The Gospel According to Frozen II
Christian Themes/Motifs/Images/Symbols in Disney’s Frozen II
I wrote this piece as a continuation of my piece, “The Gospel According to Frozen I.” Similarly to that piece, some of my arguments here may be stronger than others, and some of the associations I’ve made may be too general or unfounded. As always, I welcome any commentary below.
I opened my article on Frozen I with a discussion of Christian melodic and textual motifs in the “theme song” and opening number of that film. Sure enough, the main melodic motif of Frozen II - the chant voice that calls out to Elsa and forms the basis of the song “Into the Unknown” (one of Elsa’s 2 main musical numbers) - is the same four notes used in the very beginning of the famous Gregorian chant “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”), the sequence of the Requiem Mass (Mass for the Dead). Indeed, Elsa’s question to the spirit/voice (“How do I follow you into the unknown?”) parallels a prayer that a Christian might address to God, especially as manifested in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Frozen II consists of numerous instances of religious language. Regarding Elsa’s powers, the head troll says, “Now, we must pray they are enough.” In the number “Some Things Never Change”, the Arendellian people sing “it’s time to count our blessings.” These people refer to Arendelle as a “kingdom of plenty”, which calls to mind both 1) biblical language about the Kingdom of God and 2) the well-known Catholic liturgical hymn “Table of Plenty.” The Arendellians sing that their kingdom “stands for the good of the many.” This calls to mind Catholic teaching regarding the concept of the common good. In this number, Elsa makes gifts for lines of little children, which recalls legends about the gift-giving early Christian bishop St. Nicholas (Santa). Finally, in this number, Frozen II “riffs on” traditional Western (especially medieval) imagery with its depiction of Arendellians enjoying a banquet.
Frozen II contains numerous Christian motifs from the first film. As Anna did in Frozen I, Elsa in Frozen II becomes frozen in ice - indeed, in Dante’s Inferno, Satan can be found at the center of Hell, frozen in ice. Whereas Anna died for Elsa in Frozen I, displaying the highest of the four Greek types of love (that of agape - self-sacrificial “God love”), Elsa dies for Anna in Frozen II. As Olaf says in Frozen II, “the one thing that’s permanent is love.” Indeed, the fundamental fact that underlies all of human existence is that Jesus Christ has redeemed the world by his loving self-sacrifice. In Frozen II, the truth costs Elsa her life - Jesus Christ, too, died for the truth (the truth that he was and is the only Son of God, the only person who could atone for all human sin). In Frozen II, it is revealed that in their quest to learn the truth about their daughter, Queen Iduna and King Agnarr died for Elsa.
The film reveals that Iduna had saved Agnarr, although he was the son of the king who had instigated an attack on her tribe. This reflects the theme of showing mercy to the enemy. It was this merciful act that caused the spirits to reward Arendelle with a magical queen (Elsa). Anna tells Elsa she is a “gift.” Similarly, Jesus is God’s gift to humanity, and every human life is a gift from God. The moment that Anna and Elsa discover that their mother was Northuldran is a revelatory one.
Regarding Olaf, it is noteworthy that his ashes do not scatter when he melts/dies. Indeed, the Catholic Church teaches that human ashes cannot be scattered, divided up or kept at home - they must all be buried together in one final resting spot. Indeed, the Church also teaches that the righteous will receive glorified bodies in the resurrection of the dead, at the Final Judgment. Olaf’s ashes all drift and rest together in one burial spot, until he is resurrected by Elsa. In Frozen II, Elsa is revealed to be a being whose nature is higher than that of humans. This mirrors the Catholic conception of angels, who exist in a realm that is higher than that of humanity but lower than that of God. In John 20:12 and Matthew 28:3, the angels are described as wearing white. The Western Christian artistic tradition also appropriated the pagan (Greco-Roman) image of putti (babies with wings) in its depiction of angels. Similarly, at the end of Frozen II, Elsa is depicted in all-white, glowing, with two wing-like cloths attached to her dress.
At 3:52 in the number “Show Yourself”, Elsa is transformed into all-white in a scene resembling Jesus’ Transfiguration. Indeed, the Old Testament prophet Daniel writes about the Son of Man (the Messiah) “coming with the clouds of heaven” (7:13) - at the end of this scene, Elsa uses her powers to create a whirlwind of clouds. According to Daniel’s vision, the Son of Man was “given authority, glory and sovereign power” (7:14), not unlike Elsa. Similarly to how the Son of Man “approached the Ancient of Days”, Elsa had approached the special river called Atohollan. Atohollan is truly a source of living water - like Jesus and Elsa (and Olaf!). At Atohollan, which resembles a heavenly sort of realm, Elsa learns that she is the source of her own self - this parallels the way that the Son is begotten of the Father. The way that Queen Iduna looks down upon Elsa at Atohollan also calls to mind Matthew 3:17 - “and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Regarding Olaf’s idea in Frozen II that “water has memory”, I recall not only the “living water” excerpt in the Gospel of John, but Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist, in which Jesus sanctified water, instituting the sacrament of baptism. According to Aristotle, each substance consists of form plus matter - in order to be valid, the sacrament of baptism always requires both the Trinitarian formula and water. In Iduna’s lullaby “All is Found” to little Elsa and Anna, the Queen sings this about Atohollan: “Where the north wind meets the sea, there’s a mother full of memory” who holds all the answers to questions about the past. Does this not recall Holy Mother Church?
Atohollan calls to Elsa the way God calls us, and she tries to ignore the call the same way we do. Truly, we have to go “into the unknown” with Jesus. Iduna’s lyrics “when all is lost, then all is found” also recall the lyrics of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” - “I once was lost, but now am found.” Regarding Atohollan, Elsa says, “I believe whoever is calling me is good.” Anna answers, “But how can you say that?”, regarding the earthquake that Arendelle has suffered. This recalls the manner in which God, who is all-good, permits evil in the world, due to human free will. Indeed, God has both a permissive and an active will - God does not actively will suffering; rather, he permits it.
Daniel writes that the Son of Man’s “dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” - similarly, the Kingdom of Arendelle in the end is not destroyed, the way it should have been. The Church teaches that the cardinal virtue of justice is rendering to another what he or she is due. In Frozen II, Anna rightly states that even though it means that Arendelle will be flooded, the dam must be broken because that is the right thing to do. Indeed, the idea of proceeding through life by always doing “The Next Right Thing” aligns perfectly with Catholic moral philosophy/theology. An intrinsically evil action is never justified - not even if this action is trying to “correct” a previously-committed intrinsically evil action. (For example, the act of committing an abortion [the termination of a human life inside the womb] is never morally justifiable, even if the baby was conceived by an intrinsically evil act such as rape or IVF [in vitro fertilization].) In “The Next Right Thing”, Anna also sings about the “star” (Elsa) that “guided” her - this calls to mind the star in the East that guided the three wise men to Jesus.
As it does in Scripture and in Frozen I, water in Frozen II symbolizes chaos and danger. However, water also symbolizes cleansing and healing in Frozen II’s scene of the flood of water breaking the dam. The dam represents the original sin of the Kingdom of Arendelle (King Ruenard’s act of deception of the Northuldran people). In the Book of Genesis, original sin has to do with the act of deception of our first parents (Adam and Eve) that was committed by the serpent/devil. (The original sin in Frozen I, too, is Prince Hans’ deception of Anna [and Elsa].)
The story of Jesus is about the redemption of humanity; Frozen II is about the redemption of Arendelle (which is symbolized by the breaking of the dam). Frozen II teaches us to reckon with our past and do what we must in order to make things right, no matter the cost. Frozen II’s imagery in the scene of the dam's destruction is baptismal - in the sacrament of baptism, water washes away original sin. Humanity’s sin should have destroyed us, but the mercy of God saves us. Similarly, the flood of water should have destroyed Arendelle, but Elsa is able to dispel the waters. Jesus’ destruction of sin and death upon the cross grants all of humanity redemption and new life; similarly, the redemptive destruction of the dam unfreezes Elsa from the ice (resurrecting her).
In Frozen II, Elsa struggles to conquer the A) unruly waters of the Dark Sea and B) water spirit (as manifested in the ice horse). Among other things, horses in literature and art tend to symbolize nature and freedom. Jesus successfully processes into Jerusalem on a “wild” donkey in Mark 11:1-11 (this one adjective showing Jesus’ true dominion over all things, including a wild ass). Similarly, Elsa tames the wild ice horse/water spirit and rides it to Atohollan, a place that is indeed a type of heavenly Jerusalem. Therefore, like Jesus, Elsa successfully calms the seas. Like Jesus, Elsa also walks on the sea (in the number “Into the Unknown.”)
Elsa’s dominion over all of nature is exemplified by her taming of not just the water spirit, but the spirits of air and fire as well. In Frozen II, Elsa is revealed to be the 5th spirit - the other 4 being earth, air, fire and water. Indeed, these are the four classical elements of Aristotle and other ancient, Greco-Roman philosophers. Frozen II “riffs on” ancient imagery with its 4 stones (representing the 4 elements) bearing quite a resemblance to the prehistoric English site known as Stonehenge. Here, I recall the awe and wonder that Stonehenge has evoked in countless generations of people - we ask, “How did people construct this?!”
Here, I recall Graham Hancock’s theory of ancient civilizations (as discussed on Joe Rogan’s podcast). Hancock describes these civilizations as having “emerged from shamanism, but…not stay[ing] at the hunter-gatherer stage - but [taking] the essence of shamanism and integrat[ing] it into a very different kind of civilization from our own, which pursued things in different ways.” Maybe, Hancock suggests, ancient people “cultivated powers of the human mind that we [modern people] dismiss.” In discussing the mystery of exactly how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, Hancock suggests:
“Psychic powers were cultivated by ancient civilizations…they could use powers of the human mind that we have allowed to lapse. Maybe that idea deserves further consideration. We have gone down a path of leverage of mechanical advantage. We are used to relying on machines, but we hear anecdotal reports of people who have telekinetic powers, who can move things with their mind - people who have telepathic powers. And our automatic reaction is to just dismiss all of that, because science says it’s impossible, because science regards consciousness as local to the brain and doesn’t see how it can exert itself outside of that, but maybe we should open up to those possibilities - that we’re dealing with a very different kind of culture…maybe the ability of human beings to do almost superhuman things is resident within all of us, but sleeping.”
As Joe Rogan says, all of this is “pure speculation.” However, I recall that the Book of Exodus discusses Egyptian magicians and the feats that they executed. (Here, I am reminded of this scene from the beautifully-animated Prince of Egypt.) Catholic Encyclopedia (CE) broadly defines magic as being concerned with the “producing of effects beyond the natural powers of man by agencies other than the Divine.” This is essentially what Elsa does, and according to Hancock, it may be what ancient peoples (such as the folks who built Stonehenge) did. In its imagery and subject matter, Frozen II clearly seeks to connect itself to all of these ideas regarding shamanism, ancient civilizations and magical/superhuman powers.
At the beginning of the film, King Agnarr states that the people of the enchanted forest “weren’t magical [like Elsa] - they just took advantage of the spirit’s gifts.” This recalls the difference between the above CE definition of magic versus its definition of sorcery/witchcraft: that which “involve[s] the idea of a diabolical pact or at least an appeal to the intervention of the spirits of evil.” In this way, Agnarr seemed to consider Elsa as magical, but the Northuldran people as rather sorcerical. The film dispels the latter idea as a misconception, which recalls the manner in which, as I wrote in my article on Frozen I:
“Catholic clergy [desired] to check ‘fanaticism’ regarding sorcery and witchcraft among the laity, as we see in the Council of Paderborn (785 AD), which passed this decree: ‘Whosoever, blinded by the devil and infected with pagan errors, holds another person for a witch that eats human flesh, and therefore burns her, eats her flesh, or gives it to others to eat, shall be punished with death.’ Indeed, in the first 1300 years of Christianity, CE states that ‘we find no trace of that fierce denunciation and persecution of supposed sorceresses which characterized the cruel witch hunts of a later age.’ Furthermore, CE states that “on many different occasions, ecclesiastics who spoke with authority did their best to disabuse the people of their belief in witchcraft.”
To the 4 natural elements, Aristotle had added a 5th, supernatural element (that of aether, a heavenly substance). Like Jesus, Elsa is the link between the worlds of nature and grace. The Catholic understanding of this relationship is that grace builds on, heals, sanctifies and perfects nature. This parallels the way that Elsa interacts with her environment. Finally, after 40 days with his disciples post-Resurrection, Jesus ascends out of our mortal, earthly realm, up to his supernatural, heavenly realm; similarly, Elsa at the end of the film “ascends” north, to reign over the magical Northuldran people.
REFUTATIONS TO COMMON OBJECTIONS
I don’t entirely disagree. However, I rather prefer this interpretation:
In its depiction of the Northuldran people, who live more in harmony with nature than do Elsa’s people, Frozen II makes an interesting critique of the industrialization of Arendelle. This calls to mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s juxtaposition of the industrialization of Morador with the peaceful Hobbits’ Shire (which resembles the English countryside) in Lord of the Rings. This all recalls the manner in which early 20th-century English Catholic writers (economic distributists like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Beloc) critiqued the 19th-century Industrial Revolution of the Western world.
2. Elsa’s relationship with Honeymaren is “queer-coded.”
There is absolutely no clear evidence of this. I maintain that this is pure speculation and that their friendship does not need to be read that way. Why does every relationship (especially ones between two people of the same sex) need to be sexualized? The only explicit romantic relationship that Frozen II contains is a heterosexual one (Kristoff and Anna). Kristoff even proposes in this film (which is extremely normative, as Kristoff is male), and Anna accepts.
3. Frozen II is problematic for depicting women (Elsa and Anna) as super-competent, and Kristoff as incompetent.
First of all, there is nothing wrong with a competent human being, whether male or female. In fact, this is something laudable. Besides, Anna isn’t super competent - for example, she is clearly depicted as a bit ridiculous and out of her element with the ice sword that she has no idea what to do with. Frozen II also does a good job of showing that different people have different roles in a mission or story. Anna cannot go where Elsa goes - discovering the truth about Arendelle is something that Elsa has to do alone. And yet, the mission of saving Arendelle in Frozen II would not be completed without both of the roles that Anna and Elsa play - there is a value to both. This all parallels the different roles that, for example, the priest and the laity have in the Church.
4. Frozen II is problematic for depicting King Agnarr mocking the “traditional” archetypes depicted in the enchanted forest game that little Anna and Elsa play at the beginning of the film.
I actually interpret this scene as promoting the message that real fairytales/stories go deeper than just a prince and princess kissing. Indeed, after this scene, Frozen II proceeds to tell a story about redemption, truth, love and self-sacrifice (even to the point of death).
5. Frozen II is problematic for depicting Kristoff as an incompetent male who can’t even successfully propose to his girlfriend.
First of all, when Kristoff first attempts to propose to Anna, she is distracted because she is worried about Elsa. Secondly, I interpret Kristoff not as incompetent, but rather as a bit awkward and dweeby. Kristoff may not be a really cool, smooth type of guy, but people aren’t perfect. Kristoff has the qualities that are most important - he is utterly loyal and devoted to Anna and the person about whom Anna cares the most (Elsa). Besides, how incompetent can Kristoff really be claimed to be? He makes sure that all of Arendelle is evacuated and hands out blankets to all of the Arendellian refugees. When he decides to accompany Anna and Elsa, he takes charge of the situation, saying “I’ll drive.” When the enchanted forest is burning, Kristoff takes Sven to go save the other reindeer and saves Anna. Whereas Kristoff wants to propose to Anna, she is busy helping Elsa, which makes Kristoff feel left behind - he has to die to self in this moment and wait until a better time. Kristoff also saves Anna from the trolls, and the very first thing he says to her after their time apart is, “I’m here. What do you need?” Kristoff successfully gets Anna to the dam, to which Anna is successfully able to direct the trolls. Kristoff then successfully helps Lieutenant Matthias get Anna off the broken bridge. In short, Anna and Elsa could not have completed their mission without Kristoff.
6. In its depiction of the 4 natural elements (fire/air/water/earth) as god-like spirits, Frozen II problematically depicts naturalistic, pagan religion.
I don’t entirely disagree. However, pagan here really means Greco-Roman - non-Jewish, Gentile, BC (Before Christ), pre-AD (Anno Domino - “the year of our Lord”), pre-Christian, pre-birth-of-Jesus, pre-New-Covenant. The film’s depiction of European elemental theology is not so dangerous if the viewer just remembers that Aristotle and other Greek philosophers were living before the revelation of Jesus.