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Can’t Let It Go: “Frozen II” and Grappling With the Past…

As far as animated sequels go, Frozen II works well. For better or for worse, it goes bigger and grander, sacrificing a little focus for a larger story.

However, the most striking aspect of Frozen II is the way in which it seems to grapple with one of the big existential anxieties of the modern era. Frozen II spends a lot of time and energy delving into the histories of Anna and Elsa, opening with a mythology-building flashback and offering a few tantalising hints about the source of Elsa’s power. However, this is part of a larger conversation that unfolds across the film’s runtime. Frozen II isn’t just about grappling with Anna and Elsa’s personal history, it is asking more ambitious questions about how the past shapes the present.

Of course, Frozen II is the story of two sisters embarking on an epic quest with an adorable snowman. However, it is also a story about the legacy of colonial exploitation of indigenous populations by nominally more advanced societies, and about coming to terms with the consequences of those historical injustices in the modern era. It isn’t always elegant or perfect. Indeed, Frozen II occasionally seems quite candid that it doesn’t know the answers to the questions that it is broaching.

Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see these topics permeating popular culture, with shows like Watchmen and films like Thor: Ragnarok grappling with questions of what it means to live in a society built on historical injustice.

Note: This piece contains spoilers for Frozen II.

The original Frozen has been praised as a largely feminist work, most notably for the fact that Elsa’s use of her powers is treated sympathetically rather than villainously and because Anna’s arc largely hinges on the revelation that (in contrast to countless classic fairy tales) getting engaged to a complete stranger is rarely a good idea in practice. There was also something interesting in the film’s treatment of Prince Hans as a villain, as a character who often seemed borderline sociopathic and who treated women as objects to be exploited for his own gain.

Of course, this somewhat overstates the feminism of Frozen. The film very consciously hedged its bets in every sense. Elsa was not a villain, but she still had to learn to control her powers rather than to use them. While Anna’s engagement to Hans fell through when he revealed himself to be a murderous usurper, the film awkwardly provided a romantic substitute in Kristoff. Anna didn’t get engaged to Kristoff at the end of the film, but still ended up in a serious romantic relationship with somebody she hardly knew who had spent most the film being incredibly passive-aggressive to her.

To be fair, Frozen existed as part of the pop cultural landscape of the early-to-mid-2010s, with Disney pushing an awkward “feminist, but not too feminist” angle on its classic properties. The book and musical Wicked appear to have been a major impact on Disney’s output around the same time, obvious in contemporaneous releases like Oz: The Great and Powerful and Maleficent. That influence is felt in Frozen, both in the casting of Idina Menzel and the obvious debt that Let It Go owes to Defying Gravity.

The early-to-mid-2010s were a long time ago, and can often seem like a more innocent time. There was less of an existential urgency around topics like feminism, with lots of debate about the use of the term. There was perhaps even a sense that the term was increasingly redundant, despite protests from activists like Emma Watson and Malala Yousafzai. This perhaps accounts for the strange politics of films like Frozen, Oz: The Great and Powerful and Maleficent, which often gestured towards big feminist ideas while leaving enough wiggle room to avoid alienating potential audiences.

So Hans could be the villain in Frozen, but only if Kristoff still hooked up with Anna, in a gender-switched reflection of the biggest problem with The World is Not Enough. Similarly, Oz: The Great and Powerful could humanise the Wicked Witch of the West, but didn’t necessarily want to explore the idea of systemic injustice or institutional power structures in the same way that Wicked did. Maleficent could build its story about a woman wronged by a man, but only if she was redeemed through the power of motherhood at the climax of the story. It was all very safe and very generic.

Of course, things have changed a great deal in the six years since the release of Frozen. Reactionary forces have taken power around the globe, especially in Europe. The President of the United States was recorded on tape boasting about sexually assaulting women, and has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union based largely on fear of immigrants, after a campaign which employed imagery that directly evoked the propaganda of Nazi Germany.

So Frozen II exists in a very different world than Frozen did. The film seems very keenly aware of that fact. Anna’s climactic musical number The Next Right Thing often reads as an extended lyrical metaphor for the challenges of trying to live in such a chaotic and turbulent world, where it seems like decency no longer matters. “I’ve seen dark before,” she sings, “but not like this.” The song articulates how it feels to “walk through this night, stumbling blindly toward the light.” It captures a sense of liberal despondency in the face of a world where it often seems like nothing makes a difference.

Frozen II ultimately goes a great deal further than that. The central plot of the film is driven by a mysterious attack on the vaguely Scandinavian Kingdom of Arendelle. The inhabitants of the kingdom are driven from their homes when the elements appear to go wild. This prompts Anna and Elsa to mount an expedition to the “enchanted forest” at the edge of the realm. The forest has been cut off from the rest of the world by a wall of mist, following a disastrous encounter with the King of Arendelle several decades earlier. Anna and Else must pierce the mist and enter the forest.

The mist parts to allow Elsa entry. Once the expedition enters the forest, they discover that the battle which cut the forest off from the outside world is still being raged. The older survivors of the Arendelle expedition are locked in mortal combat with the forest’s indigenous population, led by Destin Mattias, the captain of the king’s guard. As Destin recalls, the Arendelle expedition had come to the forest to celebrate the opening of a dam that King Runeard had built for the native population. It was supposed to be a gesture of peace, but was met with barbarity and betrayal.

Even from the outset, Frozen II is a story that is very much built around the idea of progress and forward moment. The film consciously frames Elsa’s journey in Campbellian terms, with the hero responding to a mysterious call that beckons her to adventure. “I’m blocking out your calls,” she boasts, as if resisting the demands for a Frozen sequel. She insists, “I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new.” However, she inevitably answers the call, which summons her further and further north.

This idea of growth and development is also mirrored in Olaf’s journey. The comic relief is both a toddler and snowman, and so he is particularly attuned to the passage of time and the uncertainties of change. Olaf is anxious about the possibility that the status quo cannot be maintained, which is a fear that likely resonates with a lot of the film’s audience – even beyond those children on the cusp of growing up. However, Olaf isn’t afraid of change. His big musical number insists that no matter how terrifying things are growing up is not a bad thing to do. He longs for “transformation.”

Of course, a large part of this is just the push-and-pull of the traditional sequel formula. Indeed, the biggest flaw with Frozen II is the commercial reality that the characters can’t actually change, because that might make the franchise less financially viable. This is particularly egregious at the climax, which threatens two major deaths and a larger disruption to the status quo, only to retreat from those extremes as something of an afterthought. Sequels often exist in that space, between pushing for change and being wary of change, often settling on “the illusion of change.”

However, there is also a clear sense that Frozen II is making a larger thematic and political point. After all, so much of this thematic meditation on the need for progression – and how that progression is often rooted in an understanding of the past – is framed in explicitly political terms. This is true even in the smaller details. The stinger of Olaf’s When I’m Older finds the oblivious and innocent snowman remarking “this is fine” when confronted with something the is obviously not fine, in what plays as nod to one of the defining political memes of the modern era.

More broadly, Frozen II argues that communities cannot remain in stasis forever. One of the major building blocks of modern reactionary thought is a vague and ill-defined nostalgia and a fear of the future. This combination of fear and nostalgia drives movements like Brexit and Trumpism, arguing that it is possible for communities to retreat to an idealised and eternal past in order to escape a confusing and shifting present. Given the title of the film and the nature of Elsa’s powers, it would be easy for Frozen II to embrace that nostalgia – to want to trap moments and people forever.

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Instead, Frozen II repeatedly argues that such stasis is horrific and monstrous. The eternal war waging in the enchanted forest is presented as pathetic and exhausting, rather than glorious and triumphant. Receiving his first visitors from Arendelle in decades, Destin asks after his old sweetheart. He wonders if she moved on, if her life went on without him. Elsa suggests that it has not, that she is still in the same place that he left her. “Why doesn’t that make me feel better?” he asks. Frozen II suggests that his sorrow comes from an understanding of what it feels like to be trapped in a moment.

Indeed, Frozen II even uses Elsa’s powers as a metaphor. Not only does Olaf’s nature as a snowman render him impermanent, when Elsa finds herself literally entrapped in ice. “Water has memory,” Olaf repeatedly insists, suggesting that the memory comes from movement; water flows and changes and moves across the ions. In contrast, ice traps water in place, freezing a moment in time. The idea of trying to stop the flow of time is presented as monstrous. It is entirely appropriate that the dam turns out to be at the root of so many of the kingdom’s problems, stopping the flow of water.

More to the point, the plot of Frozen II hinges on a number of serious revelations about the relationship between Arendelle and the indigenous population. This is an inherently political plot point, but one that is interesting on a number of levels. It is notable that the portrayal of indigenous people in the original Frozen came in for some criticism, most notably the whitewashing of Kristoff. With that in mind, the decision to devote so much narrative real estate in Frozen II to native people (and to dub the film in Sami) suggests an increased awareness of and sensitivity to these issues.

However, Frozen II seems to be gesturing at something bigger. As Elsa and Anna investigate the events that led to the current crisis, they are shocked to discover that their grandfather didn’t build the dam to help the indigenous population. He built it in order to exploit them, hoping that the dam would cause droughts and damage their crops, weakening their power and influence so that Arendelle could go stronger. It’s a surprisingly ambitious plot reveal, because it has obvious connotations even beyond the fantastical world of the film.

The exploitation of indigenous populations is not a recent development. It is a major part of the history of almost every major world power. Often that exploitation was couched in the language of aid and assistance, presented as a more “advanced” civilisation acting in the best interests of a more “primitive” society. So Native Americans were given blankets infected with small pox, were herded into reservations, displaced from their land. The result was an ethnic cleansing that amounted to genocide.

These horrors provided the foundation stone for the modern United States. The European settlers were able to lay claim to the continent and establish a country that would go on to emerge as a global superpower. This horror lurks at the edge of the frame in Frozen II. Of course, the film is nominally set in a Scandinavian-influenced culture loosely inspired by the work of Hans Christian Andersen, but it is still a movie that is made by a major American corporation and which also exists in that context.

Confronted with the horror of the atrocity that their grandfather visited upon the indigenous people, Elsa and Anna need to figure out what to do. Elsa ends up literally frozen in place, swallowed by the revelation. Anna similarly struggles with the weight of that horror. However, Anna ultimately comes to the realisation that the only thing that can be done is to acknowledge the trauma and reverse it. Anna decides to break the dam that caused all of this suffering, even realising that the tidal wave will destroy Arendale, which has been evacuated. It’s a bold and shocking final twist.

However, what is most shocking about all of this is that it isn’t quite as radical as that summary might make it sound. Frozen existed in a particular context, and can be assessed in relation to contemporary releases like Oz: The Great and Powerful and Maleficent. Similarly, Frozen II fits within a broader movement within contemporary popular culture, grappling with similar sort of themes and issues in a similar manner. While Frozen II is undoubtedly more ambitious than Frozen, it isn’t as groundbreaking as it might appear.

The most obvious antecedent is Thor: Ragnarok, which was a surprisingly postcolonial blockbuster. Just like Anna and Else in Frozen II, Thor and Loki are confronted with the legacy of their father’s imperialist ambitions in Ragnarok. As Hela returns from exile, she confronts Thor with the reality that Asgard’s prosperity was build on conquest, dismissing Odin as “proud of what he had, ashamed of how he got it.” In a climactic plot beat that is remarkably similar to Frozen II, Thor determines that the only way to save the Asgardian people is to destroy Asgard itself.

These sorts of anxieties about the way in which past and present intersect also play out in Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, which is largely preoccupied with the legacy of racism in contemporary America. In particular, Lindelof has acknowledged that a lot of his approach to the series was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations, which is about grappling with the scars inflicted on African American identity by the horrors of slavery. Once again, there is that suggestion of a prosperous nation built on a brutal history of exploitation.

Naturally, Frozen II doesn’t go anywhere near as far as either Watchmen or Ragnarok. Elsa manages to free herself and erect a wall of ice that protects Arendale from the bursting of the dam. Both Elsa and Olaf survive the climax of the film, with Olaf helpfully stating, “I love happy endings.” There is a sense of pragmatism in this ending, an understanding that perhaps a child-friendly animated film cannot go as far as an adult-oriented superhero deconstruction or even a comedic superhero blockbuster.

Still, it is interesting to see these questions broached in entertainment with appeal as broad (and an intended audience as young) as Frozen II. It often seems like the recurring thematic political preoccupation of pop culture in the Trump era is the question of what it means to be a good person living in a broken system. This is the dynamic at play in shows like The Good Place and Mr. Robot. Films like Ragnarok and Frozen II, along with shows like Watchmen, frame an interesting corollary to that dilemma: what does it mean to live in a system that was always broken?

Frozen II doesn’t really have an answer to that. Of course, it’s hard to fault an animated franchise film for not suggesting a workable solution to such an existential issue. After all, if the answer were easy, the question would be unnecessary. Ultimately, Frozen II comes back to a solution similar to that proposed by The Good Place. The best thing that a person can do when confronted with these sorts of vast and intractable injustices is to take it one step at a time, and to exercise what moral agency they have – no matter how small.

Anna advances this argument in The Next Right Thing, which is positioned as the film’s last song and thus its moral heart. “I won’t look too far ahead, it’s too much for me to take,” Anna sings. “But break it down to this next breath, this next step, this next choice is one that I can make.” It is perhaps a naive and simplistic argument, akin to the moral calculus that Steven Moffat proposed in his final season of Doctor Who in episodes like Extremis, World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. However, these are stories aimed a younger audience, and so simple arguments have weight.

Frozen II doesn’t know exactly what to do when confronted with historical and systemic injustice outside of an individual’s control, but it makes a compelling argument that the best a person can hope to do is “the next right thing.” Maybe it will be enough, and maybe it won’t. But it is still worth doing. There’s something surprisingly heartening in that argument.

One Response

  1. Haven’t seen the film yet, but this is an interesting direction for the film to go in. Truthfully, I had no idea that Kristoff was based on the Sami people-Kristoff is a Scandinavian name if I ever heard one. I don’t know much about them, but apparently they were there before Scandinavians entered (apparently the modern day Finns first inhabited Finland in 100 AD), similar to how the Celtic ‘Britons’ inhabited large parts of the UK before the Anglo-Saxons conquered it.

    ‘Thor Ragnarok’ was shockingly smart for an MCU film (yeah I love superhero stuff but I really don’t care for that franchise)-Taika Waititi is utterly hilarious, and quite insightful as well.

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