So far, our republic has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars, and even the 2016 election. But can it survive the new sequel to the mega-hit animated film, Frozen?
I doubt it.
While this now-concluding decade has seen autocrats rise and democracy decline around the globe, no unelected ruler of the 2010s has set as seductive an example of unaccountable authoritarianism as Queen Elsa, the monarch at the center of the Frozen franchise.
For all its lovely images and irresistible songs, Frozen celebrates the illogic of monarchs from Louis XIV to Trump: l’etat c’est moi, or “the state is me,” reflecting the idea that a society is defined by the feelings and needs of its rulers.
Sadly, the blame for this animated attack on democratic values falls on our fellow Californians—specifically, Disney executives, writers, and animators. They are the most powerful players in the great California-based enterprise of exporting narratives that capture children’s imaginations, and thus shape the future of culture and politics worldwide. Unfortunately, these creative Californians—who live in a state built on the promise that you can live like a king—prefer tales of princes, princesses, and other pretty people whose power is not derived from the consent of the governed.
I’m sorry if this sounds overwrought, but I’ve suffered under the Frozen tyranny personally. My three kids are among the hundreds of millions of people who loved the original Frozen film, an animated tale of a young Scandinavian queen named Elsa, who has the magical voice of Idina Menzel, the power to create ice with her hands, and a loyal-to-the-death sister, Anna (Kristen Bell).
But the overwhelming success of that 2013 film—$1.2 billion in global box office and two Oscars—has become a form of cultural oppression. The film’s best-selling soundtrack, its ubiquitous swag, its endless YouTube fan videos have made Frozen inescapable, so visible and audible in our lives as to raise questions about whether Disney marketers are violating the Geneva Convention. The torture is worst for parents; by my rough count, I’ve seen the movie 25 times—not once of my own free will.
I would compare Frozen’s cultural tyranny to that of the sloppy neo-authoritarians—Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Duterte, Orbán, Erdoğan—who now dominate media and politics worldwide. Except that Disney is a more effective, disciplined, and ambitious demagogue than any of these guys. Here in America, Frozen’s dominance of the media has lasted six years, while Trump has monopolized the headlines for only three.
To be fair, the filmmakers clearly intended their 2013 movie as a celebration of loyalty and familial love. We are meant to identify with Elsa, who becomes queen of the kingdom of Arendelle when her parents are lost at sea. She can’t control her ice-making powers, so, after setting off an epic winter freeze, she flees to an ice castle in the mountains. Anna chases after her. Eventually—after adventures including a scary monster, a reindeer, romance, and trolls who mercifully aren’t on Facebook—love and magic conquer all, and Elsa and Anna return to Arendelle to continue their monarchical rule.
The seeming villain of this piece is Anna’s boyfriend Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who is left in charge of Arendelle when Elsa abandons her post. Hans is portrayed as the bad guy because he doesn’t really love Anna and because he seeks to retain power when Elsa returns to reclaim her throne.
But I don’t think he’s the real villain. After my first half-dozen-or-so forced viewings of the film, I began to see Hans—voiced by the Tony Award-winning actor Santino Fontana, the Stockton-born son of a schoolteacher and an agronomist—as the film’s flawed and tragic hero.
While Elsa and Anna are unelected rulers consumed with their own personal dramas, Hans is the only character in the movie who thinks about the needs of Arendelle’s traumatized citizens, who barely register in the film.
When Elsa leaves her people in total darkness after a disaster of her own making (who does she think she is—PG&E?), Hans steps in to comfort the public, hand out blankets and food, and try to find some way to end the winter. He, unlike the narcissistic and irresponsible Elsa, sees climate change as a real emergency.
So I, for one, find it hard to blame Hans when, upon Elsa’s return, he tries to slay a tyrant who effectively abdicated her throne during a national crisis. His action would seem to qualify both as a good-faith defense of Arendelle’s national security, and as a brave application of the Jeffersonian principle that the people possess the right of revolution against dictators.
Of course, this is a film for young people, who, as the political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have shown, are turning against democracy. So Hans is thrown into a dungeon without trial. Meanwhile, Elsa melts all the ice she created. Then, instead of rallying her administration to respond to the dangerous flooding that such a sudden melt would produce, she holds a party outside her castle—thus establishing the emergency response model followed by the federal government after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.
For the sequel, I’d been hoping to see Arendelle’s residents rise up against the monarch, free the political prisoner Hans, and turn their kingdom into another robust Scandinavian social democracy. Alas, Frozen 2’s plot is instead an imperial adventure about an enchanted forest and the royal sisters who continue their undemocratic rule.
By this point in the column, you may say that we shouldn’t worry about a computer-animated fantasy. But mass entertainment has a huge impact on how we think and feel. Animated films from the Disney empire have inspired major social shifts—most notably Bambi, which spawned the environmental movement, not to mention a population explosion of deer. And Disney has never been more powerful than it is right now, with the corporate bullies from Burbank having bought up Marvel and Star Wars properties to form a veritable cartel of fantasy.
So, while our current civic problems are rightfully pinned on white supremacy, economic dislocation and digital disruption, Frozen shouldn’t entirely escape blame.
It’s understandable that frustrated parents, given the difficulty of finding childcare, might use this film to distract their kids temporarily with sweet songs. But I worry about the long-term effects of these movies. One question: If we’re going to teach our children to sing along with an unaccountable autocrat like Elsa, how will we ever muster the social consensus to remove real-life authoritarians from office?