“Let it go” with the anti-colonialism in Frozen 2

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“Let it go.” Wise words indeed, from no less than the heroine of Frozen 2 in the franchise’s previous installment. And yet they seem not to have struck a chord with the writers and directors of the current outing. Frozen 2 strangely shifts the focus from familial and specifically sisterly love to the utterly divergent theme of anti-colonialism. While discordant with the major motifs of the first Frozen, it’s of a kind with many other recent movies made by the Mouse, leaning leftward in the calculation that the extra enthusiasm from one half of the political divide will translate into profit margins that more than make up for the money lost by alienating the other side. 

Anti-colonialism might be misconstrued as an anachronistic message in the post-colonial era we’ve long lived in, but the film knows who it’s talking to. The intended takeaway is not that the children watching it should – when they like Olaf grow up and understand everything – refrain from territorial expansion at the expense of indigenous populations. Rather, two far more radical anti-colonial arguments are being put forward. 

The first is found is the film’s fixation on memory. The claim is oft made throughout and eventually verified that water contains memories. This is demonstrated through the evolution of Elsa’s powers, going from fairly standard cryokinesis a la Bobby Drake to the ability to physically manifest the events of the past as fully animated ice-sculptures. It is through such sleeted simulacra that she learns her grandfather Runeard was deceitful in his dealings with the indigenous Northuldra and that her mother was originally a member of that tribe. Moreover, the catalyst for the plot comes about when Elsa audibly hears echoes from the past. Like the ice-golems, memories of her mother singing are given physicality in the here and now. 

Elsa is gifted these genetic memories of her ancestor’s actions in order to prompt her and her sister Anna to assume a moral culpability for them. While not quite saying that the sins of the father are passed down to the son (or in this case, of the grandfather to the granddaughters), the film certainly presumes upon Elsa and Anna a duty to pay for said sins at the price of their own civilization. In order to break the curse that had befallen the Northuldra’s Enchanted Forest, Anna effects the destruction of a damn knowing that the resulting flood would destroy the kingdom of Arendelle (which, presuming Elsa had passed at that point, Anna was acting regentess of). Though the deus ex machina of magic both restores Elsa and in turn allows her to save Arendelle, Anna was of course ignorant that this eucatastrophic outcome would come about. What the film valorizes as heroic, therefore, is the descendants of those who did engage in colonialism fixating on the inequities of their ancestors and sacrificing the wealth and welfare of their own society in reparation to the descendents of aggrieved peoples. And it’s not exactly subtle in saying such. 

The other, even more radical, anti-colonialist claim is that more primitive peoples in no way benefited from contact with more technologically advanced civilizations, not even from the access to new technologies. King Runeard built for the Northuldra a damn. This itself is seen as an act of aggression according to the logic of the film. Frozen 2 is so Luddite in its disposition that even this common means by which mankind has for centuries shaped the Natural world to suit its needs is regarded as beyond the pall. Past Disney films such as Pocahantas have similarly fetishized Nature, but I can’t recall any apart from the Jungle Book remake which vilify technology and mankind’s inherent unnaturalness to the same extent. Olaf opines early on that emerging technologies will prove humanity’s salvation and then destruction. It’s a funny moment that the audience doesn’t realize until later is not a joke. 

Given that Mickey & co. aren’t likely to relocate to Europe in order to gift the swampland on which Walt Disney World sits back to the Seminole, nor are they likely to abandon cutting-edge, carbon-fueled, computer-generated animation techniques, let alone damns, the anti-colonialist criticisms leveled in Frozen 2 come across as somewhat less than sincere. The same can surely be said of most of the audiences Disney is attempting to appeal to, even those for whom anti-colonialism is an animating principle in their thinking. To both filmmakers and filmgoers, regarding those parts of the past that no one alive today was party to, take Elsa’s advice: “Let it go.” 

It’s a shame that so much criticism needed to be levelled against the film’s message, because there’s otherwise so much praise to heep upon it for the story’s structure and the imaginative worldbuilding. As for the former, Frozen 2 is a perfect panacea to the bitter aftertaste still lingering from the Game of Thrones finale. It’s an apt comparison. Both stories are set in fantasy realms wherein the catalyst for all the conflict to follow was two warring peoples and a set of star-crossed lovers bridging the divide. With Thrones, the song of Targaryen fire and Stark ice and all the wars which that entailed was entirely precipitated by Rhaegar Targaryan absconding away with Lyanna Stark following the fateful Tourney at Harrenhal. With Frozen, the curse which comes upon the Enchanted Forest is equally tied up with the sudden conflict between Arendelle and the Northuldra and the ensuing escape of Agnarr and Iduna. Jon Snow, being the result of the union between Rhaegar and Lyanna, should have been central to resolving the conflict created by their union and healing the land of Westros. His sidelining for his cousin Bran was a wholly dissatisfying narrative non sequitur. Frozen 2, in contrast, is narratively (if not politically) satisfying for having Elsa, as the scion of Agnarr and Iduna, reconcile Arendelle and the Northuldra to one another and heal the wound upon the land. 

With respect to world-building, Frozen 2 succeeds – surprisingly – because of its lack of novelty. The motif of the five classical elements finds its genesis in classical antiquity, and was surely well worn by the time I was first exposed to such via Captain Planet. The creatures chosen to embody those elements in the film are equally classic choices, such as a salamander for fire or a kelpie as a water spirit. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis noted of Medieval writers,

Far from feigning originality, as a modern plagiarist would, they are apt to conceal it… the originality which we see as a sign of wealth might have seemed to them a confession of poverty.”

In pulling so heavily from classic sources, in finding riches in the literature of the past from which to pull, Frozen 2 shows it still bears some semblance to fairy stories as they were written once upon a time, not merely sharing a genre, but through a shared desire to offer a new take on an old tale. 

Ironically, Hans Christian Andersen was being far more original when he first penned “The Snow Queen,” upon which Frozen takes its inspiration. This sequel even cheekily implies that Anderson authored the tale in that world as well, presumably as a record of the events of the first film (despite the enormous differences in Disney’s “adaptation” from the fairy tale). If there are parts of the past which we should fixate our memory on and not “let it go,” surely our literary heritage seems a more deserving candidate than a record of wrongs going back to the first time a Capulet slighted a Montague. Disney has not been the best custodian of that literary heritage of late, as Frozen 2 is itself evidence enough, but there’s much to enjoy in this film as well. Among which is a particularly catchy musical number with the lyrics “Some things never change, and I’m still holding on to you.” Hopefully, some things about the old fairy stories of Andersen, Perrault, and the brothers Grimm never do change, and Disney holds on to whatever remaining respect they once had for the works on which the Mouse built his house.

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