Disney’s Frozen II, the follow-up to the most successful animated feature of all time, runs in two directions: to the past, exploring the mysteries and origins of Queen Elsa’s ice powers, and to the future, facing the challenges and inherent tensions of a ruler who fled her kingdom and her sister Anna who yearns to maintain her newfound sense of belonging and family. The staging and positioning of the characters in the frame alludes to the separation, and reunion, of Elsa and Anna, as the story and our hearts flow between past and future. The visual language employed as the heroines journey through spaces both known and unknown anticipates the film’s bittersweet, satisfying conclusion.
Elsa’s adventure positions her moving to the left of the frame, a journey evoking a western, away from the familiarity and domestic comfort to a frontier ripe with possibility. Her adventure takes her “into the unknown,” further north within the (fictional) geography of the film: first to the Enchanted Forest, accompanied by Anna and others in their found family, but then alone, further leftward (north) to Ahtohollan, a legendary, mystical place where water holds memories and the secrets of the past are revealed. Like the great western heroes of literature and film, it is a journey Elsa must make alone, and she even rides a horse, in the form of a Nøkk water spirit.
In the film’s climax, disaster threatens Arendelle, a place typically shown on the right of the frame (south, geographically), and Elsa rides in on her Nøkk to save the kingdom and restore peace: the western hero with a ponytail braid and mystical ice powers, but a western hero nonetheless. Like all western heroes, she must ride alone, and in the film’s spectacular final moments, gallops across the ocean to Ahtohollan, riding off into the sunset with all the independence and empowerment the frontier has to offer. Her freedom is endless and infinite as the sea.
Elsa, the older powerful sister born with literal powers, is often at odds with and is a foil to her younger sister Princess Anna, who is born without powers, and puts others first at her own expense. She insists on accompanying Elsa to the Enchanted Forest, and even tries to continue onward to Ahtohollan, before Elsa forces her back to the Enchanted Forest through an ice-crafted sled, sending Anna and the snowman Olaf careening down a hill and eventually winding down a river. They spot a narrow tunnel positioned at the right of the frame, and the pair make their way into a cavern, where tragedy again strikes and Anna is left all alone.
Like Elsa, Anna’s journey is one she must make herself, and when left to her own devices she aims to “do the next right thing” as she works step by step to save the people and places she loves. Anna’s path is one to the right, as she moves onward through the caverns to find a way to save Arendelle, a place geographically south and framed on the right-hand side. Her actions and purpose are to do what’s best for Arendelle, choosing for herself a path of what’s responsible, familiar, and known. Unlike Elsa the western hero, Anna is aligning her focus and herself in the place she knows best. Hers is not a journey westward, but staying strong and steady at home.
Anna’s fate is alluded to early on in the film as the song “Some Things Never Change” comes to an end. Through the lyrics, Anna, Elsa, Olaf, and Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff all try to convince themselves that the status quo is continuing comfortably on, as the seasons change and the uncertainty of the future weighs on all their minds. When the song reaches its conclusion, Anna leads the group back to the castle in Arendelle, where each of their group continues past her and she stays outside, taking in the moment just a little longer. Again, she is framed at the right-hand side of the screen, reflective of her fate as the one to stay home in Arendelle, even as changes await those around her.
As Elsa reminds Anna, a bridge has two sides, and like the film, each one chooses a unique path for herself, rooted in the mysteries of the past or potential of the future, but each is undeniably linked to the other. Elsa and Anna part ways yet are always connected, as rulers of Arendelle, companions, and sisters.
The ultimate, tragic parting of this dynamic Disney duo is admittedly a tragic, bittersweet one, but the visual language employed throughout the film makes this development both natural and inevitable. It’s hard to think of the Elsa who literally forged her own kingdom in the original Frozen being content to rule a place where she never felt comfortable in her own skin. And Anna, both naive though genuinely, unstoppably optimistic, has to grow to a place where she isn’t putting her sister first. The literal and emotional bridge of Frozen II separates and unites the two sisters, enabling each to rule in her own realm, but no less capable to return to her past, revisit her sister, and renew for her future.