When I settled in next to my 7-year-old last weekend with a mindbendingly expensive bag of movie theater popcorn and our smuggled-in convenience store candy to watch “Frozen II,” I knew to keep an open mind. I’m no Disney die-hard, and I’d read that the highly anticipated animated sequel suffers from a convoluted story line and some haphazardly executed messaging.
Still, my interest had been piqued: A Disney movie that also readily confronts themes of colonialism, climate crisis and toxic masculinity, however messily, was so far beyond the problematic classics I grew up with that I was curious to see how it might hold up.
But none of what I heard about “Frozen II,” which revisits the central characters’ relationship to their deceased parents, prepared me — a motherless daughter and now parent — for the response I had while viewing it.
Early scenes in the movie take us back to Elsa and Anna’s childhood when their parents, Queen Iduna and King Agnarr, are still alive. Yet my knowledge of the king and queen’s impending deaths added a bittersweet tinge to these interactions. When the queen pulled the girls close and sang to them just before bed, I had to steel myself for the loss I knew was coming.
Back in the present, set three years after the end of the first movie, we find the same audacious, lovable crew living happily and in relative normalcy under Queen Elsa’s rule — there’s even awkward charades during family game night. But Elsa’s peace is illusive. She’s pensive and distracted, in part because she’s being repeatedly called by a mysterious siren song only she can hear. The voice beckons her, but it challenges her as well, forcing Elsa to consider if she truly feels fulfilled within the castle walls.
While the messaging was probably lost on my second grader, I recognized the existential angst Elsa was experiencing as a young adult. Having lost my own mother when I was in elementary school, Elsa’s restlessness felt immediately familiar. Instead of being shaped by a formative mother-daughter relationship in my teens, my identity was informed by its absence. As a result, I attempted to insulate myself from whatever next disaster might be around the corner. Until I developed tools to work through my grief as an adult, I felt permanently uncomfortable, as if nothing good could last.
Elsa’s growing uncertainty about her identity and place in the world might be a convenient plot point to ignite the movie’s action, but it also tells a quieter story for the adult audience following along. As we do the difficult work of coming into ourselves despite our losses and traumas, sometimes our guideposts dim. We have to choose to keep going anyway.
Her journey was a line right to my heart. Haven’t I felt like Elsa, obstinate and reckless as she nearly drowns, forcing her way across the Dark Sea? When the door to where you belong is permanently closed — the lap of your mother singing a bedtime lullaby, perhaps — then no matter where you are, aren’t you always misplaced, searching for home?
For this reason, the part of the movie I found most compelling occurs when Elsa finally reaches Ahtohallan, the ancient frozen river with answers to the past. As Elsa chases the ethereal voice into an ice cave, desperate to connect at last with the supposed fifth element bridging the human world to the mystical, we find her mother’s face reflected across the walls, singing the private call Elsa has been hearing.
Whether we read this as a brief spiritual interlude happening in real time or a clever use of the movie’s repeated concept that water holds memory (and thus Elsa has found a projection of her mother from the past) seems unimportant. The pained tenderness of Elsa’s expression when she first sees Queen Iduna is what stayed with me — because it felt so earnest and spot on.
Now that I have daughters of my own, I spend a lot of time thinking about what their life might be like were I to die young. Everyone experiences grief uniquely, but it’s not lost on me that in the event of my untimely death, no one close to them would understand their loss better than me, but I wouldn’t be there to shepherd them through it.
This might be why I found Elsa’s hard-won moment of self-discovery so poignant. At the climax of the scene in Ahtohallan’s ice cave (featuring the gorgeous mother-daughter duet “Show Yourself”), Queen Iduna offers Elsa a single line from the folk lullaby of the girls’ childhood. When she hears it, Elsa turns toward her mother’s image, belting out in response, “I am found.” It’s a powerful moment even without considering one’s own loss, but sitting in the dark theater next to my oldest daughter, I was touched by the message of how our connections to the people we love can continue to evolve and strengthen long after they’re gone.
As Elsa’s ancestral past is rewritten and she grapples with her role in Arendelle’s future, as she’s separated from her sister and faces down the most arduous parts of her journey alone, as her identity kaleidoscopes and then reforms in a new order, her mother’s voice is what helps lead her to the truth.
We can celebrate “Frozen II” for scratching the surface of important social and cultural issues in this surprising origin story, but there’s another takeaway for parents: a reminder that we’re tethered to our children in ways that will outlast whatever time with them we have. As my daughters watch this movie again (and again), I hope they’ll take note of the unshakable bond between sisters, of the truth that they’re the heroes of their own stories, of the idea that women can be powerful and capable even when they feel afraid or unsure.
But I also hope they absorb the movie’s less central lesson — regardless of whether their mother is here physically, they always carry me with them. In their most difficult days, they can still look to my love to guide them.