Under Childhood is a monthly column on children’s cinema—movies about and for kids.
The first time I showed Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee's 2013 adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen") to a group of children, I observed two extreme responses to one of the most popular children's films from the last decade. Many were riveted by the film's spinning movements and the electric energy shared between the two princesses, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Their power ballads send the plot lurching full throttle into multiple brushes with death—within minutes of the first film, we learn that the girls' staunchly anti-magic (and therefore, anti-individuality or self-expression) parents die out at sea. But for others, like one pre-schooler who burst into tears and needed to be comforted as far away as possible from the movie, the whiplash caused by zigzagging across confrontations with death, makeovers with sparkling gowns, and slapstick gags, were so baffling so as to be downright frightening.
Frozen's irregular tonal shifts (like the goofy birth of a sentient snowman (Olaf, voiced by Josh Gad) who then develops a burgeoning cognizance of death, or the introduction of Ana's charming boyfriend who then attempts to murder Elsa) are the "plot holes" that make Frozen (and its global popularity) a distinct educational object. The crises are layered with broad social and societal repercussions. The characters do not have the luxury to only perfect one tactic against a single problem—listen to your heart, avenge your father by killing your uncle Scar, kiss the girl to wake her up from an unending sleep. Instead, Frozen, and its sequel, Frozen 2, advocate for larger skillsets that prepare the child to not only solve or confront complicated situations, but also to issue an appropriate emotional response.
For instance, though the first film's hit tune "Let It Go" is a straightforward phrase marketed as a song to sing when you imagine "what Elsa would do," what Elsa describes cannot easily be reduced to a lesson. The eldest daughter of the two, Elsa exiles herself from the kingdom of Arendelle after her magical ability to create ice and snow causes an upset among the court. The "it" that she lets go refers to her shame, but the song also hints at the resentment ("let the storm rage on!") and isolation ("I'm never going back!") that she must later confront as coping mechanisms that she's mistaken as components of freedom. Further tinkering must be done inside so that Elsa can take hold of her confidence without rejecting the care of others. In other words, her song is bittersweet, both a cry for help and a cry of relief.
As told by The Art of Frozen by Charles Solomon, Disney Studio's adaptation of "The Snow Queen" first took form during the 1930s and 1940s, then continued into the early 2000s. Over decades, the little boy at the center of Andersen's story, whose friends must rescue him when he falls under the titular Queen's spell, became replaced with a girl, Anna. The Queen, then, became Elsa. From this change in dynamic emerges a wider space for misread intentions and misguided exchanges than that of a relationship between a kidnapped kid and a stranger. Though Frozen concludes with the reunion of two estranged sisters who do not know each other all too well, Frozen 2 follows the pair as their newfound closeness is put to the test.
As is expected of this franchise, the film is made up of episodic chunks dense with mythology. Elsa hears the voice of a spirit in Northuldra territory, referring the native tribe of the region that lives in an enchanted forest. A botched land treaty between the Northuldra people and the girls' grandfather, then the king of Arendelle, has tarnished the relationship between two nations, and has also upset the elemental spirits of the forest. These spirits begin to attack Arendelle, so Elsa, Anna, Kristoff (Anna's boyfriend, who wants to propose to her), Sven (Anna's boyfriend's reindeer), and Olaf (the aforementioned sentient snowman) embark on a journey after the voice and into the woods to figure out what is really going on. (Inkoo Kang of Slate offers a detailed and inquisitive investigation into the "bizarre" storyline, for those interested.) But as Frozen 2 sinks beneath its own mess, it becomes clear that what still floats is the people problems, many of which expand upon cues from the earlier film. Elsa still tends to push others away, while Anna still enjoys pushing too much into others' comfort zones.
But how does one reckon with the shortcomings of a loved one? A rift appears when Elsa insists on finishing the quest alone, since she is the only one with magic powers. Olaf the snowman, the youngest character in the film, best expresses the emotional difficulty of this event. Clutching his heart, he confides in Anna that he does feel angry at Elsa, but the confused look in his eyes suggests that this resentment brushes up against his compassion for Elsa. The latter feeling does not change in itself, but it now co-exists alongside a knowledge of Elsa's other qualities. This presence of both positive and negative feelings (or, in psychological terms, opposite valence feelings) can be referred to as mixed emotions. A child's acknowledgment that feelings can be multiple as well as different and often contradictory occurs within their overall cognitive development as a sign of emotional competence. Many Disney films, especially those of Shakespearian proportions or based on Andersen's fairytales, elicit as well as depict mixed emotions. A 2007 study from the Journal of Genetic Psychology, for example, examines children's mixed responses to the mixed emotions in the final scene of The Little Mermaid, wherein the mermaid Ariel must part ways with her father before he returns to the sea.
But though The Little Mermaid and other Disney fare does gesture towards how one may find themselves both happy and sad, Frozen and Frozen 2 take a further step in illustrating how children can then respond to that information. When you're not quite sure how to feel about an event or a sudden change in circumstance, one of the film's suggestions is that it is healthier to focus on the essential things of life, like love and trust. Immediately after Olaf expresses his conflicted state, Anna is quick to remind him that, despite his disappointment, she is still there to hold his hand. It is worth pointing out that she does not, however, make excuses for her sister or interfere in the relationship between Olaf and Elsa. Nor does she tell Olaf that it is not right to feel bad or that everything regarding his feelings will necessarily turn out okay, a maneuver that recalls the straightforward words of John W. James and the Grief Recovery Institute:
Children feel what they feel whether others approve or not. If the people around a child do not understand that sad, painful, or negative feelings are normal and natural reactions to hurtful events, then the child will just go underground and hide her feelings. Children will begin to ACT FINE, because that action is rewarded. “Isn’t she brave?” Or, “Isn’t he strong?” are the comments children hear when they cover up and bury their sad feelings after a loss.
What the film lacks in supposed narrative logic, it adequately makes up for with tiny insights and accomplishments that arise from interpersonal communication. These steps in self-understanding resonate just as much, if not more, than the disarray that is Elsa and Anna trying to compensate for the mistakes of their ancestors by reconciling with the Northuldra tribe, a fictionalization of the Sámi people native to Scandinavia. The film's one reach into politics stems from an informed attempt by Disney to rightfully make its portrait of ancient Scandinavia historically accurate (Disney also signed a contract with representatives of the people to be respectful in its portrayals of Sámi culture). However, the execution of good intent is not as impressive. Magic has trapped the Northuldra people in the forest for decades if not centuries, and like relics of the past they have not aged since. Anna and Elsa only gain the respect and trust of the tribe when it is revealed that their mother, the late queen, was also Northuldra. Rather than just save Arendelle, the girls then decide to also save Northuldra. The implication that their indigenous blood inspires this goodwill is at best silly and unnecessary, and at worst (as well as considering, like Inkoo Kang also mentions, Disney's Pocahontas) sour in its rehashing of a "Cherokee princess" myth.
This would be the first Disney film of its kind to explicitly grapple with topics like reparations and indigenous sovereignty, but its reconciliatory ambitions become more dubious as history is made into a conditional learning opportunity: What the Northuldra people think and feel about the environmental damage of their territory, directly caused by the people of Arendelle, is never addressed except through the filter of how Anna and Elsa assume they might feel, how this assumption makes the sisters feel, and the decisions that they then make to no longer feel that way. For all of the deliberate feedback shared among the characters, this sympathy to listen is never fully extended to those regarded as outsiders. The unacknowledged challenge that awaits is that of shaping the individual's positive and negative feelings into an understanding of how these personal experiences may fit within a more holistic context. "Into the unknown," is what Elsa sings as she charges ahead after the Northuldra spirit. The next step in maturity would be to name the unknown for what it is—a confrontation with a national (or regional, or even global) history of colonialism, of political responsibility and civic duty, of a communication that reaches out to other communities not for the sake of assuaging guilt but to make amends.