For the fiction writers out there and anyone who's given a passing glance into the various storytelling fields (theater, comparative religions, film, graphic novel, etc.), you'll know that for better or worse the Hero's Journey (the mutant form consisting primarily of Campbell's monomyth but also of Vogler's contributions) is the primary contemporary method of constructing a story's plot.
The Skywalker example trumps all others: a simple farm boy gets called into an adventure by a wise mentor, meets friends and enemies, overcomes trials, faces his darkest fears, and in the end triumphs over evil, proving himself a changed "resurrected" hero. (This is an extreme paraphrasing of the model.) The guideline, template, or gimmick—depending on who you talk to—gets a lot of flack for the sameness in stories it produces, but its effectiveness cannot be overstated. Many would claim every movie coming out today is an example of the Hero's Journey.
I will happily say I'm a modified Hero's Journey supporter. Maybe I'll write on how I came to accept that in another post; it has possessed many of my waking hours, but what I wanted to explore here is how, whether intentional or not, Let it Go seems to be an exact musical manifestation of the form.
I have no idea what we can glean from this, but at the very least, this could be used as a fun new way for newbies to familiarize themselves with this storytelling phenomenon. For me, I find deconstructing a story using this model unleashes a wealth of meaning. So that's what I've done. Using the Hero's Journey format I'm most comfortable with, I've included time marks for the linked video (which is more handy if opened in another tab) and where applicable pictures illustrating some of my points. But enough blabbing, let's jump in.
Ordinary World: 0:00 - 0:28
Every good Hero's Journey story starts with a clear painting of where the protagonist begins their adventure, and Elsa's existential lamentation Let it Go is no different. In many ways, this song is Frozen wrapped up into a concise three minutes and thirty-eight seconds. The piano, bells, and chimes usher in pure melancholia, recalling the sadness Elsa suffered when her parents locked her in isolation away from her sister. The lyrics, too, lay out the emotional setting for the road of change (for this journey is an emotional and psychological one at heart).
The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I'm the queen.
We quickly establish the symbols of snow/storm/cold as being representatives of the queen's core being. She has denied this inner existence—her true self—ever since refusing to build that adorable snowman (a symbol of childhood innocence we'll see reappear in a moment). Buttressing this sadness, we're told that no footprints can be seen on the very mountain she walks on. She's entirely alone. She has been isolated by society and has refused to interact with her world when given a chance. Yet she's technically a queen. The sting of irony solidifies the point of the opening: Elsa's world is not a happy one, and she is not being the person she wants to be.
Call to Adventure: 0:28 - 0:43
But alas, a herald comes like a thief from the extraordinary world with a message of adventure! Just like Obi-Wan letting Luke know of his true roots in the Jedi traditions, Hank Schrader's mention to Walter White of the lucrative world of meth making, or even the simple meet-cute scenes in any love story ever, Elsa receives a message of upcoming change:
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried
The mentoring, ally building, negotiating, etc. are (mainly) all internal conflicts that Elsa must wade through herself, adding not only to the themes of women empowerment running through the film but the existential themes as well. I love that. The wind and storm are servants to her Ice Queenness, but they're just symbols. We know they aren't literally delivering the message of adventure: it's her realization here that no force on Earth, literally, could keep her true spirit in. The wind then acts as a cautionary prediction of what's going to happen: it will both free her from her dull life, but it also brings with it grave danger.
Refusal of the Call: 0:43 - 0:56
Out of all the steps in the widely used Hero's Journey model I'm employing here, The Refusal of the Call and Mentor stages are the most likely to be collapsed into a single "Negotiation" scene or removed altogether. Here, however, we see them separated, beginning with the clever reincorporation of warnings her father gave her earlier in the film to present the opposition to going on adventure:
Don't let them in, don't let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
It's the comfort of the status quo and the dying attempt of the ordinary world to keep our protagonist captive. They aren't Elsa's own words; they're the rules of her father (quite literally the patriarchy), and they're all anti-existentialist commandments: stay trapped, hidden, fake, numb, and dumb. The "good girl" sneer adds even more irony. There's nothing good about the world she has lived in and resides over despite what anyone else may claim. Her facial cues are strict and stern, her gestures belying the hidden rage of herself and the storm. Finally, the lyrics are sung with a stiff staccato, every word detached and hurting...
Meeting the mentor: 0:56 - 0:59
...which leads us directly into the first element of the monumental change that we'll see occur by the end of the song. Our mentor has arrived! The Wind! Remember: symbolism? The storm has come to rip off that dainty glove, the lowest article of protective attire that Elsa has worn like a shell all her life.
It's her own inner strength, of course, that is now mentoring her—her decision to live independently outside the constraints society has placed on her, but it's so dramatically portrayed by the aerial view of the glove flying away—a similar image we'll see repeated later. For this single line, the stacatto instantly vanishes, giving way to a long held out cry of acknowledgement. Well now they know! By allowing herself to be helped by the wind—and proclaim that—she's allowing her inner strengths to be seen and to affect her. She's made her decision. She's going to change.
Crossing the Threshold: 1:00 - 1:28
This is one of my favorite parts in all stories, and I tend to break it up into three component parts: the psychological crossing, the physical crossing, and the point of no return. Here are the lyrics we're working with:
Let it go, let it go
Can't hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don't care
What they're going to say
Let the storm rage on,
The cold never bothered me anyway
The psychological change I spoke of is clear: it's the name of the song, repeated over and over, reminding us that the character's change is letting go of her old self and discarding her superficial shell. She's proclaiming to the world that she has made up her mind.
The second component is the physical crossing into the land of the extraordinary. It's her hands making snow flurries for the first time. It's the physical incarnation of her snowman—her inner child being brought back to life. She sings that she's "slamming the door"—quite literally crossing the threshold. She's yielding to the storm, her rage and inner spirit, disregarding the emotions of others. She makes the statement that far be it for her to need protection against the cold, she doesn't even feel it. It's never bothered her.
And finally, the point of no return comes in the untying of the noose that is her lush, royal purple cape. She wore it regally at her coronation, and it's the symbol of Elsa, Queen of Arrendelle. Like the gloves before, she relinquishes her royal cape, her duties, to the wind. Never to come back. In the jargon of screenwriters, this marks the end of act one. And to let us know that important stage, we get an entirely new melody and feel in the music as we go forward.
Allies, Enemies, and Trials: 1:28 - 1:57
Bam! So many things right as the curtains rise so to speak on act two: Pulsing rim taps on the snare underneath a swelling of the strings! Renewed vigor and direction! A bird's eye view of the great chasm Elsa must cross—a very literal McGuffin-esque test!
And with the opening lyrics we have a one-two punch of allies and enemies:
It's funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can't get to me at all
Her humor has returned like a new friend in addition to the snowman, to give her a new perspective on life—"things aren't that bad, look how far away all your problems are." And her old enemies are declared dead in her new autonomy. Having begun to wrestle with her demons, she then lays out the obstacles standing in her way, which again: internal, not external.
It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
She uses the word test in the "Trial" section of the Hero's Journey. It's so great. I'm squeeing so hard right now. She's a vigilante, an opponent of the rules that used to control her. Now it's time to see how far she can go.
Midpoint: 1:57 - 2:00
My favorite moment in every story: the midpoint, the moment in the story when the context goes from A to Z, perfection to imperfection or vice versa. When done correctly—in the Hero's Journey framework at least—it's the single highest stakes moment in the entire character arc. Sometimes the protagonist's zenith, sometimes her nadir. The midpoint in Let it Go doesn't disappoint:
It's simple, precise and its impact is astounding. It's the single time in this entire existential song that the word "free" is uttered, letting us know that the captivity Elsa has lived in for her whole life is officially over. Elsa's arc has shifted from "how am I going to escape this hell?" to "now what am I going to do as a free person?"
But it doesn't stop there. The image on screen once again goes overhead which the storyteller has let us know means Pay Attention, This is Important. A mini snowflake is made on the ground. And my favorite part: she puts her foot down, ladies! This is not only a literal and fun way of showing her empowerment as a woman, it also completes the dialogue we started in the first sentence of the song: The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint to be seen. Well, now her footprint is seen, World, and it comes with power! Goosebumps, people. Can you tell I love this shit?
Bam. Music change! We just completed Act 2A!
Approach to the Innermost Cave: 2:00 - 2:33
The Approach to the Innermost Cave—or Approach for short—is probably my second favorite moment in any story. For those keeping track, that makes my top three moments: The Midpoint, The Approach, and Crossing the Threshold.
The Approach is kinda a hard sequence to categorize. It's the period of time starting the moment the hero's goal comes into view (normally immediately after the Midpoint) to when the hero finally has to face that goal (referred to as the Ordeal). In the Star Wars trilogy arc, I'd argue the Approach consists of the portion of time after Luke leaves the Dagobah System in Empire up to when he's walking the plank into the Sarlacc pit on Tatooine—the "cave" being Jabba's Palace. In the Breaking Bad series arc (SPOILERS), it starts the moment after which Gale is murdered and ends immediately before Gus Fring's head explodes—the "cave" being the retirement home but more broadly the dangers keeping the hero from carrying out the Ordeal. This stage certainly comes with some ambiguity and the goalposts tend to get moved around a lot.
For Elsa, however, the Approach is pretty clear. Her goal, although not explicitly stated, is to construct a fortress in the heart of the mountain where she can face and channel her inner power for the first time in her life. Thus, to arrive at this goal she starts running immediately across the chasm and over the bridge—what's more approachy than that? She sings the chorus again with more gusto than before and again plants her foot down creating the fortress's foundation—a huge snowflake on the ground, another aerial shot, repeated symbolism of the snow. Finally and most dramatically, we get one of the coolest musical interludes from 2:26-2:35 in any Disney movie I've seen. Piano and Xylophones go crazy, and I literally started crying the first time I watched this in theaters. The metaphor is clear: now freed from her binds, she has to build the cave herself where she will battle and confront her inner core. It's the story of facing the person we've been avoiding our whole lives and learning that that person is a force to be reckoned with.
Ordeal: 2:35 – 3:00
This is often the most cinematic moment in stories—the most bombastic imagery, the greatest change in statuses among characters—and it generally plays out exactly how you thought it would (which is not a complaint, just a statement on how stories work). For Elsa, the Ordeal starts with a dance sequence that weirdly reminds me of Arya's water dancing in Game of Thrones. Going back to Star Wars, this is her destruction of Jabba's floating ships, rescuing all of her friends. But once again it is inside her own mind where she must battle, not with anything exterior.
Here are the lyrics:
My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I'm never going back, the past is in the past.
She uses a series of empowering declarations to defeat the "good girl" who used to be trapped, but who also trapped herself. Symbolically, the first three lines of the ordeal enmesh her identity with the snow—the flurries, the frozen fractals, and the ice with power, soul, and thought, respectively. She has become one with her inner core and is now becoming one with her surroundings. Finally to finish off the good girl, she tells herself that her past, that weak creature, is never coming back. With one flourish she throws away the last vestige of her royalty—the crown, this time without the assistance of her mentor, but with her whole strength. She has conquered her demons and taken control of her own domain as an autonomous being.
A very small part of any story, the reward is what the character actually gets for surviving the ordeal and coming out victorious. In classic legends, it's very often the princess who is saved from the clutches of evil. Here, it's so entertaining to see the trope subverted with another example of woman empowerment: Elsa letting her hair down. She does get the princess just like in Arthurian legends, but the princess is herself; she doesn't need any knight's help to do it. I think it's brilliant.
Road Back: 3:03 - 3:16
With Act 2B done and Act 3 beginning, we enter the Road Back. Similar to the Crossing of the Threshold, I like to rename this part of a story because I don't think "Road Back" effectively illustrates how the third act functions in today's storytelling paradigm. I prefer "The Proof."
Think of a mystery: if the Ordeal is solving the case, the third act is using that information to catch the criminal and bring him to justice. If Luke really did become a Jedi when he saved his friends from Jabba's Palace, he needed to prove it by defeating his father and the emperor mono a mono on the second Death Star. If Walter White truly was the Kingpin when Gus died, he needed to prove it by reigning over his territory as such with an iron fist. This section is all about the hero preparing for her grand unveiling of the changed character on the world.
For Elsa, that means if she really is a different person then we need proof, and proof we get! That dress! That hair! That new and improved cape! Not to mention she tells us point blank:
Let it go, let it go
And I'll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
The dawn, both metaphorically and literally occurring outside, shows the new day has come with a different character. And yes, that perfect "good girl" is gone. As she magically gets her hair, makeup, and ensemble ready, she steadily, powerfully, and resolutely walks towards the balcony, very Evita-esque. This is her last preparation before…
Resurrection: 3:17 - 3:30
…The highest moment of self-actualization in a story. The character is no longer even herself. She is more than human. She has transcended and all that other Campbellian jargon, which yes, I not-so-secretly love:
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on,
The "Here I stand" coincides perfectly with her entrance onto the very public and very vulnerable balcony as well as with a flailing of arms into—might I suggest—a cross-like position. She continues by clenching her fists and flexing her biceps, all indicative of the new strength she has found, which it should be noted, never overtakes her femininity. This mingling of feminine and masculine characteristics is very important for her self-actualization and is certainly in keeping with classic mythology. Lastly, proof that she has transcended, the camera backs away from her on the balcony, literally losing herself to the enormity of the new world around her that she now once again controls—what Campbell would refer to as "ruling of both worlds."
Elixir: 3:30 - 3:38
At last, all good stories end by setting the stage for what the "new normal" is. Here, it's the snarky quip of "the cold never bothered me anyway," the slamming of the snowflake door, and the distinct closing bell. All these elements serve as a clear statement: Elsa is in control now.
I think it's the simple nature of this song, constructed as a full moving story that takes place all in under four minutes that makes it so damn addicting. Not many songs I know of in the Disney canon can say as much. It's extremely dynamic, both externally and internally. We see the good girl undertake an entire mental journey and come out empowered on the other side. I personally feel it's a testament to the staying power of the Hero's Journey. That kind of change resonates within us deeply. It just works, and when it's done this well, there's nothing better.
(An earlier version included talk about act breaks. I've removed that here. I've also made slight modifications for general readability and have slightly altered the discussion of footprints.)