This article contains major Frozen II spoilers.
When an animated movie does so spectacularly because of how it manages to draw in kids and adults, it seems like a sequel is inevitable. But where is there to go, story-wise, after happily ever after but to the dark and gritty? Such was the case with 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet—you need look no further than the internet as setting—as well as 2019’s The Lego Movie 2, which lampooned the dystopian vibe of Mad Max: Fury Road. The same seems true for Frozen II, which was rumored to delve into heavier stuff than its predecessor, and which seems to be following a trend established by the prior two films.
On the one hand, it’s not surprising. All three of the original movies in their respective franchises came out within a year of one another between 2012 and 2014; and all had to wrangle a five-to-six-year jump in the age of their young audiences. For Ralph, it was expanding the story’s scope to a digital space in which plenty of its viewers ostensibly spent their time (albeit with parental controls), and explores what happens when friends don’t share the same dream. Lego pits the Master Builders of the delightful original against the mysterious Duplos for a tender meditation on the struggles of “growing up.” Animated sequels, especially for Disney, are rare, but the trend seems to be on-the-nose lessons about heroes confronting their more toxic sides once they’ve saved the day.
But then Frozen II came out and completely subverted what we’ve learned to expect from “dark” and “gritty” animated sequels.
Initial trailers, and even the first act of the film, makes it seem as if it will follow an increasingly familiar route. The opening scenes present a restless Elsa, still awkward around her subjects and even her family; a ruler and sister who can (somewhat) enjoy the comfort of weekly family game nights but who also wonders about the mysterious voice that calls to her—a voice only she can hear, because she is the only magical being within Arendelle.
Instead of turning away from Anna’s nagging “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” like in the first movie, this older-but-potentially-not-wiser Elsa leans in toward the mysterious song on the wind, even as she knows that doing so will crack their fragile status quo. This tension infuses “Into the Unknown,” which replaces her “I Want” song of “Let It Go,” with an “I Don’t Want” anthem:
You’re not a voice
You’re just a ringing in my ear
And if I heard you, which I don’t
I’m spoken for, I fear
Everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls
I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls
I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you
Elsa is talking herself into a new quest even as she tries to talk herself out of it. Because while she has learned to control her powers, she still doesn’t know why she got them in the first place, nor the intended purpose for this magic. Her uncertainty is especially clear if you’ve listened to the Frozen Broadway cast recording, which includes new songs like “Monster:” Was I a monster from the start? Elsa sings on stage. How did I end up with this frozen heart? Try as she might, Anna cannot provide those answers for her sister. But she can join her in looking for them.
It’s an unexpectedly sad moment in Frozen II when Elsa sings, I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new, as if a girl gets one big adventure in her lifetime. It’s not as if Anna would begrudge Elsa venturing into the mysterious, fog-shrouded Enchanted Forest—she would just be hurt if Elsa went alone. If one wanted to go gritty, you would think that the perfect conflict would be between these two sisters who are only just learning how to coexist. There’s a little bit of that in their heated exchange after the Forest’s first big test: “If you don’t want me to follow you into fire,” Anna says, “then don’t run into fire.” This line hints at Elsa becoming potentially self-destructive, depending how myopic she gets about her quest to find the voice, the alleged “Fifth Spirit” of the forest.
The movie initially seems to be setting up the idea that Elsa might encounter some worse version of herself, especially when she continues to follow the voice deep into Ahtohallan, or the river of memory. She pushes Anna away, sending her skidding in an ice canoe on a frozen path in the opposite direction—regressing to her isolationist tendencies. It seems a clear step toward her confronting a mirror-Elsa, or ice-Elsa, who has become so consumed by her powers that she might threaten to overpower the queen we’re rooting for.
And where did we get that idea? From sweet, unassuming Emmet Brickowski learning the awful truth about his new, Duplo-destroying mentor Rex Dangervest in The Lego Movie 2. Rex, it turned out, is Emmet—or at least a bitter, hardened, future version of the sunny Master Builder after he was seemingly abandoned by his friends. We also got it from watching Ralph Breaks the Internet in horror as a computer virus copies Ralph’s every insecurity about his friendship with Vanellope, then propagates them all over the internet.
Both sequels came out within six months of each other and have fascinating parallels in which their heroes learn that, despite proving themselves as heroes, they still have pretty villainous flaws. For Emmet and Ralph, their vulnerabilities about change, about worrying that the people they care about will judge them for not “growing up” fast enough or well enough, manifest as destructive alter-egos who seem to function along the lines of if I’m not happy, then nobody is happy.
But this is not what growing up means for Elsa in Frozen II. Instead her other big song, “Show Yourself,” is about confronting the very best version of herself: the elusive Fifth Spirit of the Forest whose voice she’s been chasing is her. You are the one you’ve been waiting for / All of your life, her mother’s ghost sings to her, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I ugly-cried.
It might seem baffling, until we remember that Elsa already met her worst self in the original Frozen: the ice queen who confused burying her feelings with processing them, who accidentally sent a shard of ice through her sister’s heart because she didn’t have the words to tell her she simply wanted to protect her. Risking her security to follow the voice didn’t punish her, it rewarded her with a clearer sense of her purpose: to bridge the divide between humans and nature.
And then she dies.
Elsa’s moment of triumph is undercut by her decision to push further, to wade deeper into the river of memory despite the warnings she might drown. Except instead of drowning, she freezes—much like Anna is frozen in the original, sapped of her warmth and humanity. Lest you wonder how someone with ice powers reacts to the same damage, uncanny snowman Olaf begins flurrying into nothingness… because Elsa’s power no longer exists in the world. As Anna sobs over his slowly disintegrating body (did anyone else get Avengers: Infinity War flashbacks?), it seems as if Frozen II is actually getting dark.
Except. When Anna was reduced to an ice statue, there was an evil prince poised to shatter her with his sword. There is no such external threat to Elsa; she is simply rooted in place, and Olaf is melting away in the same fashion that the first movie only (morbidly, repeatedly) joked about. The emotional stakes just aren’t there.
Disney has killed off its fair share of parents, but there was no way it was going to execute its precious snowman (think of all the lost merchandise), nor the central figure of the franchise. Children likely won’t grasp that while caught up in the moment, but it’s very clear to adults even while watching the movie that Disney would never take that risk. But what finally makes Frozen II dark isn’t the threat of removing these characters; it’s making Anna believe that she is well and truly alone.
Because while ice-magic-death can change as quickly as the weather, you know what can’t be reversed as easily? Trauma. I could never have predicted when watching the original, the extent to which the sisters’ dual tragedy of losing their parents and their forced separation would make Anna so starved for human contact, or Elsa so awkward and isolated.
Emotionally, Frozen is far more subversive than its follow-up; instead of quirky Disney princesses with solemn chips on their shoulders, we got two emotionally stunted basket cases who had years of baggage to unburden. So when Anna numbly sings, Hello, darkness / I’m ready to succumb, I was truly shaken that this was a line in a kids’ movie—but it also felt more familiar than any equally chilling moment in the Ralph or Lego sequels.
How to rise from the floor / When it’s not you I’m rising for? Anna asks—but she also provides her own answer: Just do the next right thing. She doesn’t ignore the fact that she carries trauma, which tempts her to give up; she accepts that aspect of her experience and pushes herself to still do right in the world anyway.
The crux of Frozen II is not in Elsa and Anna confronting evil or misguided alter egos; it’s in confronting the violence in their lineage. The film’s greatest storytelling triumph is in the motif of water holding memory: Elsa resurrecting their parents’ final moments alive, holding each other as water rushes into their sinking ship; and Elsa reconstructing the meeting between Arendelle and the Northuldra, a tribe of indigenous people living inside the Enchanted Forest. It is how she sees her own grandfather murder the Northuldra leader. What makes these sequences so dark is that Elsa and Anna are confronting the truth of what has already happened. Not a mistake they made, or a misguided decision committed in anger or insecurity. This is memory, this is history, and it cannot be reversed.
Contrast this with the aforementioned animated sequels, and you find something more sophisticated in its moral. While those two films feature protagonists learning that the desire to destroy—whether it be smashing a sister’s Lego set or crashing the video game your best friend is playing—the harbinger of destruction in Frozen II is for good: Anna knows that she must destroy the dam with which her grandfather weakened the Northuldra—even knowing that the ensuing flood will wipe out the kingdom of Arendelle. The people have already been evacuated to the cliffs, so there is no fear of losing more lives, just the castle and city itself. So Anna lures the rock giants, with their massive fists to the dam, even as she grieves the loss of hers and Arendelle’s hard-won progress.
There was a brief period where I was sure that one of Frozen II’s takeaways would be akin to Thor: Ragnarok’s lesson—that, like Asgard, Arendelle was not a place, but a people. Instead Elsa returns to life just in time to race the rushing waters on her sea-horse and to divert the flood at the last minute, sparing Arendelle. Once more, Frozen II walks back almost certain destruction.
Moments like these make for a frustrating viewing experience, as the movie doesn’t hit most of the expected plot beats for a supposedly aged-up sequel. Neither the characters nor the world seem to take on the same damage as Ralph’s Internet, or Emmet’s Apocalypseburg. But that’s because Anna and Elsa bear deeper scars than either of the other movie’s heroes. In that way, Frozen II delivers on the darker message: that even if our trauma is invisible, we are still capable of taking that next step forward.
Natalie Zutter cannot wait to see more “dark” and “gritty” animated sequels subvert the supposed formula even more. Talk movies with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!