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Movie Review: “Frozen II”

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve reviewed a lot of movies—many of them exceedingly abstract. But I didn’t have any difficulty following or comprehending the Wachowskis’ “Cloud Atlas,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” or Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”

But I did not understand “Frozen II.” The sequel to Disney’s 2013 mega-hit couples gorgeous animation and songwriting with an ever-more-muddled storyline that never fully coheres.

We pick up with Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) several years after the original film. Elsa rules as Queen of Arendelle, a Scandinavian-themed city-state on the edge of a grand fjord, and seems to have finally mastered her elemental ice powers. But soon, Elsa starts hearing a spectral voice calling her northward, to a mysterious forest shrouded in near-impenetrable fog—where, many years ago, a great battle took place between explorers from Arendelle and the tribal people of Northuldra. That battle stirred up the forest’s elemental spirits of earth, air, fire, and water; the spirits have since grown discontent, endangering Arendelle’s stability. So, off to the forest Elsa and Anna—accompanied by Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and anthropomorphic snowman Olaf—go.

It eventually becomes clear that Elsa’s ultimate destination lies still farther away: Ahtohallan, a legendary river that allegedly contains all memories and will unlock the secrets of her identity. But Ahtohallan is also a place of primordial truth, where the lies on which Arendelle itself was built will be revealed.

That’s a lot of plot for a kids’ movie—and we haven’t even gotten to the third act. (There’s no “big twist” in this movie like last time around, but fair warning, spoilers to follow.)

Elsa’s arrival at Ahtohallan is a euphoric, metaphysical experience, backed by one of the franchise’s most stirring anthems. Abstract imagery swirls across the screen as she ventures deeper into the river’s heart, progressing into a kind of “cloud of unknowing.” And at the climactic moment, she beholds her long-lost mother—who seems to be a fifth nature spirit, the one who promises to restore harmony between all the other elemental powers.

Immediately thereafter, Elsa plunges into a black abyss of memory within Ahtohallan, where she learns that the battle that triggered the forest’s elemental disharmony wasn’t a misunderstanding between two different peoples. In true colonialist fashion, Arendelle’s envoys betrayed the peaceful Northuldra people in order to construct a dam in their lands. That dam towers high above the fjord in which Arendelle itself now stands: destroying the dam and releasing the river will restore peace in the Northuldra forest, but will wash Arendelle into the sea. Elsa herself then immediately freezes—just like Anna in the original film.

There’s a lot to unpack here. To start with the obvious: though it never comes fully into view, “Frozen II” has some of the most radical political messaging I’ve ever seen in a kids’ movie: According to this film, any nation with a history of subjugation or oppression must be utterly destroyed, its foundations washed away, before anything else can be built. Howard Zinn (or, if you prefer, the New York Times’ “1619 Project”) would be proud. Now, I certainly don’t agree with that approach to politics (and in the context of a children’s movie, it feels nakedly propagandistic), but I have to grudgingly admire its audacity. Who knew Disney had the nerve?

But “Frozen II” pulls its punch at the last second, refusing to commit to its own thematic vision. As the story reaches its crescendo, Elsa—magically unfrozen after Anna triggers the dam’s collapse—dashes into the fjord and uses her magical ice powers to divert the tidal wave, saving Arendelle. As a result, it’s altogether unclear what the narrative takeaway is meant to be. Is this last-second rescue meant to imply that symbolic acts of moral righteousness can paper over the need for real structural change? Is this an Abraham-and-Isaac scenario where, following Anna’s choice to sacrifice Arendelle, Elsa (as an avatar or manifestation of the divine) then shows mercy? I have no idea, and I’m not sure directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee do either.

The film then concludes with a garbled bit of dialogue suggesting that Elsa herself is the “fifth spirit”—but also that Elsa’s mother had two daughters, both of whom are meant to bridge the gulf between nature and humanity—and…uh…I got nothing. Anna is crowned queen in Arendelle, and Elsa chooses to remain with the Northuldra. Roll credits.

I have many questions about the internal logic of…well, basically everything that happened in the last half hour. So, because I have an incorrigible desire to make things make sense, I propose an esoteric reading of the film that treats it as a Gnostic exploration of Neoplatonic Trinitarian theology.

To grasp this, consider how St. Augustine deployed a “psychological” metaphor for the Trinity. Just as memory, reason, and will are involved in every voluntary action, so too are the three persons of the Trinity involved in God’s activity. God the Father, the eternal and unbegotten, corresponds to memory: in Him all of time is contained, and from Him all things proceed. God the Son, the Logos, corresponds to reason: the ordering by which God makes the world. God the Holy Spirit, in turn, corresponds to will: God’s active, all-shaping presence in the world.

These themes play out—in heterodox fashion—beneath the surface of “Frozen II.” It is difficult to see Elsa as not, in some sense, a messianic figure. After all, early Gnostic tales of Jesus’s childhood are full of stories of Him frightening others with powers he does not fully understand (sound familiar?) and bringing living creatures forth out of inanimate matter (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”). Moreover, in “Frozen II,”  Elsa’s primary quest is a journey to Ahtohallan, the source and repository of all memory—a repository that is metaphysically identified with her long-lost mother, who is (in essence) an all-unifying spiritual presence. That is to say, the Daughter (Son), who proceeds forth from the Mother (Father), is driven by an urge toward mystical restoration and unification—a process that closely tracks the Gnostic conception of spiritual progress as ascent into an ever-more-ineffable experience of God. Onscreen, this comes to a head when Elsa enters into her mother’s presence at the film’s climax and is—quite literally—transfigured.

On this reading, Elsa’s confusing concluding statements about the “fifth spirit” make more sense. Elsa’s mother (memory) is the “fifth spirit”—but so is Elsa herself (as the embodiment of will) and so too, in some sense, is Anna (as the embodiment of reason—she, after all, is most properly suited to rule Arendelle). Thus, what “Frozen II” is secretly about is the restoration of the cosmos through a return to the divine wellspring from which it emerged.

Now, do I think the filmmakers consciously intended any of this? No—and if I’m wrong, I hereby vow to eat an entire snowman bite by bite. But I like this reading rather more than the alternative, because it allows me to believe there’s some cohesive vision underlying the story. Eisegesis is fun! (Just don’t ask me to explain why Elsa spontaneously froze, because I have no idea.)

None of this is to say that “Frozen II” isn’t a fine time at the movies—because it is. Disney’s animation has never been better, and the songs are even stronger this time around (if you were underwhelmed by Menzel’s take on “Into the Unknown,” rest assured that the Panic! At the Disco version is a real banger, and Kristoff gets a hilarious hair metal-inspired power ballad midway through). Maybe I’m just thinking about this story stuff too hard and need a five-year-old to explain things to me. 

Or, maybe I just need to let it go.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2019 in Fantasy

 

Movie Review: “The Lion King”

Out of all the Disney animated classics, none holds a greater place in my heart than “The Lion King.” I can’t even count how many times I’ve watched the original film—in particular the unforgettable “Circle of Life” opening sequence. (It was also pretty fun to grow up and realize “hey, that story was actually ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ all along!”) Given Disney’s mixed track record in recent years, maybe I should’ve been more skeptical of director Jon Favreau’s live-action—ahem, photorealistic computer-animation—update, but I was there opening night as soon as the remake dropped.

The verdict? Mostly positive—even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor.

At bottom, this is almost the same movie as the original, sometimes even feeling like a shot-for-shot remake. The themes and songs and iconic images—well, most of them—are all still there. If mainlining 90’s nostalgia is your thing (and come on, that’s the entire millennial generation’s raison d’etre), it’s hard to top this movie.

But even so, something’s missing.

It’s a little tough to pin down the biggest advantage of the hand-drawn 1994 film over the 2019 remake, but I’d describe it in terms of the distinction between scientific truth and narrative truth. Consider, for instance, the difference between the statements George Washington crossed the Delaware and a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens entered a carved wooden cylinder to travel across an expanse of running water. The former tells, or at least connotes, an account of events that becomes intelligible in the context of a greater narrative; the latter, decontextualized, describes detailed observations without reference to underlying reasons or causes. Both statements are true, but each statement expresses something the other does not. Awareness (or the lack thereof) of this distinction is what makes Nathan Pyle’s “Strange Planet” comics so entertaining, and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s social media presence so insipid.

The 2019 photorealistic version of “The Lion King” is a triumph of “scientific” storytelling (well, as far as it goes). For better or worse, the onscreen animals and landscapes look real, like images from a high-caliber nature documentary. But in the process of translating the story from a cartoon to “live-action” format, some crucial—if subtle—aspects of the narrative have been lost. To understand what I mean by this, take two minutes and watch this scene from the 1994 version, when the triumphant Simba finally ascends Pride Rock. It’s probably one of the most powerful, evocative sequences ever put to film.

The 2019 version of this scene—rendered as a single wide-angle shot—plays out rather differently. No longer does Rafiki hug Simba and tell him “it is time.” No longer do we see the look of absolute joy and awe in the faces of Simba’s friends. No longer do we see Simba’s climb from multiple angles, including the mingled joy, sorrow, and longing on his face as Mufasa’s rumbling “remember” echoes from the sky. And perhaps most crucially, the remake omits the original’s half-second cutaway shot of a bleached antelope skull being washed away as a cleansing rain flows over the Pridelands.

The scene’s message is clear: Simba’s victory is something more than just a good guy triumphing over a bad guy. Rather, it’s a kind of cosmic healing of harms, a restoration of the proper order of things.By reducing the sequence to a single wide-angle shot, the 2019 movie’s “simpler” approach fails to capture the full emotional power of the original—and that’s not the only place where the 2019 film seems to miss crucial aspects of the first film’s mythic majesty.

For instance, in the remake we’re told at one point that the reason for the Pridelands’ desolation under Scar is the hyenas’ overhunting of the herds—whereas the original, which lacks such an explanation, instead implies that the desolation is a kind of existential sickness bound up with the triumph of evil and the displacement of the “natural law” (that is, the circle of life). In this reading, Simba is not merely the rightful ruler of the Pridelands, but something of a messianic figure (an interpretation strongly suggested in Rafiki’s shamanistic imagery). The 2019 update resists that reading.

Additionally, perhaps the most unforgettable visual from the 1994 film was the image of Rafiki, straining forward towards the edge of Pride Rock, lifting the infant Simba high as a visible beam of sunlight descends from the clouds and strikes the baby lion’s face. The 2019 remake trades this for a shot of Rafiki sitting on the edge of Pride Rock holding up Simba as the clouds part overhead, lighting up Simba’s face. I’m sure the remake’s version is more scientifically accurate (mandrills don’t stand up like that!) but it’s certainly not as majestic an image as the original.

Now, to be sure, there are some things the remake does better than its predecessor—enough to satisfactorily offset the update’s emphasis on scientific over narrative truth. This time around, for one thing, Scar’s hyena accomplices are much scarier, coming off as real threats rather than comic relief. (I’d be remiss in my critical responsibilities, though, if I didn’t flag at least one eyebrow-raising revision here: in this version, the hyenas are attempting to migrate from their “own land” which they’ve devastated, whereas the original suggested that the hyenas were vagabonds voluntarily living on the margins. Rather like The Angry Birds Movie, it’s not especially difficult to read the film as expressing some politically incorrect ideas about what foreigners do to an existing culture. Take that for what it’s worth.) Additionally, the transition from animation to photorealistic CGI gives the larger animal characters (like Mufasa) some genuine heft and power. The stampede scene has some real, concussive force to it, and the climactic fight between Scar and Simba feels earth-shattering in its intensity.

Perhaps most interestingly, the update treats the mantra Hakuna Matata—“no worries, for the rest of your days”—as a kind of nihilistic Epicureanism rather than a goofy rallying cry for stoners. As the meerkat Timon is happy to inform the adult Simba, Hakuna Matata entails a wholesale rejection of the whole principle of the “circle of life.” For Timon and warthog buddy Pumbaa, life is a straight line: birth to death, lacking a unifying principle of interconnectedness (Simba, by contrast, never forgoes his quasi-religious beliefs in the circle of life and in the providential presence of the “great kings of old” looking down from the stars). Now, Timon and Pumbaa eventually repudiate their view—but the very framing of the issue as a clash of metaphysics, rather than just an abdication of responsibility, adds an interesting level of sophistication to the film.

At bottom, if you (like me) grew up watching “The Lion King” on repeat, you owe it to yourself to see the remake.  I may quibble about issues of narrative truth and scientific truth, but the fact that the 1994 film is basically perfect doesn’t make this update automatically a bad one. The visual effects are breathtaking, the music is still great, and the story is still powerful. And it’s much better than, say, 2019’s “Aladdin,” because it doesn’t gut the themes that made the original so memorable.

The photorealistic version may not be the first iteration of the “Lion King” story I show my children. But it’s a good time at the movies nonetheless.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2019 in Fantasy

 
 
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