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 Lighthouse”

2015’s “The Witch” was a strange and mesmerizing little film—an exceedingly slow burn set in Puritan New England, haunted by stern religiosity, madness, and the ever-present specter of the supernatural. With “The Lighthouse,” director Robert Eggers turns his talents to a different facet of the American experience: the world of smoky oil lamps, windswept islands, and ramshackle buildings hanging over the turbulent sea.

As the film opens, young drifter Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) joins old salt Thomas Wick (Willem Dafoe) to maintain an unnamed lighthouse somewhere far from shore. The two men do not take kindly to each other: Wick proves to be a stern taskmaster, chastising Winslow for the smallest infractions and demanding ever-higher standards of obedience. Above all else, Wick demands that Winslow never ascend to the summit of the lighthouse, where the lantern burns day and night. And Wick is prepared to enforce that rule with violence if necessary. (Mistrust, rage, and possible insanity follow.)

From an acting standpoint, this is superb work from both Pattinson and Dafoe (I never knew how much I wanted to see Dafoe as a gruff old sailor—particularly one who tosses around some of the most creative nautical curses I’ve ever heard). The sound design is suitably unsettling, and the film’s 1.19:1 aspect ratio and black-and-white cinematography further evoke the surreal. It’s not exactly the most accessible movie I’ve ever seen—if you thought “The Witch” was slow-paced, “The Lighthouse” is positively languid—but it’s nonetheless effective.

It’s hard to call this genre horror; on a thematic level, both “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are in some sense deconstructions of American history. Both films tap into iconic aspects of the American story, narratives previously immortalized in prior works: if “The Witch” unfolds against the backdrop of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Lighthouse” channels the ethos of Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” In that spirit, “The Witch” was suffused with concepts of purity and sin; “The Lighthouse,” in turn, wrestles with man’s response to the incomprehensible.

But where postmodernity sees deconstruction as as a disclosure of hidden human structures of power and oppression, Eggers’s deconstruction occurs on a deeper level. Rather than simply re-narrating the stories we tell ourselves, Eggers questions whether they were our stories in the first place. His movies are about the otherworldly forces creeping around the edges of experience, the liminal spaces where the human order blurs into the wild and pagan. On this view, it’s the story of civilization that’s actually aberrational; the eerie is the “natural state of things.”

As I’ve written before, this is a very old—one might even say premodern—view of the cosmos, one in which human ingenuity has little purchase. Indeed, “The Lighthouse” squarely sets up this dilemma: Wick is a man of ritual and superstition, and Winslow is a man of procedures and “reason.” Only one of them ends up vindicated.

Like the cramped cottage rooms it depicts, “The Lighthouse” is the sort of thing that some will observe and wonder what kind of person could find it appealing. It’s vague, ambiguous, and full of sturm und drang. And to be sure, this is indeed  a movie for a very particular sort of person—one willing to endure long stretches of strange imagery and atmospheric world-building in the hope of an effective payoff. On that score, though, it really does succeed tremendously. 

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Posted by on October 17, 2019 in Historical

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