Movies

Frozen 2’s Bizarre Storyline About Reparations, Explained

A scene from Frozen 2 surrounded by question marks
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Disney.

This post contains spoilers for Frozen 2, including the ending.

When Frozen debuted in 2013, it threw audiences for a loop by having a damsel-saving “act of true love” take place between two sisters. Given the franchise’s history—and Disney’s recent trend of subverting its own princess tradition—savvy viewers would be right to go into Frozen 2 expecting another curveball. But the wildest of guesses couldn’t have predicted that directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, the creative duo behind the first film, would make their sequel about … reparations?! As my postcolonial studies professors loved to say, let’s unpack this.

How the heck did we get from building a snowman to reparations?

Frozen 2 dives deep into Elsa and Anna’s royal ancestry—think Game of Thrones with slightly more ice and a lot fewer flayings. After the citizens of Arendelle are forced to evacuate their kingdom following a mysterious supernatural attack, Queen Elsa, Princess Anna, her boyfriend, Kristoff, and their sidekicks head into an enchanted forest, where Anna and Elsa’s late father encountered the Northuldra tribe as a young boy. As he explains to his daughters in a flashback, he had traveled to the woods with his father—Elsa and Anna’s grandfather—to present the Northuldra a dam, apparently a gift of peace.

Uh oh. Dams are almost always a bad sign in movies.

For a reason! But here’s Frozen 2’s first twist: It turns out that the generosity of the sisters’ grandfather was actually an act of sabotage meant to harm the tribe’s lands. The grandfather then attacked a Northuldra leader in cold blood when his real plan was found out, and in response to the resulting battle, the Enchanted Forest where the Northuldra live covered itself in an impenetrable mist. Decades later, Elsa, Anna, and company are allowed to enter so that the sisters can find out the truth about their ancestor’s misdeeds.

While they’re in there, Anna and Elsa also discover another twist: They’re half-Northuldran. Their mother, it turns out, was a tribe member who saved their father during the battle, escaped with him out of the forest, and later married him.

Wait, that’s a lot of information to take in. So Anna and Elsa have been secretly descended from an indigenous tribe all this time?

Yes.

Weird that it never came up before now.

You know how moms are with their mysterious lullabies and secret backstories.

Wasn’t there a whole controversy over the first Frozen movie being too white? And now you’re telling me the two main characters are suddenly not white?

Yes and … maybe. There definitely was a controversy, at least in some corners of the internet, about Frozen being too white. Defenders pointed out that Arendelle is likely in Norway (the fictional kingdom is named after the southern city of Arendal), and the two Frozen movies appear to be set around 1840, so a certain amount of demographic homogeneity could be expected. Detractors countered that Norway wasn’t necessarily all white, and besides, Frozen takes place in a universe where a proto-X-woman shoots icicles out of her fingertips, so the film isn’t exactly a documentary.

As for whether Elsa and Anna are white … the Northuldra are modeled on the Sami, an indigenous people scattered across northern Scandinavia and northwestern Russia who have faced a great deal of discrimination, but there’s a lot of disagreement about the genetic and linguistic origins of Sami to this day. Many Samis would be classified as “white” in an American context, while others would be considered “Eurasian.” For what it’s worth, Disney received input from Sami representatives for Frozen 2, and a version of the movie will be released in the North Sami language (the most commonly spoken of the four Sami languages).

Frozen characters from the Northuldra tribe
Disney

That still leaves the question of whether Elsa and Anna’s half-Northuldran parentage renders them not white. And were they always intended that way, or was this entire storyline a direct response to the 2013 Tumblr wars? The short answer is: I don’t know, man. But it’s perhaps worth noting that animation can and has been used to play up racial ambiguity. (See also: anime.)

I feel like we’ve gotten way off track here. What does all this have to do with reparations?

I’m getting to that. When Anna discovers that her royal ancestors, just like probably every royal ancestor ever, committed brutalities against their neighbors, the newly radicalized princess decides to destroy the dam to make things right with the tribe—even though it means flooding Arendelle.

So Frozen 2 puts young women in charge, only for them to destroy their own land and leave their citizens homeless?

Not exactly. When the dam is destroyed and the wave is about to hit Arendelle, Elsa freezes the surge so that the kingdom is safe. But Anna didn’t know her sister would do that. (Elsa was believed to be dead at the time—one unexpected franchise mainstay has been Elsa putting her little sister through the emotional wringer!) So as far as Anna was concerned, she was destroying her homeland to restore justice to the Northuldra, so the intention was there.

This … doesn’t seem like a great advertisement for reparations.

The idea that we should be willing to annihilate any and all current institutions (including the only home some people have known!) to correct historical atrocities sure is, uh, lofty. Framing reparations in this zero-sum way feels both simplistic and possibly counterproductive toward actual justice.

Oh, come on. It’s a kids’ movie, right? Magic trolls! Silly reindeer! Talking snowman!

That’s true! And yet we have so few fictional portrayals of what postcolonial restitution looks like that we should be careful of how we depict it, especially as reparations for descendants of American slaves has become an unlikely 2020 talking point.

But Frozen 2 isn’t about America, right?

Not explicitly, but it’s not just ego that might lead some American viewers to project our racial dynamics onto Arendelle. Frozen 2 is an American movie written and directed by Americans for a largely American audience, so it’s probably inevitable that some portion of the audience will see the Northuldra as stand-ins for Native Americans and Elsa and Anna’s multiracial Arendelle as present-day America. It doesn’t help that Elsa and Anna’s Northuldra mother shielding their would-be-doomed Arendellian father somewhat recalls the (highly romanticized and extremely false) story of Pocahontas. A new sidekick—a gust of wind called Gale, seen through the autumnal leaves she stirs up—even recalls “Colors of the Wind.”

Hang on. I don’t remember Arendelle being multiracial in the first Frozen movie.

Yeah, it’s a bit of retcon—that’s when the creators of a fictional work change something retroactively, in this case the original Frozen—that arguably should’ve been left on the cutting-room floor.

How come? Isn’t more diversity good?

There’s a squicky factor in that the previous Arendellian king’s military leader is black, making him complicit in the kingdom’s colonial exploits. And if we take the plot of Frozen 2 as a rough allegory for America’s genocide of indigenous peoples—which some viewers very well might—it doesn’t seem fair to also lay part of the blame for the colonization of America at the feet of black Americans, many of whose ancestors’ arrivals in this country were the result of colonialism. Long story short, this seems to be a case where Disney’s diversification efforts and progressive messaging are somewhat at odds with each other.

Let’s cut to the chase: Is Frozen 2 canceled or what?

I don’t think so. It’s admirable that Buck and Lee even attempted a storyline like this, and even though it could’ve used a little more thinking through, introducing the concept of nationalist mythmaking to children—particularly in a “princess movie” that the general public has no expectations for other than to sell even more Elsa and Olaf dolls this holiday season—is commendable.

If there’s anyone who should be truly angry about Frozen 2, it’s parents across America—for each additional agonizing minute they have to spend with Olaf.