tales, fairytale, flying reindeer, flying sled, flying sleigh, Frozen, frozen heart, garden, goblin, Grandma, grandmother, grandmother's house, hans christian andersen, ice, ice castle, Kay, kristoff, Lee Remick, magic garden, magic mirror, memory wipe, mirror, mirror shard, north pole, Olaf, reindeer, robber girl, roses, shard, shelley duvall, snow bees, snow magic, snow powers, snow queen, snowflakes, space, talking animal, talking tree, the snow queen, tree
“Cold be hot and friends be kind when love unites the heart and mind.”
– The Snow Queen’s moral wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a slide puzzle
I might as well get this out of the way, my feelings toward Frozen are…mixed. Granted, I understand why the story was altered to the point of barely resembling its literary counterpart. Hans Christian Andersen painted the original fairy tale with a ton of heavy Christian overtones that can be preachy at times. Said original is also very episodic like most of Andersen’s works, which means changes for the screen aren’t just inevitable but encouraged.
I stand by what I’ve said before about alterations in adapting fairy tales, they need to be done for modern audiences. The problem lies in the story completely shifting so the filmmakers can soapbox in as ham-fisted a manner as possible about past Disney romances being unrealistic, and then said story balloons in popularity to such a degree that Disney can’t go five minutes without pushing it in your face at the cost of other excellent films, and…well, that’s when one tends to grow more critical over it over time.
But what of the narrative that inspired Frozen in the first place? The Snow Queen is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most popular tales, as well as his longest. The story is divided into seven chapters and is almost novel length. As this is a fairytale from Andersen, The Snow Queen is wholly authentic; it’s been speculated, however, that he based the cold-hearted character on one of his unrequited loves.
You know how some people write to cope and provide happy endings where real life couldn’t? Andersen wrote like a teenager using fanfiction to vent.
Andersen included a different origin story for The Snow Queen in his biography: his sick father on his deathbed drew a figure not unlike a woman with outstretched arms on the icy window, and joked to his young son “She comes to fetch me.” He died soon after, and Andersen’s mother told him “The Ice Maiden has fetched him.” This “Ice Maiden” has her own story separate from the Snow Queen, but the idea of coldness connected with death, specifically in form of an elegant but dangerous woman, is a reoccurring motif in many of Andersen’s fables.
Another symbol that can be found here as well as other Andersen stories is that of the wise beloved grandmother, a nod to Andersen’s own grandmother from whom he learned many Danish fairy tales. Bible imagery is also included in The Snow Queen as previously stated, from various Christian verses worked into the text, to the main conflict being kicked off by a school of demons trying to reach God with their evil mirror and getting struck down like the Tower of Babel. The Snow Queen is rife with the themes of growing up, devotion, bravery and love conquering all – but unlike Frozen, the love between our main characters is supposed to be read as platonic, not romantic.
I promise that this will not be a review bashing Frozen, but the differences between it and the source material are like night and day. Revisiting The Snow Queen I was reminded of how many missed opportunities there were to tell a very different story about love, adventure and maturity in a compelling way. No one work of fiction should be held as the definitive version as nearly all stories deserve to be retold. So for the sake of this review and for all the angry Frozen fans that are going to come after me, can we just…
Our story begins IN SPAAAAAAAAAAACE with a goblin in his flying laboratory, as you do. This goblin delights in spreading mischief and mayhem across the galaxies. He turns his sights to a planet called Earth, which isn’t miserable enough for him apparently. His telescope falls upon two children who are the best of friends, Gerda and Kay. They meet up on the rooftop garden connecting their houses where they play games and grow roses together. Kay affirms their friendship by giving Gerda a locket.
By the way, I say children but what I really mean is teenagers. I get that it would be difficult to have kids carry such an emotional script but the age difference in whom they’re trying to portray is really distracting.
The next time we see the “children”, summer has turned to winter. Gerda and Kay debate the merits of the opposing seasons during their lessons. Gerda’s grandmother, who acts as their tutor, gives a nice little circle of life speech about how each season feeds into the other and how the honeybees would work themselves to death to keep everything growing if there were no seasons.
Kay asks a somewhat tangential question: why do people call snowflakes “the white bees”? According to Grandmother, people thought snow flurries looked like swarming bees. I have never once called them that in my life, but maybe this is a Danish thing. These “bees” have a queen of their own, a mysterious and cold one. Kay says he’ll catch the Snow Queen if he sees her, but Gerda and her grandmother warn him not to mess with nature.
Meanwhile, the goblin is putting the finishing touches on his fiendish plan: a mirror that magnifies the worst aspects of whatever it reflects until all it shows is ugliness and filth.
The goblin shatters the mirror into thousands of tiny snow-like pieces over Kay, who’s sitting out on the roof with Gerda searching for the Snow Queen. A shard falls into his eye, and he instantly becomes hateful and nasty towards Gerda and everything around him; ie. he acts his real age. The only thing he shows any admiration for is the perfect crystalline beauty of the snowflakes.
Gerda’s had enough of Kay’s dickishness and says they can continue looking for the Snow Queen tomorrow. Kay shouts to the heavens that there is no Snow Queen. Karma immediately strikes as he falls from the roof and comes face to face with the Snow Queen herself.
The Snow Queen has come not to punish Kay for his slandering her, but to save him from the goblin’s vile magic. So yes, this Snow Queen technically predates Elsa in being a hero instead of a villain.
But her idea of saving Kay involves kidnapping him to her icy domain up at the North Pole.
Gerda waits and hopes for Kay’s return as the village searches for him. Days go by and he’s all but presumed dead. Realizing she’s the only one who can find her friend, Gerda heads into the forest on her own. There she meets the cheapest talking tree outside of a Rainforest Café.
Gerda questions the tree about Kay and he recommends she ask the Lady of Summer about Kay’s where…abouts. Soon Gerda finds a cottage with a garden where the flowers are in full bloom and they talk like chipmunks. This is indeed the home of the Lady of Summer, the Snow Queen’s sister. The Lady invites Gerda in as she’s eager for company – so eager that she wants her to stay for as long as possible. She distracts the girl with a cute kitten, then hides all her roses and the locket so Gerda won’t be reminded of Kay and brushes the memories of him out of her hair.
Gerda spends a blissful time beyond counting with the Lady of Summer. That comes to an end when she discovers the one rose the Lady forgot to vanish, an embroidered one on top of her sun hat. All of Gerda’s memories of Kay come flooding back. She furiously berates the Lady for enchanting her into forgetting him. When the Lady replies she only acted as she did out of love for her, Gerda shoots back “Love me? You mean keep me. I am not one of your flowers, I am a human being!” I don’t know about you, but it feels like a rebuttal to Rapunzel‘s exploitative gaslighting and I am here for it.
This scene also touches on an interesting comparison between The Snow Queen and the Lady of Summer. In the story, the lady was a crone unrelated to the Queen who served the same function as in this episode: a distraction tempting Gerda into giving up her quest. The Snow Queen is as intimidating, regal, wise and, well, cold as she is in the fairy tale, but here her personality and others’ perceptions of her are considerably fleshed out. She works hard to keep the world in balance by spreading winter where needed, and will always tell those she meets the hard truths they need to hear without sugarcoating it. This has the result of people treating her like the bad guy or the fearful icy boogeyman in the shadows. Contrast this with the Lady of Summer, who’s sweet and sunny as the season bearing her name. Yet she’s also frivolous and immature. She doesn’t understand how to treat people as something beyond a welcome amusement in her isolation, and in her unwitting selfishness she causes the object of her affection more harm than she intended. The Lady of Summer may be nice, but as we all know, nice is different than good.
The Lady of Summer makes it up to Gerda by returning her locket and telling her that Kay is in the Snow Queen’s care. She declares “That goblin’s at the bottom of this!” and sends Gerda on her way.
Gerda wanders through the forest, probably wishing she asked the Lady of Summer for supplies and something warmer than a shawl before she left. Then she comes across the best character in the story, a badass wild robber girl. She’s thrilled Gerda fell for her camouflage and brags about her wilderness skills. “The forest is no place for sugar and spice and everything nice. You run with the wolves like me, you gotta be quick as a cricket and brave as a bear!”
The robber girl holds Gerda at knifepoint and demands she hand over her locket. Gerda refuses to give up her one memento of Kay, even after she’s threatened with being sliced into chow mein. The robber girl is moved by Gerda’s loyalty to her friend. Though she insists she’s no softie, and she’s jeopardizing her place in the robbers’ guild for what she’s about to do, she gives Gerda one of her furs and takes her back to her place.
The robber girl makes Gerda feel right at home in her camp. She asks why she’s risking her life for some boy who treated her like trash. Gerda insists that he cares about her deep down and the robber girl is like “Yeah, whatevs. The journey’s too long, you’re better off staying here. There’s a lot you could learn out here in the wild.”
…Y’all are seeing this, right?
The robber girl preps some dinner and introduces Gerda to her talking reindeer. Gerda learns from the reindeer where Kay is. She asks him if he could take her there and the robber girl (rather reluctantly) gives them leave to depart in the morning. Gerda thanks her with a kiss and…
…Y’all are seeing this, RIGHT??
That night Gerda dreams of Kay in the Snow Queen’s palace. He’s grown even more heartless and methodical, and the freezing weather is turning him blue-da-ba-dee-da-ba-die. Kay continually pesters the Snow Queen as to why he can’t be perfect like the snow she creates. She keeps him busy with several challenges that test his cleverness and will ultimately reveal the reason why she brought him to her palace.
Then Gerda wakes up with the robber girl snuggled up beside her and…
You know what, fuck it. Gerda/Robber Girl shipper for life. Forget whiny Kay and go live a passionate life of freedom in the wild with your same-sex soulmate, Gerda. THIS is the real gay romance all the Frozen fans have been waiting for.
The reindeer carries Gerda through the air like Santa. He promises to help if she calls him, but Gerda insists that rescuing Kay is something she has to do on her own. And I have to ask, why? I know I’d want a kickass flying reindeer by my side when confronting a dangerous ice elemental and rescuing my childhood friend. What rule in the fairy tale heroine’s handbook says that you have to go solo in the final leg when you have able and willing help right in front of you? Why is this a thing that keeps coming up in these heroes’ journeys?
Gerda tries to sneak into the castle but the guards won’t allow her to enter without a password.
Gerda solves the guards’ riddle and they let her pass. She finds Kay almost completely frozen over with no memory of who she is. He tries to push her away but she grabs on and spins him around while crying at him to come home with her. Gerda’s warm tears fall on to Kay and thaw his frozen heart. Kay begins to cry too, which washes out the goblin’s shard and breaks the spell over him. Together they solve the Snow Queen’s puzzle, the above quote. Gerda and Kay, heart and mind, are reunited at last.
The Snow Queen congratulates them on figuring out her puzzle and realizing their friendship is magic or something like that. She gives them her blessing for a safe trip home. When Kay and Gerda return, it is summer and the roses are in bloom once more. Though they are children at heart, their adventures have matured them for the better.
As for the goblin, the Snow Queen blows an icy kiss that hurtles him to the far side of the universe. The world is spared from his havoc, at least for a little while. The narrator concludes our tale warning us to keep our friends close, for without them, no one is safe from him.
I like Faerie Tale Theatre’s The Snow Queen, but there are a few things holding me back from loving it. I’m not a fan of the narration butting in to explain things we already know or tell us what’s happening in scenes that would have been more effective without any at all.
Then there’s Kay, who’s increasingly unpleasant to endure once he gets that glass in his eye. I know him being terrible is the point of the spell he’s under, but he quickly grows as petulant and tiresome as Anakin Skywalker. The scenes in the Snow Queen’s palace where he begs her to teach him to be as all-powerful and perfect as she and throws tantrums when she refuses underline that particular parallel for me.
I think this also has to do with the actor’s age. It’s easier to buy a young boy acting out because he’s just an ignorant kid. Making Kay older somehow makes his obstinance and spite feel worse, to the point where you question if he’s even worth saving.
I was ready to complain about the episodic nature of Andersen’s story not translating as well to a visual format, but I think it mostly worked thanks to the pacing. There are other plot points and characters that didn’t make the final cut, but I recommend reading the story for yourself. Or you could watch Overly Sarcastic’s summation of it.
There’s some very nice cinematography, it’s certainly one of the episodes that makes good use of its budget, and the acting is altogether good with Gerda and the Snow Queen’s actresses being the standouts. I appreciate that the Snow Queen was given a bit more to do in her own story as she’s sidelined for most of the original. The flashes to her palace duties and babysitting Kay give her time to shine and show some humanity beneath her frosty exterior. Gerda herself is a wonderful example of a stalwart, determined heroine who perseveres through the power of love for her friend. She may not pick up a sword and declare that she don’t need no man, but this isn’t that kind of story. It’s about how people may change as they grow, yet the strength of friendship’s bond will keep those they love together.
All in all, I enjoyed watching The Snow Queen more this time around. I might return to this one again soon. It’s not a bad addition to the usual holiday lineup.
- The tree knows Kay’s not dead because his roots don’t feel him in the underworld. It feels like there’s an interesting and terrifying piece of mythology missing from this world.
- Kay and Gerda’s actors were on an episode of Little House on the Prairie once, though funny enough they didn’t share any screentime together.
- I had to check the subtitles when the reindeer talks to Gerda about Kay. After he says “They say he’s a very smart boy” I couldn’t tell if he followed it up by insulting him (“but he’s not”) or backing up his statement (“very smart”).
- In one scene the Snow Queen uses an aerosol can to spray frost on a globe. A slightly humorous image, though I’m on the fence on how to feel about its obvious anachronism.
- The original story has quite possibly even more gay/bi undertones with Gerda and the Robber Girl. Though I’m sure it was meant to be innocent for the time, knowing what we do about Andersen’s extremely repressed bisexuality does make you wonder…
- One of my favorite lines comes from when Gerda questions the robber girl over her career choice. In response she shrugs and says “Hey, a girl’s gotta make a living.” Ahem hem…
Hey, Was That…: Melissa Gilbert of Little House on the Prairie fame plays Gerda. TV actor Lance Kerwin is Kay. Oscar-nominated stage and screen star Lee Remick of The Omen and Days of Wine and Roses (just to name a few) is the Snow Queen. Character actress Lauren Hutton plays The Lady of Summer. Linda Manz from Out of the Blue is the Robber Girl. The grandmother is played by the grandmother from The Waltons, Mary Jackson. Shelley Duvall takes up narrating duties again. Her brother Stuart Duvall is one of the Snow Queen’s guards. Bobby Porter, who was last seen as the Spirit of Death in The Nightingale, portrays the mischievous Goblin. David Hemmings, who voices the reindeer, was the narrator in Thumbelina. Maryedith Burrell, who also starred in Thumbelina as the good witch, wrote this particular episode. Stephen Barber returns to do the music; the end credits theme in particular is lovely. Director Peter Medak previously directed the Faerie Tale Theatre episodes of Pinocchio and Snow White.
Who’s The Artist?: There’s no specific artist credited this time around, though in doing my research I found the episode seems to have plucked inspiration from various illustrators’ interpretation of The Snow Queen: a little Kay Nielsen here, a little Errol McCain there, you get the idea. In fact, McCain’s Snow Queen appears to be the driving influence based on some of the illustrations I’ve gathered.
Better Or Worse Than…?: Whether or not you find this episode better than Frozen is up to your personal tastes. Both have their merits and drawbacks, though I wish we could have seen what a more faithful adaptation by Disney would look like. HBO’s Happily Ever After changes the characters and setting to Inuit Alaska and has Eartha Kitt play the Snow Queen herself, which is always a win. Apart from that there are some direct-to-video knockoffs hardly worth mentioning.
Ranking: It gets the Number 11 spot between Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood.
Wait, Number 11…NUMBER 11??!!
Any and all readers with a fear of rats might want to sit out the next review of Faerie Tale Theatre. On January 8th we’ll be looking at The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Why January 8th? Because A) I’ve got several holiday reviews to complete and I want to give myself so breathing room to catch up with this series, and B) for some reason I don’t feel comfortable posting anything on the usual date in January. I’ll see you all next week when I share the first of this month’s Christmas reviews!
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th of each month. Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, Sam Flemming and Robert Barnette. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!
The Library Key said:
I don’t come back to this episode too often, but I do love the look of it. The Snow Queen’s costume and makeup are gorgeous (I might have taken inspiration from her for a LARP character several years back) and the snowy forests make you want to cozy up with some hot chocolate and a fleece blanket. I also didn’t think Lance Kerwin was particularly strong as Kay, and your comparison to Anakin was on point. In terms of adaptations, there is a VERY interesting BBC version from 2005 that has a beautiful soundtrack but some strange visuals. I think you can only view the whole thing on DVD, but there are still clips of it on YouTube.
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Tristan Petty said:
The interesting thing about this vs Frozen is that Frozen seeks to subvert a lot of usual Disney tropes. But this original plot is practically a subversion of fairy tale tropes in general. I mean the girl is rescuing a kidnapped boy in a tower. And thinking how the Snow Queen could be a Maleficent type of villain or if they keep it like this with the goblin being a major antagonist who drops in throughout. And it doesn’t have to even be a romantic story. But considering we live in a post-Shrek world where any mainstream animated film based on a fairy tale has to be so in your face about it. I still like Frozen but what can you do?
Also, those illustrations…that’s how I first knew the Snow Queen. I have that book!
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Jennifer Schillig said:
In your comparisons, you forgot to mention the Russian-animated version that was dubbed into English in 1957. It featured a live-action prologue with the then-popular Art Linkletter (and the kid who played Dennis the Menace’s buddy Joey), as well as the voices of Sandra Dee, Tommy Kirk, and Paul Frees. The animation and music are beautiful and I think of it as the best Disney movie Disney never made. They used to run it on UHF channels when I was a kid. You can find both the English dub and the original Russian version on YouTube. There’s also a live-action Russian version from 1964 that should be on YouTube with English subtitles–that’s how I saw it. It has some animated sequences.
Anyway, I agree with you that I’d love to see Disney take on the original story. That’s what they were originally planning to do, and in an animation style that would have been similar to the Steadfast Tin Soldier segment of Fantasia 2000. But they couldn’t get the ending to work…there was no confrontation with the Snow Queen in Andersen’s story. (Notice how this version makes her an ally, not an antagonist…and the Russian animated version DOES allow Gerda to confront her.) But for some reason, instead of just rejiggering the ending, they found it easier to just do a whole new story. There was talk, before the pandemic, of them doing a live-action movie version of Andersen’s original (hopefully a musical–I don’t know if they were planning to use the Alan Menken score that would have gone with the junked Tokyo DisneySea stage version). I hope that comes to something…that way we’d have the best of both worlds.
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