Frozen 2 “lets it go”… where no Disney film has gone before.
In this modern age of curated media, one of the few surviving realms of monoculture is Disney. Specifically in this case, any parent raising a daughter during this decade has found FROZEN occupying a central place in the pantheon of their child’s media life. We’ve raised our two children in a nearly screen-free home (no TV, no smartphones for anyone) and Frozen still wormed its way, like creeping frost, past our home’s insulation and into our kids’ hearts…and I’m totally okay with that. Disney, for a long time the bane of feminism, has long ago realized the money that can be made by creating strong and complex female characters, and in conjunction with Pixar with every film (Brave, Frozen, Moana) has gotten better and better at this. Gone (or gleefully subverted) is the find-a-prince-to-save-you plot. Instead, these films pass the hell out of the Bechdel Test by centering their narratives around female characters and their journeys of self-discovery, or their relationships with their mother or sisters or grandmothers.
That both my daughter and son idolized Elsa in that first movie was both telling and unsurprising; she was a strong character struggling to overcome both internal and external conflict, was buoyed by but not railroaded by her relationships, and, most importantly, nearly everything in the plot was steered by actions she or her sister took. Also, awesome ice powers. Also, “Let it Go” is an unforgettable song that somehow remains compelling to listen to even on the billion-and-third play.
So it was no accident that we picked Frozen 2 for our first-ever family trip to the movies. The kids had seen films before at friends’ or grandparents’ houses, or on school trips, but this was the first fully family-sanctioned outing. And both kids loved it, even though there was no real “breakout song” (with one or two semi-exceptions the soundtrack is utterly forgettable) and a nonstandard plot for an adventure movie: no real villain, the conflicts are 95% intra and inter personal, and the heroes’ goals are very complex ones. This was an intensely cerebral movie, very emotional if you were old enough to grok the subtext…and I have no idea what most kids will make of it.
It’s a film about the simultaneous yearning for and fear of personal growth and evolution, a film about what parts of self-discovery you are and aren’t dependent upon others to achieve, and, as if that wasn’t enough, how do the inheritors of an unjust situation make reparations to those that their forefathers hurt? In short, this was the most Blue State Disney movie ever. All of that stuff may or may not go over the heads of the people watching, but if it does, then this becomes a kind of boring, wandering movie broken up only by Olaf’s comic relief and the antics of a cute flaming salamander.
And then, WHAM, something happens to a beloved character that is sure to traumatize the kiddos (parents can remain confident that all will end well by the time the credits roll, but DAMN, I can imagine kids being thrown for a loop).
Although Elsa’s ongoing quest to find and be her true self remains a focus, in this film I honestly found Anna more compelling, as her intense loyalty to her sister eventually leads to her wonder who she is if she’s not defined by that. Kristoff (who is barely in the film), sings about a similar issue in the one (incredibly cheeseball yet no less revelatory) song he gets in the movie; can he not only be happy, but can he even live a life that is meaningful, without Anna? And not to spoil things too much, but Anna manages to answer her question with “yes” while Kristoff basically answers his with a “no.” Of all the characters in the film, he is the only one who follows the traditional “princess model:” his happiness and sense of self are entirely dependent upon his relationship with the girl he loves. In contrast, even Olaf has his brief moment of, “wow, I have enough of a sense of self that I can actually get righteously angry at someone.”
That said, Kristoff also has the two best lines in the film, both of them showcasing his amazing relationship skills: when he does manage to rescue Anna at one point from peril, the first thing he says is, “What do you need?” He doesn’t take over or “save” her so much as presents himself as a resource for her, ready to loyally follow wherever she leads. The other line is after Anna has ditched him to go off on a quest to save her sister, and you KNOW from his earlier song that her sudden departure without telling him upsets him and makes him feel uncertain if she values him…yet when she eventually, unprompted, she apologizes to him for this, he brushes it off by saying, “my love isn’t fragile.”
How the vision of the ideal man has changed! (can you tell a woman wrote this character?)
But what makes that line so poignant is not that it’s a display of blind devotion…rather, it shows that he is willing to hide his hurts in order to reassure the person he loves. It’s not so much a vision of an ideally obedient partner as it is of a partner who proves his strength, to the audience anyway, by how he’s able to manage his own feelings and freaking deal with them if it’s in the best interests of his partner that he do so.
That’s….complex….especially for a male character. Almost Japanese-ly complex. I couldn’t help wondering how the two of them would manage that dynamic in the years to come in their relationship, how Kristoff’s sensitivity and self-control would get tested and what would happen if he got pushed past his limits, and how each of them would have to change and evolve…and no previous Disney marriage has ever, EVER, been nuanced enough that I’d think of asking such questions of it. (As opposed to, say, Belle and the Beast, where mostly I wondered how long it would take for him to start abusing her again, and when and how her Stockholm Syndrome would wear off.)
Finally, the political B-plot (which is ostensibly the A-plot but no one’s fooled, it takes a backseat to the characters’ emotional development) basically presents Anna with the ultimate test of the Western World: realizing your people have screwed over other peoples, are you strong enough to accept responsibility for that, and actually take a hit to your own privilege in order to balance the scales? Conservatives (and Phil Ochs’ “Love me I’m a liberal”) rightfully mock the American Left for always stopping short of that moment, despite all their moralizing rhetoric. To have Anna make this choice — regardless of deus ex machinae that eventually follow — is effing bold, and a stunning model for children.
I have no idea how much of any of this will translate to the elementary-school-set, but then, Disney’s power has always been in its subliminal influence. And for the first time, I left a Disney film thinking that maybe that was a good thing.