It was 2013. I was going to see “Frozen.”
At 10 years old, I had been brewing in a lukewarm stew of stories with true love and happy endings for as long as I could remember. I followed my family into the movie theater feeling like a total fairy tale movie expert.
The premise of “Frozen” is simple: Two princesses grow up as best friends but drift apart after Elsa (Idina Menzel, “Rent”) accidentally injures Anna (Kristen Bell, “The Good Place”) with her magical ice powers. Years later, during a tense confrontation, Elsa accidentally freezes Anna’s heart, a curse that will prove fatal if not broken by an act of true love. It’s an uncomplicated story about forgiveness and emotional vulnerability.
Watching “Frozen” in the theater for the first time, I settled comfortably into my seat as soon as the first musical number began. I knew how this was going to play out: Elsa would worry, Anna would hope and the curse would be broken by the end. I was enjoying myself, but I wasn’t thrilled.
The climax of the film reached its peak and I watched calmly as Anna raced through a blizzard toward her love interest, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, “Glee”). A true love’s kiss was imminent, and the curse would be broken. Then, suddenly, just moments from salvation, Anna spots Elsa about to be struck by a sword. I remember the surprise I felt when she diverted her path to protect her sister.
As Anna reached toward the blade, the curse took effect. She froze.
The sword shattered against her hand. A final breath of air drifted from her frozen lips. Everything fell silent. I was stunned.
My decade of princess education had not prepared me for this. Anna was dead. All was lost.
I watched with terrific fascination as Elsa rose and stumbled to her sister, sobbing against her lifeless form. The snow hung in the air.
There was a vague shuffle from the audience. My younger sister’s small face was crumpled in confusion — this wasn’t supposed to happen. The princesses were always happy in the end. I was as lost as everyone else. But I loved it.
This was the first time a movie had made me feel something complicated. I wasn’t just scared or sad. I was stumped. I couldn’t think of a way the story could move forward.
“Frozen” does have a happy ending. Anna’s block of the sword is the act of true love that saves her from the curse. She thaws shortly after my newfound favorite princess movie scene concludes and everything wraps up rather neatly. But I didn’t think about the gentle resolution as I walked out of the theater. What stuck with me was how I felt at the film’s darkest moment.
It was that feeling you get when you drop something and it shatters. A feeling of irreversible loss. That feeling has a name: tragedy.
After “Frozen,” I devoted myself to it.
I gravitated toward my family’s older DVDs, “kid” movies with moments of unabashed tragedy like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Bambi.” I lost myself in books like “Little Women” and melodramatic musicals like “Les Misérables.” I was surprised and thrilled that so many disastrous stories existed.
I began to wonder why so many people are drawn to tragedy. Life is hard enough. Why would anyone ever want to compound that feeling? To me, kind-hearted characters who get much worse than they deserve are consistently fascinating; they make stories feel real. As much as we may love fairy tales and happy endings, real life tends to be messier. It’s thrilling to consume art as rich and textured and confusing as reality. I am drawn to a wide variety of tragedies these days.
Doomed romances leave me thinking hard about regret and melancholy. I often return to the sentimental first romantic encounter in “La La Land,” reveling in how the colors and music parallel the movie’s devastating final sequence.
Fantastical stories like “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” also have a special place in my heart because of their fundamental themes of destruction and chaos. My favorite example of this is “Revenge of the Sith,” which essentially reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. I can spend hours talking about how director George Lucas (“Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope”) connects political and interpersonal machinations in such a way that our heroes are left to become the worst versions of themselves.
Slice-of-life movies that feel extremely rooted in reality are another one of my favorite vessels for tragedy. In “The Florida Project,” there is no villain. It is societal failure that sends our characters spiraling into poverty and despair. “Licorice Pizza” is another one of my villain-less favorites, which focuses on how earnest desires for love and acceptance often erode morality.
Biopics and real-world stories also have a huge capacity for tragedy. “I, Tonya” subverts triumphant sports movie clichés by outlining how ambition and talent can be used as justifications for violence.
Essentially, tragedy works its way into the fabric of every genre. It’s universally compelling. Sad stories garner a profound investment from the audience that other (happier) stories do not. I was captivated watching Anna freeze. Every other person in that movie theater and I were feeling the same thing, praying for the same outcome. That’s the power of a great story.
Every time I watch a sad movie, I hope for another “Frozen” moment. Sometimes I get one. Sometimes I don’t. But I usually end up feeling something.
I urge everyone to go watch a good sad movie this week. Let yourself hope, let yourself worry, let yourself be crushed. Watch it with friends. Feel it together. Let it leave you speechless.
Daily Arts Contributor Lola D’Onofrio can be reached at email@example.com.