(Note: This piece contains some plot spoilers for the film Frozen II)
For the last couple of years, a pattern has emerged in which a popular movie, usually a sequel or reboot of a previous property, makes some sort of gesture towards diversity or inclusion. Often, this gesture is as subtle as casting more women or people of color, or gesturing towards feminism.
And nearly every time this has happened, it’s led to significant backlash.
You know this if you’ve read any online discourse about the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Captain Marvel, Terminator: Dark Fate, the new Charlie’s Angels, the HBO version of Watchmen, or a couple dozen other examples in the last few years.
…it’s also somewhat laughable to suggest that something like Watchmen was ever “apolitical”…
These projects often lead to angry reactions about “politicizing” of supposedly previously apolitical movies, as well as conspiracy theories about alleged manipulation of Rotten Tomatoes critics scores or even box office numbers. The medium of choice for such complaints, in addition to Twitter, has been YouTube videos that regularly stretch past the three-hour mark. There has also been occasional backlash from the other direction, from those arguing that movie studios are appropriating political causes for capitalistic reasons, or for doing something as half-assed as including a gay character for 30 seconds in Avengers: Endgame.
Yes, it’s ridiculous that the edging of famous movies away from a white-male default has led to such vitriol. And it’s also somewhat laughable to suggest that something like Watchmen was ever “apolitical” in the first place. And yes, the “go woke, go broke” myth has been disproved over and over again, especially with The Last Jedi, which is in the top ten all time at the box office.
But one recent film represents an especially instructive counterexample.
The Secret History of Arendelle
Frozen II, the long-awaited sequel to the 2013 animated Disney hit, was released in late November. The film features many of the same things that made the first movie a phenomenon – the same enjoyable characters, first-rate songs by the team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the goofy snowman Olaf. And Frozen II, like its predecessor, has been a major box office hit.
But the plot of the new film takes a surprising turn. Frozen II goes further back into the mythology of the kingdom of Arendelle, and we learn that the ancestors of Anna and Elsa had stolen and colonized land that belonged to an indigenous tribe called the Northuldra, and that those same ancestors had long lied about that history. Not only that, but we also learn that the princess’ late mother had been part of the Northuldra tribe.
The whole thing hints at discussions about historical colonialism and reparations that would have been unthinkable in a mainstream Hollywood film, much less a Disney cartoon, as recently as a couple of years ago.
…I expected to hear that Disney is indoctrinating our children into radical political viewpoints, that it was “politicizing” something where politics don’t belong…
When I saw Frozen II at a press screening about a week before its release, I expected this plot development to lead to massive controversy, once it hit theaters. Yes, the first Frozen had represented a somewhat revisionist take on the traditional tropes of Disney princess movies, in that it didn’t lead up to a romantic coupling, but was rather centered on the love story between the two sisters. But there was never anything especially politically incendiary in the original Frozen.
Frozen II, on the other hand, went in another direction, and I was bracing for a significant reaction from the usual suspects, beyond the usual anti-woke critique. I expected to hear that Disney is indoctrinating our children into radical political viewpoints, that it was “politicizing” something where politics don’t belong, and that the film was directly challenging the traditional Thanksgiving myth (a week before Thanksgiving, no less!)
But then Frozen II was released, and that anti-SJW backlash never really materialized in any significant way.
Sure, the handful of conservative film critics all reacted predictably, with Kyle Smith of National Review writing two different pieces, one of which was called “The Radical Politics of Frozen II.” But the usual series of events that happened with The Last Jedi, Ghostbusters, and Captain Marvel never came to pass.
There was no Twitter hashtag, and no three-hour YouTube videos about how terribly woke Frozen II was. There were no media reports of death or rape threats against actors or creative types associated with the movie. Nor were there any theories put forward that the allegedly nefarious political agenda had hurt the movie at the box office.
Why didn’t any of this happen? I think I know why.
While the fanbases of such genres have gotten much more diverse over time, the online voices particularly concerned with the supposedly woke tilt of Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and other popular franchises are overwhelmingly male. And those aren’t the sorts of people likely to get angry about what they probably consider a girly Disney movie about princesses.
… it appears the risk has paid off and they’ve suffered no consequences …
Therefore, if these bilious YouTubers even saw Frozen II at all, they likely don’t consider such a political turn a “betrayal” of source material that they previously saw as sacred.
Disney took a big risk with including this material in Frozen II, exposing their audience to ideas way beyond, say, hinting that LeFou was gay in the Beauty and the Beast remake. But beyond that, it appears the risk has paid off and they’ve suffered no consequences, either at the box office or from the angry mouthbreathers of YouTube.