So, I saw Frozen 2 the other day.
I went in with low expectations because, well… Disney doesn’t have a great track record with sequels and the original Frozen is a masterpiece – a tough act to follow. And well…. I have a lot to say.
There will be spoilers by the way.
First things first, let me give Frozen 2 its dues. The character design and animation is still on point. The little character moments, actions and reactions still superb. Despite the lack of any show stoppers, the songs are good. They’re good. They’re good. They’re fine. No seriously, they are perfectly serviceable. The song Lost in the Woods is still bouncing around occasionally in my head. Nowhere near as addicting or fun as say, Let it Go, or Do You Want to Build a Snowman did back in the day. Or even now. But my overall praise is already starting to run dry. I’ll try to point out more positives as I go, so if those were all you cared about, then I think that’s enough for a mild recommend. Go! Enjoy if you so desire.
But that’s not really me. Now understand, I’m not saying this is a bad movie! Even with the problems it had its moments and was overall still enjoyable. The tender family scenes will melt your heart, the sincerity of the characters is adorable, and I laughed at the stupid jokes, even the overly self-aware in-jokes that Olaf kept making. Yes, Olaf. Enchanted forests are used to symbolize transformation and I too would love to see how this adventure transforms you all. But that right there is one of the problems.
I was promised transformation and received the status quo.
And this isn’t based on a one off joke either. In the second song, the first of the story proper, we get one of the thesis statements of the movie: “Some things never change”, with the visual story telling showing us that many things that we might take for granted do indeed change. We see a stone wall crumbling and an old tree being chopped down. The overall implication being that everything changes except the things that are truly important. This is a good theme to work on, as children (and even many many adults) fear change as the world constantly shifts around us. This song is a wonderful introduction to this theme, and we also learn in this song that Kristoff is planning to propose to Anna. Promising start. We expect change and transformation but with a core has some sort of consistency.
There is also a second theme that runs through the film. The idea that we must learn the truth about the past to heal the wounds of the present. Unfortunately the film doesn’t meld this theme well with the first, and in the process, the movie tackles a topic that I really wish it did not address in the way it did. I am, of course, talking about imperialism. Yeah. I’m still trying to decide if Frozen 2 handled it better or worse than Pocahontas did. This theme starts developing in the preamble flashback. Because its not a Frozen movie without a preamble set many years ago with their parents. Here Elsa and Anna have a bed time story with their father who mentions the ‘Enchanted Forest’. To give props where it is due, the scene was executed beautifully and was a real delight to watch. And as their father leaves, their mother sings them a sweet, though plot relevant, lullaby. Here we get hints of the ‘problem’ that needs to be solved.
See, in the first movie, the ‘problem’ was a magical curse that could only be lifted with an act of true love. The problem wasn’t caused by a complex issue, but rather the problem gave the story a way to explore different kinds and aspects of love. That was what made it so great.
In Frozen 2 however, the problem is imperialism. Quick! How do we solve imperialism? Ok, ok, actually, the problem is a magical mist that bars anyone from entering the northern forests. But it’s also that spirits appear in Arendelle and drive everyone out. But it’s also that a haunting tune calls to Elsa. We learn that the mist appeared because a conflict broke out between the people of Arendelle and the Northuldra while their father was but a boy. We are lead to assume that this mist is simply a barrier to protect these people from Arendelle. As the story progresses we learn it was caused by an imbalance of spirits caused by… you guessed it… imperialism!
Quick aside on this setup. In the original Frozen, the stakes are personal. Anna, the last of Elsa’s family, could die if they don’t resolve the problem. In Frozen 2, the stakes are… a barrier between two different people groups. That we learn from a bedtime tale. From a bedtime tale they completely forgot about until years and years and years later when Elsa starts hearing voices. the stakes are not really personal at all, save for keeping Elsa’s tenuous grasp on sanity. And this siren call drags her into the plot, but only after a bunch of spirits invade the city. This almost works, but it feels like it came out of nowhere. Why now? She didn’t hear this siren voice in the previous movie, but now all of a sudden it sings to her? This set up worked much better in Moana where she has a life long stirring to explore. Its an internal motivation to go into the unknown. Gah, now I need to listen to some Moana songs again. They call me. I digress…
They travel north to find the enchanted forest and the thick mist that is set up as a mystery. The first mystery is how to get past it, which is immediately solved because the mist wants them there because plot, so they get sucked in and find themselves trapped on the other side. They find the Northuldra and the soldiers from their father’s story apparently still fighting. Which initially makes this feel like they were trapped in time, which could have been interesting. Instead we find out they’ve been living there for the whole time in this sunless mist. So no sun, and somehow still fighting for years. We even get an exact counting in years and days by those trapped inside – well over thirty years! Just… why. That brings up more questions than is worth it. How did any food grow? How are the soldiers and the Northuldra still fighting? How are the soldier’s outfits and weapons still in good condition? But most importantly, this means that this mist was not a simple barrier keeping Arendelle out, or a time capsule saving the locals until it is safe. Instead it was essentially a prison that trapped everyone inside with no direct sunlight. I think they were going for this idea that prejudices in the past keep us locked in a conflict with no hope.
And this almost works until we remember that in story, the mist was caused not by spirits of prejudice or hate, but by nature spirits who lived in harmony with the Northuldra. But when conflict occurs, the spirits don’t so much protect the Northuldra as much as they create a prison for them. This really muddles the message. But the message gets muddled some more.
Of course when our heroes appear, the fighting between the Northuldra and the soldiers gets stopped fairly quickly as the friendship squad basically explains everything, thanks to Olaf’s theatrics. Elsa’s befriending of the wind and fire spirits helps too. Because of course she does. Bonus, we get a new cute character, a fire salamander! Absolutely adorable. Love it to death! No time though, the plot pushes them further north as they uncover the truth! Because remember that’s the second theme we are exploring. They don’t do this by talking with the survivors, or talking with the spirits, but by watching frozen memories created with Elsa’s magic that somehow captured flashes of the past. Because, and this is the biggest sore spot for me, ‘water has memory’.
Water has memory. Just… water has memory? This is based on pseudo science bullshit, and while I’m fine with magic and whatnot, why encourage fake science while we’re at it? But OK, that could be forgivable, if it weren’t used as a story crutch. They learn about the past by just freezing the memories of the water like spooky spectral photos. Why do that when you have people who lived through the events right there? Let’s Rashomon this story up!
Oh, actually I think I might know why. Because the imperialism of their past wasn’t something that was systemic, not based on a widespread understanding that Arendelle has the right to rule or are better people or needed the resources, etc, but because gramps, and gramps alone was the bad guy who decided to attack the Northuldra. For semi-sympathetic reasons too, as we learn from the ice memories, he thought the Northuldra having spirit magic made them dangerous. Can we not teach our children that evils of the past are just bad decisions of a few or singular individuals? Gah, I’m not sure which is worse in this regard, the Lion King or Frozen 2. Disney, you are terrible at social commentary. Keep to the world of inner emotions. You do that well, and its just as important for telling stories.
So, from these… frozen water… memories, we learn that Elsa and Anna aren’t of pure Aryan blood after all! Their mother was from the Northuldra, and of course this will play an important role. By itself, its an alright development. But oh no! The siren call is pulling Elsa further north to the Sea! At the water’s edge they find a boat, where we learn that Elsa and Anna’s parents didn’t get lost at sea in the south, but they had secretly gone north instead! Towards the plot! They died trying to solve this enchanted forest mystery themselves. We learn this through more frozen memories of water. Ugh.
This whole time, the clues and movement have a very… video gamey vibe to me. Find the four spirits, befriend or tame them! Wait, there’s a fifth spirit? Head north to find it! There’s even a platforming level for Elsa there. And of course, it is connected to mother’s lullaby. Actually that part is fine, its connected it a cute enough way, its a little basic, but not the worst variation I’ve seen of that. But the rest was too much like a game.
But I am getting ahead of myself, because as Elsa is getting ready to push across the ocean, we get a little bit of the first theme again. Anna is afraid of change but Elsa starts to embrace it, driving the sisters apart. We have a parallel slash repeat of the first movie where Elsa pushes Anna away. Very literally this time. Repeating bits from the first movie is a bit too common here. Elsa pushes her sister away. Later Olaf ‘dies’ but is brought back to life. Some of these beats could have been re-imagined or just not done in this movie. And maybe just… cut back on the references to the first movie? Let this movie stand on its own without reminding us of the first one.
And while I’m at it, I praised the animation and character moments, but the animators really really tried to make some of the songs grander than they really were. This made a few songs look like they are flailing around trying to look important. People liked the ice-fire works from the first movie, lets add them liberally here to add emotional punches to the song! But it doesn’t work that way. The song needs to have the emotional gut punch on its own first. And none of the songs were that strong. They should have flowed into the story rather than try to end with spectacle.
But I digress, as Elsa pushes north and runs across the sea, she is attacked by and then subdues a water horse spirit. The sequence is actually quite nicely done, but it doesn’t quite jive for me. It feels odd that Elsa is literally bending the spirit of water to her will. Yes, I know this is how ‘breaking’ a horse is done, but is that the metaphor you want for nature?
Anna and Olaf feel dejected and we learn that Olaf has learned to be angry. Kristoff is Lost in the Woods, which while a fun song, the 90s retro boyband with reindeer back up singers. I loved the song and the jokes, but… it didn’t feel quite in the right place. Oddly enough this is the only song that I still remember from the movie. Anyway…
Elsa heads north on her own and discovers the last bits of the truth and uncovering the past. Through water. Memory. Aaaaaaaaaah. This is where she actually learns it was her grandfather was the root of the problem. He had a dam built to ‘tame’ the land and the spirits, and used the rejection of the dam as an excuse to attack the Northuldra. This makes Elsa’s taming of the water spirit horse a lot more uncomfortable. Yes, bend nature and the very embodiment of water to your will! Just like your gramps. And of course we learn that the fifth spirit that is needed to bring everything together is…. Elsa! Yay! Because, get this, she is the balance between the two peoples! Imperialism essentially solved! Except not right away because she freezes among the memories. Now, I still hate the frozen water memories to give background knowledge being used here, but I do like the idea that going too deep into the problems of history alone can be paralyzing. Remembering the past and understanding the evils that happened is important, but more important is doing good now. So despite the surrounding problems I have, this imagery itself works well. But I digress, just before she fully freezes, she shoots off a magical message to her sister who figures out the problem. Which is that the dam is… blocking the spirits? Or weakening them? Or, whatever. Having a single bit of infrastructure be the central ‘problem’ is just myopic storytelling. As if dealing with one thing represents positive change overall. This is like asking for Guantanamo Bay to be closed without demanding that people be given actual trials and human rights. Its’ like demanding ICE be abolished without dealing with the underlying problems of bad immigration laws or law enforcement practices as a whole. Sure, the dam represents the problem as a whole, but it is not the problem itself but a consequence of it. But in the movie, no. Its the dam. The dam is the problem. Deal with the dam and the magic gets re-balanced. Yay!
But oh no! If the dam is destroyed, the flood of water would go straight past the city of Arendelle, destroying it! So the way to save the day, restore the balance of the spirits, and solve imperialism is… ecological terrorism. Or on a positive spin, dismantling infrastructure. After all, Elsa and Anna are royalty, and I have never heard word nor whisper of their rule having constitutional checks or balances. What they say goes, no? Ugh, why are we still telling stories about royalty and divine right?
Anyway, Anna gets the remaining soldiers to help her destroy the dam by attracting the attention of the towering rock giants who do the actual work, and that unfreezes Elsa because magic plot that was super vague to begin with. And not in an interesting way like in Frozen. The clever ambiguity of ‘true love’ is replaced with a general ambiguity of… balancing magical spirits? *sigh*
And here is what was one of the biggest missteps in my opinion. Remember, the people were already evacuated from the city. They are safe. We know that destroying the dam would probably devastate the city. Maybe even level it completely. But no one would die. Remember also that Elsa was trapped frozen far north across the sea. When the dam breaks, she rides her water spirit stead across the sea and past the raging flood waters to create an ice wall to save the city. I have two issues here. One is geography and logistics. With the magic that was presented, I don’t see her crossing the sea and getting to the city even in the nick of time. No. But this can be forgiven. The real problem, the missed opportunity, is that I think they could have something important. They could have said ‘we are not what we own.’ Many things change. Cities can be devastated by nature, but Arendelle is not the palace or the homes. Arendelle is the people. What a powerful message for kids and families who have lost their homes due to natural disasters. It would fit the thesis statement of the movie perfectly. Show the people rebuilding, because while many things change, the thing that doesn’t change is love. I would love to have seen the emotional beat of Elsa not being able to return in time, thinking she had failed, but then she sees the people banding together and rebuilding. Maybe even have the Northuldra come and help because they see others in need. And the people working together raises her up. But instead we just get Elsa saving the day and we don’t get that really valuable lesson that fits the very premise of the movie.
So the Northuldra are freed from the prison of mist and Arendelle is saved all thanks to the sisters, and Kristoff finally proposes. The end. We solved the scars of imperialism by taking down a dam. Good job, handshakes all around, and Elsa abdicates as queen so she can go live up north with her mother’s people. It’s unclear if she intends to rule them or just live with them. She is a powerful magic user after all. Anna becomes queen, because heaven forbid we set up a republic and let the people rule. We still have to maintain the divine right to rule after all. Why are we still telling stories about royalty? The characters don’t really fundamentally go through any real change. Sure, they have relapses into old habits, but no real transformations that have an impact on their character in the story.
The movie was enjoyable-ish. But Frozen 2 is a pale, pale sequel that bit off more than it could chew. Its better than most Disney sequels, but its the weakest of the Disney neo-renaissance we are experiencing. Instead of watching this, go watch any other Disney animation of recent years. Go watch Moana if you missed it. Big Hero 6. Zootopia. Watch this one last, and only if you really really loved the characters more than the story. But you can skip it. I hope they do better next time.