This article contains major Frozen II spoilers.
Frozen II is a movie determined to grow alongside its target demographic. The filmmakers are not coy about this fact, as Kristen Bell recently told Jimmy Kimmel that Frozen “has matured with its audience.” And nowhere is that more apparent than the lessons of family imparted in the sequel.
When the first Frozen came out, its emphasis on familial love and a sisterly bond transcending Disney formulae or romance was a breath of fresh air. Celebrating its central characters’ femininity, and making neither dependent on a male prince coming to their rescue, that first film featured an emotional sophistication unusual in a Disney movie and helped power that film, along with its songbook, to box office-smashing records. Yet if Frozen is about the power in the ties that bind, Frozen II suggests those ties can also constrict and even destroy. For what else can be said about the revelation that Elsa and Anna’s grandfather, in essence, committed a war crime?
That is the shocking third act twist of the film where Elsa’s ice powers are revealed not only to be derived from magic but also from a sin so great that it sent her family down a road that ended with her parents’ deaths and many of her and Anna’s sorrows. The revelation is couched in a transcendent moment for Elsa, likely intended to lessen the knotty implications, but it is there right after her final empowerment song.
With her hair now fully down to her shoulders, Queen Elsa struts onto the mysterious island of ice from which The Voice has beckoned her. Beyond the northernmost sea, and only reachable because Elsa conquered the spiritual element of wind, this frozen “river of memory” is where Elsa belts “Show Yourself” in what looks like a vast animated version of Superman: The Movie’s Krypton. In this space, her ability to see into “ice’s memory” connects the dots around why the enchanted forest north of Arendelle was impenetrable for 30 years… and why Elsa was given the double-edged power of ice.
Three decades ago, before a bloody battle between Arendelle’s army and the indigenous Northuldra tribe of the forest, there had been a diplomatic negotiation between Elsa and Anna’s kingly grandfather and the leader of the Northuldra. Apparently the enormous dam Arendelle built to irrigate the fjord on which its palace rests had inadvertently begun drying out the Northuldra people’s lands around their forest. And rather than actually discuss this theft of resources, it was Arendelle’s king who broke the peace by murdering the Northuldra leader while his back was turned, starting a blood feud that enraged the spirits of the forest. It was the sins of Elsa’s own ancestors that provoked a series of enchantments, from the mystical shroud around the forest that protected the Northuldra (yet isolated them from the outside world) to the curse that isolated Elsa with the touch of ice.
This is the shocking revelation, that according to Frozen II, Elsa has been on the path to discovering her whole life. It’s explicit in her two big power ballads of the film. During “Into the Unknown,” the Queen of Arendelle says The Voice in her head has grown louder every day in correspondence with her powers, and in her biggest and most elegantly written solo, “Show Yourself,” the Snow Queen harmonizes to the magical location from which it originated, “I’m here for a reason/Give me the reason I was born… You’re the answer I’ve waited for all my life!” But that answer is not one of empowerment, at least not in the simpler sense of self-identity that buttresses “Let It Go.” Rather this is a power borne from knowledge and from sin. It is the sins of her family, the sins of her nation, and the sinful lies on which Arendelle are built.
The weight of this knowledge can itself be a punishment, a gnawing reality about confronting one’s history that is teased throughout movie. As Elsa and Anna’s mother hints in a half-remembered lullaby, “Can you face what the river knows? Where all is lost and all is found.” The unhappiness of facing hard truths is crystallized when Elsa, finally accepting the past, appears to die. Like Anna in the first movie, the queen who once said the cold never bothered her anyway is frozen into a block of ice. It finally got to her. However, this is not the direct result of getting stabbed with ice magic nor is it the machinations of a villain like Prince Hans. The only villain in this story is Elsa and Anna’s family history and the kingdom’s own hidden failings. To accept that can be chilling. But before her seeming death, Elsa shares that hidden memory in the ice of her grandfather’s crime with Anna half a world away.
What writers-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, as well as songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (who share a story credit), are attempting here is incredibly ambitious. Through the magic of Disney animation and Broadway melody, not to mention a multi-billion-dollar franchise, they are crafting a parable about generational responsibility for imperfect, and even horrifying pasts. It would be easy to correlate Arendelle’s abuse of the Northuldra people to any number of historic avatars. Given the fictitious tribe’s faint resemblance to Native Americans and the Inuit people, one might draw a parallel between Arendelle consuming the resources they share with the Northuldra with the American government’s nigh total consumption of North American lands from its native inhabitants.
However, the presentation is broad (and vague) enough to apply to countless real world examples, from most of the Western world’s vile history with slavery to many a European nation’s bloody past of colonialism or anti-Semitism. The creators of Frozen II are not drawing a parallel to one specific event, but a catch-all that can be applied to any situation in which a person comes of age by accepting the complicated legacy of their family tree, such as perhaps discovering a slaveholder on Ancestry.com, and the even more tortured knowledge of national shortcomings.
Many are raised with a sense of patriotism and a love of their communal history, which can be a great thing. But loving your community, or your country, also means accepting the darkest chapters of its history and even, if possible, reaching for some type of atonement in the future.
That is Anna’s role in Frozen II’s climax. Believing her sister is dead, and seeing Olaf melt before her very eyes, she accepts her grandfather was not a good person, and that the dam on which Arendelle’s economy is built had an adverse effect on the world. So she attempts to do “The Next Right Thing,” which is the final song of the movie.
Singing “when it’s clear everything will never be the same again, then I’ll make the choice to hear that voice and do the next right thing,” Anna accepts Elsa’s death and carries on by doing the only thing she can think of to atone for their family and their kingdom’s mistakes: She destroys the dam which her grandfather committed murder for. It then turns into a massive Disney animated climax when rock giants out of Lord of the Rings chase Anna to the dam and shatter her family’s legacy.
Sometimes the only way to live with the past is to attempt to amend it. While I highly doubt a Disney movie is actually suggesting something as radical as some sort of major reparations project for any specific community wronged by a government (or corporation), there is still something transgressive about this finale, even with its Disneyfied resolution: Anna does the next right thing, so the spirits of the forest restore Elsa to life, and she can in turn use her ice powers to save Arendelle’s capital from being flooded into oblivion. However, the larger point remains when Elsa tells Anna that she was only freed by the spirits—and thereby Arendelle was spared from drowning in its legacy—because a greater power saw in Anna’s actions an attempt at reclamation.
Anna did not deny the past or pretend Arendelle just needed to be “great again” by acting above mistakes or criticism. Instead she learned from the ugly truth of her forefathers, and in doing so saved Elsa from death. The ending is thus characteristically happy, with the Northuldra people finally free from the enchanted fog around their forest and Arendelle standing tall… Anna even gets to become queen herself while Elsa decides to live with the Northuldra.
In fact, it is revealed that Elsa is the bridge between the mystical and the human, the past and the present. She says she is now the “Fifth Spirit,” hence her place belonging in the forest. Admittedly though, I am unsure if this was predestined because her mother was also half-spirit (she certainly knew magic) or if it was a byproduct of Anna making the right choice. In any event, Elsa takes on an even greater mythic quality.
Thus things are never the same again, nor as happily ever after as the ending of the first Frozen. Elsa and Anna are changed in profound ways. They’re both wiser than they ever were before, and they’re both empowered by the hard-earned lessons from accepting the past, warts and all. That refusal to let it go when it comes to our shared history is the true power driving Frozen II through every one of its high notes