Pass the Popcorn: Into the Unknown

Elsa & Anna in the mist

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m delighted to report that Frozen II is every bit as ambitious as the original, and almost (not quite) as successful in its ambitions. It is well worth your attention, both as entertainment and as a profound reflection on the human condition, and repays multiple viewings – the only big-franchise movie in years of which I think all that can be said.

This review contains only mild spoilers – I mention a few specific things, but you will not lose any of the experience of the film from reading this. And some of the things below that seem to be spoilers are actually written to avoid revealing the real nature of the things they discuss. You’ll just have to trust me! (That, or go see the movie and come back here when you’ve seen it, either way.)

Elsa determined

As I first began to understand what the original Frozen was up to, what really impressed me was not just the sheer audacity of it – making a Disney movie that would permanently destroy the influence of Walt Disney’s poisonous romantic individualism in American cinema – but the absolute ruthlessness of the filmmakers in pursuit of their goal. Comparing Frozen to Enchanted, an earlier Disney film (and a princess film to boot) that had also taken liberties with traditional Disney romanticism, I summarized the difference Frozen would make: “Frozen is not subverting the Disney view…for fun. Frozen is playing to win.”

Frozen II is also playing to win, but against a different opponent. Like the first Frozen, it succeeds by making you really feel why the opponent that it is setting out to destroy is so attractive – making you commit yourself emotionally to the target – and then pulling out the rug. Your spirit soars with Elsa as she casts off the bonds of her oppression, repudiating her painful abuse at the hands of an unjust culture, and sings a paean to the liberation of unlimited individuality. (If your spirit does not soar, I regret to inform you that you are spiritually dead.) When Frozen has made you leap for joy that Elsa has embraced unlimited individuality, then – and only then – does it force you to see why unlimited individuality does not work, even on its own terms, and is in the long run an agent of death.

That is what I meant when I said “Frozen is playing to win.”

Flag of Arendelle

The target in Frozen II is not romantic individualism but romantic collectivism – traditionalism and nationalism as organizing principles of human life. The rousing opening number, “Some Things Never Change,” expresses the main characters’ deep and abiding love for Arendelle and its way of life. The uncertainties and anxieties of individual life find reassurance in the continuity and stability provided by community. That the individual is made to find their place in a community of love is, from one angle, the whole point of the first Frozen.

The desire for justice, in particular, can only be fully expressed socially; debates about what is right and wrong in interpersonal affairs are always carried out in particular communities, not in some abstract global seminar of the world’s philosophers. Justice is ultimately not an answer to the question “how shall I live?” but an answer to the question ” how shall we order our lives together?”

Hence the citizens of Arendelle sing: “We’ll always live in a kingdom of plenty/that stands for the good of the many.” And Elsa replies: “And I promise you, the flag of Arendelle will always fly!”

And the health and well being of the community is interdependent in even deeper ways than that with the individual happiness of its members. One section of “Some Things Never Change” is devoted to Kristoff’s anxiety as he prepares to propose marriage to Anna. This may seem out of place in a song about the nation’s way of life, but it is not. As an individual, Kristoff is well aware that he faces potential failure in his longing to marry Anna, and is of course preoccupied with his own uncertain fate. But the long-term telos of human erotic desire is the formation of families, which are themselves the primal community, and are also the soil out of which the larger community grows.

Frozen II would have been an even better film if the directors had not cut Anna’s song “Home,” which is not in the movie but can be heard on the deluxe soundtrack. I understand why they felt they had to cut it, because thematically it overlaps somewhat with “Some Things Never Change.” But there were other things that could have been cut (more on that below). And “Home” accomplishes several things that “Some Things” by itself does not. It completes the connection between individual happiness and the community; it emphasizes that a healthy love of one’s homeland is a great moral good, generating in us a sense of calling to do good for our neighbors and contribute to the flourishing of others; and (without spoiling anything) it sets up Anna in a really beautiful way for what happens to her at the very end of the movie.

Elsa into the Unknown

Frozen II is not going to debunk the need for community – which was, again, the point of the first movie. But it is going to debunk the idea that “some things never change.” On the contrary, all things corrupt and decay. Our communities are 1) always in a process of falling apart just under the surface, and 2) implicated in historic injustices that we are responsible to right, even if it means a risk of social chaos. Community simply as such is good, but the near-universal human tendency to romanticize community is as deadly to the real health of the community as the tendency to romanticize individualism is to the real health of the individual.

The reason we have a universal tendency to romanticize community is precisely because our desire to imagine a safe and stable future is at war with the real fact of our vulnerability and anxiety as individuals. We want to look forward into the future and see safety, but the prospect of personal failure cannot be eliminated from human life. To imagine a safe future, we look at our national ways of life and tell ourselves that “some things never change.”

Delightfully, there are subtle clues on screen during “Some Things Never Change” that telegraph the falsehood of the romantic view of community. Anna and Olaf sing of the people of Arendelle that “we get along just fine,” exactly as two people in the background get into a nasty argument. The permanence of Arendelle is “like an old stone wall that will never fall,” they sing, as stones fall out of the wall that Olaf is walking along.

Which suggests something about the lines later in the song asserting that “we’ll always live in a kingdom of plenty/that stands for the good of the many” and “the flag of Arendelle will always fly!”

Not to mention this lyric, which flies by the first time you hear it, but when you see the movie a second time it stands out like a tower:

May our good luck last!

May our past be past!

“Our past?” What on earth is that referring to? Best not to ask! Quick, let’s move on to the part of the song where we sing about how we’ll always have plenty, and stand for the good of the many!

We are summoned, by the voices of the spirit world, to abandon this romantic illusion of our nation’s future. We must hear those voices and step, as Elsa puts it in the first of her two showstoppers, “Into the Unknown.”

(By the way . . . two showstoppers! Whatever they’re paying Idina Menzel, it’s not enough. I hope she’s making enough money to build a real ice palace of her own, in downtown LA, maintained by the world’s most expensive array of outdoor air conditioners.)

Anna in the cave

We can always choose not to hear the voices of the spirits, if we are stubborn. But when Elsa finally chooses to hear the song, she discovers that an old wrong must be put right.

Putting old wrongs right is something you can’t stop doing once you start. And you can’t specify in advance how much damage you’re going to do to the existing social order. Like I said, the world being what it is, all our communities are implicated in legacies of injustice.

Everything Elsa and Anna love is ultimately put in jeopardy by the unrelenting demand of the spirit world that old wrongs must be put right.

On the edge of death itself, they reach the realization that there is really only one thing that never changes. (No, not “change,” that would be dreadful.) The one thing that never changes is a thing that is both human and divine at the same time, immanent and transcendent. It is a thing that builds up our communities, and at the same time tears them down.

You can’t have a love of justice that builds community without a love of justice that constantly threatens to destroy it, because they are the same love. The divine and human wrath that comes down upon our communities for their sins is only a form (a terrible one) of the same divine and human love that summoned our communities into being. It is only our stubborn refusal to listen to the song of the divine that allows us to avoid seeing this painful fact.

As Anna sings, echoing the words of the wise troll: When we can no longer envision a safe future, when even hope itself has died, we can only “Do the Next Right Thing.” And that is enough.

Matthias & Anna

The person who has the answer to it all is Lieutenant Mattias. The son of an immigrant who came to Arendelle and made good, Mattias learned at an early age both to love Arendelle and not to romanticize it – to value the preservation of the good, but also be ready for any amount of change should justice require it.

The original Frozen was attacked for not having characters of color, which was the dumbest sort of anti-creative tokenism, given that a small and isolated kingdom in the far north of Europe in the early 19th century (the timeline is established more clearly in Frozen II than in the first movie) need not have had a single resident of color. So naturally I was nervous that artistic integrity had been sacrificed – in ways that might do more damage to marginalized communities than to anyone – when I saw that Frozen II had a major character of color. Mea culpa!

It is a testimony to the genius of the filmmakers that Mattias is not only not a token, but he manages to simultaneously satisfy both and neither of the two sides of our culture wars. Right-wingers may cheer him as “assimilated,” and in a sense he is, but not so assimilated as to have forgotten the lessons of life on the margins where he came from, or to make Arendelle the foundation of his mental universe. Left-wingers may cheer him as a “prophetic” marginalized figure, and in a sense he is, but his love and his gratitude for Arendelle are profound, and he unhesitatingly serves the royal family of Arendelle to the last full measure of devotion.

Frozen II is playing to win.

 

Frozen-2

There is, in the end, no salvation. The love that builds community will always destroy it. And so on, forever.

Unless, of course, there is a supernatural savior who can bridge the gap between the world of the spirits and the world of humanity, uniting a human nature and a divine nature into a bridge with two sides. In that case, all bets are off!

(When my coreligionists rushed to claim the original Frozen as a product of Christian theology, I thought they were erroneously reading into the story a specifically Christian significance that need not be there. I still think that was the case. But Frozen II removes the ambiguity.)

If Frozen II has not landed with the same massive sensation of overwhelming cultural force as the original, I think that is partly because Frozen is now an established mega-franchise, and partly because the message is less radical to audiences that have already assimilated the first Frozen (as well as Inside Out, etc.). But it is also partly because Frozen II makes some missteps. The original Frozen was a hugely ambitious movie that accomplished its ambitions, but also a flawed movie in some respects. So is Frozen II.

The first time you see it, things feel rushed, because the movie is trying to do just a bit too much for its runtime. In mid-production, Josh Gad, who plays Olaf, brought the filmmakers a really attractive idea for a theme to work into the movie, based on an adorable exchange with his daughter (on whom Gad based the Olaf character’s personality). I’m glad they saw what a bright idea it was, and how it dovetailed with what they were already doing, but I think they did end up biting off more than they could chew. They’d have done better to save most of that stuff for Frozen III. The same goes for Kristoff’s big musical number, which is a funny gag, but not funny enough to justify the screen time it eats up. I assume they did this because Jonathan Groff was the only original cast member who was a professional singer, but he got to do virtually no singing in the first movie. So why not give him a huge, overproduced musical number this time, as an inside joke? (Or, for all I know, the actor may even have demanded it.) The worst flaw, though, is that the lyrics to “The Next Right Thing,” which is the big emotional hinge of the whole movie and sets up the climax, are poorly done. There’s just no easier way to say it; they needed several more iterations on the drawing board with that one.

All these flaws, except the last one, fade away on second viewing. Once you know what’s going on, it doesn’t feel rushed. And the depth of the story unfolds more as you take it in again.

Go see Frozen II. Then see it again.

Our past is never past. But the time is always right to do the next right thing.

2 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: Into the Unknown

  1. […] My review of Frozen II is live on JPGB: […]

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