It starts with a single snowflake, animated with such pin-sharp clarity and delicacy it is almost hallucinatory. While the new Frozen II starts back in the primal moment of Frozen (2013), in which young Elsa and her little sister Anna are playing snowmen with the snow that Elsa can magically create, its vistas extend far beyond, leaving the small kingdom of Arendelle (where Elsa is now queen) for the Enchanted Forest, the Dark Sea and mythic river Ahtohallan. These new landscapes – a forest of mature trees blazing with autumnal colours, stormy winter seas, a glacier’s ice caves, a reindeer stampede – could be from a David Attenborough special, and similarly aim for awe-inspiring engagement with the natural world.
Frozen II is released in UK cinemas on 22 November 2019.
Like more recent Attenborough specials, the film makes explicit to its vast audience of young viewers an idea that was just below the surface of the first film: the huge impact of human beings on the planet and its climate. Earthquake, tornado, forest fire and flood – these agitations of the elements are rendered as compellingly as the sublime landscapes they disrupt. Frozen shared with Greta Thunberg the message that “no one is too small to make a difference” – her book title itself drawn from Lord of the Rings, a reminder that there is a deep thread of conservationism in children’s literature – but in Frozen II climate justice moves from allegorical substrate to the centre of the story. Elsa is drawn Into the Unknown (the title of the soundtrack’s first single) by an ethereal voice that speaks for disordered nature.
In the opening scene, the little princesses’ father Agnarr tells them of the four elemental spirits – of earth, air, fire and water – who protect the Forest in cooperation with its people, the Northuldra. When he was young, a celebration between the Arendellians and Northuldrans became a battle that left him an orphan; at the same time, the forest was closed off by a mysterious, impenetrable fog. The girls’ mother Iduna sings them a lullaby, All Is Found, explaining that Ahtohallan, north of the forest and no longer accessible, holds secret histories. “Can you face what the river knows?” she sings – reprising one of the themes in the first film, confrontation with traumatic memories. This time, Elsa is compelled to go in search of the origin of her powers; the quest leads the sisters to the Northuldra trapped in the forest, along with their reindeer and the elementals.
Even before the first snowflakes appear, the film starts with the Norwegian female choir Cantus, heard over the Disney castle ident. Their traditional chant is reincorporated when Anna and Elsa learn of their kinship to the Northuldra. Responding to criticism of the way the previous film borrowed from indigenous Scandinavian Sámi culture, the film team worked with specialist advisers from the International Sámi Film Institute. The three Sámi parliaments – in Finland, Sweden and Norway – were involved in a collaboration agreement on the film, with a benefits declaration detailing both proper representation and a return to the community, including a Sámi-language release.
This is, in part, the influence of Disney’s 2016 Pacific Islander animation Moana, a step forward for the studio in terms of diverse representation and concern with environmental issues. Frozen 2 follows its narrative arc, but is darker and more urgent, not least because it focuses on the colonial era, and a European settler community undertaking the pursuit of truth toward true reconciliation with the first peoples of the land.
It is through her connection to ice that Elsa realises she is uniquely placed to make reparations, but only at the risk of losing everything. Water has a memory, as Olaf the snowman keeps telling us, quoting a recent Western scientific finding that affirms Indigenous teachings. It is this quality that shifts Elsa’s abilities from the personal to the political as she learns there is right and wrong, and rules for her power: not the social codes of Arendelle she rejected in Let it Go, but the older covenant of ecological responsibility. Her undertaking will perhaps resonate with the school strike generation much as her Let It Go moment of self-realisation did with their older siblings in 2013, and led to the song’s embrace by, among others, LGBTQIA+ and disability activists.
Elsa’s activism is twinned with that of her unmagical sister, who again becomes accidental dynamic action hero. Anna’s inspirational rock-climbing ballad The Next Right Thing, a hymn to snapping out of despair, may become the film’s breakout hit; its message about taking things one small step at a time can easily be read as a call to climate activism. Elsa involves Anna, and Anna in turn brings the forest dwellers into her plan, even the seemingly destructive elementals. Their rage and fear – like Elsa’s at her powers in the first film – are recognised, included, and made generative.
The film’s finale revolves around the need to recognise the Northuldrans’ stewardship of the land. With the connection between the people, the forest, the sea and the sacred site of Ahtohallan restored, the film allows the Disney-esque castle of Arendelle to stand, too. As eco-warriors, Elsa and Anna will continue to inspire the so-called ‘snowflake generation’, who have claimed the term for themselves by pointing out that snowflakes are delicate, beautiful individuals which can survive a storm, stick together and become – like the ice in the song Frozen Heart – “stronger than a hundred men”.
Unstoppable snowman Olaf, himself made from snowflakes, observes that “advancing technologies [are] our saviour and our doom” and Frozen II embodies that uneasily. At a preview screening at the BFI, co-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck pointed out that the scintillating ice in Elsa’s showstopper Show Yourself was only rendered possible through the combined might of a week of processing by all of Disney’s and Google’s computers. It’s a painful irony that the industrial capacity necessary to animate ice to this level is only possible at the historical moment when much of the world’s ice is thawing, and through technologies that contribute to that eradication. Elsa’s icy powers may be able to stop elemental forest fire, but it is her determination to learn about and take responsibility for colonial climate crisis, in solidarity with an indigenous community, that we need as the forests of California, where the film was made, burn down.