With ‘Frozen 2’, Disney Finally Gets Woke on Climate Change

Frozen 2 has continued to break records since its release, with parents and children alike drawn to its timely message of environmental action and justice for indigenous communities. Yet Disney’s climate allegory has also prompted frosty reactions, with some hinting that it engages in an inter-generational blame game or accusing it of ‘propaganda’.

The first Frozen, released in 2013, was praised by parents for its progressive elements – notably Elsa’s unprincessly rejection of romance in favour of self-actualisation. Expectations for the sequel were high. And though reviews have been lukewarmFrozen 2 makes an even bolder pitch to be the most politically aware Disney film yet. Facing firmly towards its predominantly young audience, it addresses what many children are witnessing in the real world: environmental collapse, eco-anxiety, and their own attempts to make sense of the planet they will inherit.

Frozen 2 isn’t the first Disney film to explore humankind’s strained relationship with the natural world – perhaps no surprise for a studio with a large body of work centring on animals and rural settings. But previous attempts have had mixed success.

In Bambi – the studio’s fifth animated feature, released in 1942 – big-eyed and innocent woodland creatures are preyed upon by the faceless, nameless Man. The setup promotes an unambiguous anti-hunting message, with humans posing a sinister and existential threat to nature. But there is little space for ecological complexity or human goodness  – simplifications which, it has been pointed out, are a Disney corruption of the original novel. The film has even lent its name to the ‘Bambi effect’, an irrational and unhelpful preference for the conservation of some animals over others.

David Whitley, author of The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, has seen an evolution between films like Bambi from the original Walt Disney era and those of the later Michael Eisner years, which peaked with the so-called Disney Renaissance of the late 80s and 90s. This included films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, which Whitley sees as attempting to ‘heal the rift’ between man and nature, and to bring ‘resolution to the nature-culture divide.’

But though these films were made at a time when our impact on the planet was becoming increasingly clear, their references to this crisis remain oblique. Mermaid Ariel’s story may be read as an attempt to unite the human world of the land with the natural world of the sea, but the message is idealistic rather than practical, and it’s an easy one to miss.

Fast-forward nearly three decades, and the cultural landscape has changed. Not only are children aware of the environmental movement; they are leading it. While the first Frozen touched on these issues, its concerns were largely elsewhere. The film’s depiction of extreme weather may have echoed what children were seeing in the news or hearing at school, but it didn’t work to contextualise or explain this. In the film’s follow-up, however, the message is clear.

So, to summarise: Elsa and Anna’s ancestors have built a dam, and their abuse of the natural world has upset the four elemental spirits. This results in a form of climate crisis that disproportionately affects an indigenous people, out of sight and mind of the urbanised Arendellians. Elsa embarks on a fact-finding expedition to – of all places – a glacier, where she learns that the only way to restore balance and placate the spirits is to destroy the dam. The flooding and destruction of her kingdom seem to be the certain but necessary consequences, with the film briefly hinting at a radical anti-capitalist – even anti-human – resolution.

But Elsa also learns during her glacial sojourn that she is uniquely gifted. She is the ‘fifth spirit’ – a ‘bridge’ between the human and the natural. And so, with a bit of help from her friends and her own magical powers, the dam is destroyed, the kingdom is saved, and a snowman is resurrected.

Some will view this conclusion as a cake-and-eat-it cop-out. And from a story-telling perspective it is certainly peak deus ex machina. But it also represents a quietly revolutionary reframing of the old dichotomy. It suggests that we can only solve this crisis by becoming that bridge –pointing directly at that unification that earlier movies could only hint at. The solution to the problem of human versus nature is human and nature.

Most importantly, perhaps, the film offers a hopeful message – even an optimistic one – to empower its young audience. But just as Elsa and Anna must learn the painful truths of the harm their ancestors have wrought, it also requires that we come to terms with the past.

Whether Frozen 2 will hold up to future scrutiny or appear clumsy to the next generation remains to be seen. So fast is our understanding and language surrounding the environmental crisis developing, that it seems unlikely the film will survive untarnished. Indeed, the studio has already been accused of hypocrisy for producing tonnes of non-recyclable plastic merchandise destined for landfill. Nevertheless, we should celebrate Disney’s bold step forwards, which goes further than ever before to engage its audience in our most urgent and vital challenge.

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