The Covid-19 Reading of Frozen II

On Universals and Particulars in life and fiction

Frozen II is not about Covid-19, but when fiction understands the relationship between The Universal and The Particular, it can’t help but open up to the most relevant readings. A text is a mirror, even if it’s a Disney movie, and what we see when we look into that mirror depends on who we are, what we’ve been through, what we believe, what we anticipate.

Frozen II is a few other things: an improvement on and comment upon the original, meta-referencing not just the trauma of that damn over-played song, but adorably caricaturing the whole plot. It’s a story about about the relative importance of romance vs. matters of state vs. truth itself.

This is the universal: everything cannot be okay if an ancient sin goes un-redressed. We can be innocent, and ignorant, of the crimes, betrayals and genocides of our grandfathers, but once we’ve learned of them, we bear the weight of obligation.

This is the particular: the kingdom was fine without the dam, and with neighbors who practiced magic. But grandfather the King could not abide their differences. He built the dam to control nature and these fellow humans — he tricked them and betrayed them, and then he slaughtered them.

When the truth of history comes knocking, it doesn’t arrive as a sword or a disease — it arrives as a call (yes, a literal, audible, call to adventure), and the imbalance of the elements: air, fire, water, earth. Fire refuses to burn, water refuses to flow, the ground rises, air turns to glass.

Before that, though: the whole town sings “some things never change,” an ode to the eternal life of the “kingdom of plenty that stands for the good and the many.” Oh, this is America, but of course it’s every country too — it’s the place where the particular overlaps with the universal. We believe our wealth is a sign of our goodness, and that because we are good, we always stand up for what’s right. “May our good luck last, may the past be past,” the chorus of townspeople sings, but we’re being prepared: their good luck is about to run out, because the past is never past.

And so Elsa and Anna and Christophe and Sven and Olaf (queen, princess, consort, reindeer, and supernaturally animated talking snowman) set out to fix things. Along the way, Olaf regales them with fun facts, like that turtles can breathe through their butts, or that water has memory, or that an enchanted forest is a place of transformation.

The place where the film struck me as being about now, though, is when Olaf sings, “this will all make sense when I get older,” while all around him things that absolutely do not make sense are happening. The humor may be lost on children, who might take it literally — yes, Olaf will understand all this when he gets older! But to the grown-ups, it’s rock solid hilarity. Oh, you think the world makes more sense when you get older, but actually you’ll just encounter more weird shit! I was 44 when Covid-19 entered my vocabulary. Every day there’s some new complication, some new form of crazy — and we just keep going, and say — as Olaf does at the end of his number — “this is fine.”

Like many people I’ve mulled over the fact that our once-a-century pandemic and our national racial reckoning have come at the same time. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence — it feels like two sides of the same bullet. In Frozen II, the natural world has made their kingdom unlivable because of a racist crime buried in the unacknowledged past.

When Anna learns this, she also learns that her sister died to find out. Without Elsa’s magic, Olaf disintegrates into lifeless flurries. She is alone, in a dark cave, and while she struggles to stand and take a step and take the next and “do the next right thing,” the audience can barely wipe away the tears long enough to wonder “what is the next right thing?” what is the action that undoes this chaos? What can you do in the face of such utter loss and destruction, to salvage some future? Some hope?

Anna nearly kills herself to destroy her grandfather’s symbol of “progress,” the dam. It’s a monument to his betrayal and murder of another people who lived differently and so whose existence was intolerable to him. But after collecting two generations of water, the dam once breached promises to unleash a swell through the fjord that would wipe their kingdom from the earth. Knowing the people have all retreated to high ground, she does it anyway.

In the fiction, this act restores the magic, freeing Elsa from ice (who all this while has been living her story, learning to tame, not control, these forces of nature, and become the fifth element that unites them all, but who, in her pursuit of truth “went too far”); freed and with the access to the powers of all the elements, Elsa acts to save the town. Yay. But this idea, that to repair the crimes of the past, you must destroy their monuments, their structures, even if that means you’ll lose something, even if that means you lose everything — this is the universal that makes the particular resonate.

We do live in a world where nature is out of balance — we don’t have magical spirits representing “elements” like fire, water, air, and earth to tell us, but when a virus like SARS-CoV-19 leaps from bats to people, it does so because our relationship to nature is fucked in 20 different ways, including our encroachment on every last little parcel of undeveloped land, our weird desire to kill and eat everything that lives, and our super weird desire to treat the things we will eat cruelly and cage them in filth.

We live in a world where genocides and betrayals and “tricks” against other peoples is common — whether giving people smallpox-infected blankets, or selling them sweet potatoes that won’t produce next year’s seeds, or endebting them to the company store, or redlining them into higher interest rates, or selling them into chattel slavery, or marching whole nations onto barren “reservations,” or mining tar in their drinking water, or carving faces into their sacred mountains… We might say these are the crimes of our grandfathers, not ourselves, but what difference does it make? We live in the kingdom of plenty, telling ourselves we stand for the good and the many, as though the past were past — but the past isn’t past: our “good luck” of living like innocent babies on these fruits of plunder is.

Frozen II is not “about” the pandemic and Black Lives Matter marches that may have become the largest mass movement in US history. But its particulars tap into certain universals and those universals overlap with our particulars. It’s a story about the connection among nature and people — who mistreats one is likely to mistreat both. It’s about the kingdom of plenty born of genocide, and the natural world disrupted by exploitative “development” so far upriver, it’s out of the townspeople’s sight and minds; yet the rush of water will still destroy everything they know. Most of all, it’s about the need to risk it all to try to right these wrongs.

A story is a mirror, and when you look into Frozen II with a 2020 pair of eyes, this is some of what you’ll see.