For the fourth-largest continent on the planet Earth, South America has only served as the setting of one major Disney Animation film to date – the ambiguously Incan-inspired The Emperor’s New Groove – while Europe, only the fifth-largest continent, is the backdrop to innumerable Disney fairytales, from Snow White to Frozen II. But that’s going to change later this year with the release of Encanto, a completely original musical from the mind of Tangled director Byron Howard, which will turn a spotlight on Colombian culture and folklore. And today, we got our first good look at Encanto in a short but visually stunning teaser that effortlessly nudges the film to the forefront of the race for Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars.
Encanto continues Disney Animation’s recent trend of experimenting with their tried-and-true Disney Princess formula, as the film’s frizzy-haired, bespectacled heroine Mirabel isn’t technically a Princess by the studio’s strict standards. Instead, she hails from a highly-esteemed family of matriarchal multigenerational magic-users who live together in a marvelous house called Casa Madrigal on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest. She wears a dress, so by Maui’s definition she’s at least halfway to being a princess already, but the only animal sidekicks at Casa Madrigal seem to be devoted to another young scion of the family tree; a boy whose name is probably Carlos, if character details obtained by The DisInsider in December of last year still hold true.
And oh, the animal sidekicks! Honestly, most of the Disney Princesses should be embarrassed, parading around in the forest with their deer and chipmunks and the occasional singing crab, while Carlos is out here riding a jaguar, accompanied at all times by a tapir, a flock of macaws and toucans, a family of capybaras, and a couple of ring-tailed coatis. The sheer abundance and diversity of South American wildlife on display in Encanto is something I could ramble on about for quite some time, but I think I’ll spare you. I just hope there’s plenty of scenes in the rainforest, so we can see some tree-frogs, maybe an anaconda or two, perhaps a sloth.
But I also want to spend as much time as possible in Casa Madrigal, the sentient house. We’re so used to seeing magic – particularly in animation – as clouds of multi-colored CGI glitter and smoke, that it’s a really welcome change to visit Casa Madrigal, where the magic is almost entirely conveyed through ripples in the stonework, tiled surfaces, and floorboards, which create kaleidoscopic patterns or help the Madrigal family in small ways. Each of the Madrigals has their own individual talent, which they bring to the design and decoration of their little corner of Casa Madrigal – from one girl’s bedroom balcony being weighed down by the giant pink flowers she’s able to conjure from thin air (based on The DisInsider‘s reporting, I suspect that girl’s name is Ines), to Carlos’ being decorated with paintings of the animals with which he can communicate. I love it when a film is able to make a location feel vividly real, and Encanto definitely seems to be doing just that.
The crux of Encanto‘s plot, however, is that our protagonist, Mirabel, is the only member of the Madrigal family who doesn’t have a magical gift – and it inspires an amusing, if slightly awkwardly written gag in the trailer where she gets a gift from the postman as a kind of “not-special special”. I can’t pass judgment on the story just yet, because that’s essentially everything we know: and to be honest, a few of the shots in the trailer don’t even look like scenes from the actual movie, but more like some kind of pre-vis animation designed to showcase character movements and mannerisms (although if they are from the movie, I suspect many of them are from some kind of introductory montage at the beginning).
We also don’t get to hear too much of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original music for Encanto in this teaser – just bits and pieces of something that sounds reminiscent of Miranda’s work on In The Heights, his first stage musical and the source material for a recent film adaptation which Miranda produced and cameoed in. That being said, Miranda is still undeniably a big part of Encanto – for instance, I can’t imagine it’s a coincidence that Stephanie Beatriz went from having a scene-stealing role in In The Heights to being confirmed as the voice of Mirabel Madrigal – and I’m sure it won’t be long before the airwaves are deluged with whatever catchy new earworm he’s cooked up.
It’s early to be making predictions about Encanto‘s quality when the film is still several months away, but I know that there’s a number of people who will love this, and I expect it to be a big hit with viewers who are excited for the mix of Colombian representation and Disney magic, fans who have been starved for Disney musicals recently, and folks who are really just here for Mirabel’s muscular older sister Lydia, whose biceps are giving Princess Namaari’s rhomboids a run for their money.
Far and away the best of a slew of recent live-action remakes of animated Disney classics, Mulan blends the fantastical whimsy and stylized beauty of the 1998 film with the epic, somber maturity of the ancient Chinese ballad of Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), finding its balance in a delicate sweet spot that it has difficulty maintaining the whole way through – but it manages, thanks to Niki Caro’s direction and an extraordinary ensemble cast: and in several instances it doesn’t just stay on par with 1998’s Mulan, but dares to soar above and beyond the constraints from which other live-action remakes have suffered. In only a few places does this version of the story falter or fall behind its predecessor.
Nostalgia (and the ways in which it can be exploited for money) has been both the reason why these live-action remakes continue to be made, and also why they often feel watered-down and uninteresting next to their animated counterparts. Afraid to change too much of the “original” stories (I put original in quotes because most of Disney’s classic fairytales are just that; adaptations of far older fairytales), the directors of these remakes choose to simply rearrange plot points inoffensively, and/or bloat the films’ runtimes with filler material: exposition, explanations and lengthy justifications for plot holes in the animated films, and new musical numbers that (with a few exceptions) feel like lackluster imitations of the real thing: though that last problem is made less noticeable when even the live-action recreations of the original songs are usually lackluster imitations (looking at you, the entire soundtrack of 2019’s The Lion King). Mulan, however, never suffers from these problems, because director Niki Caro has made the bold and commendable decision not to lean on nostalgia so heavily, but instead to weave the Chinese source material and the Disney animated film into one beautiful amalgamation of the two that feels like the truest version of the story yet. This decision necessitates removing entire sections of the animated film. Several major characters have been cut out entirely. The animal sidekicks and their hijinks are absent. The songs have been dropped. And most importantly, the tone of the story has changed entirely: Mulan was always one of the funniest, zaniest Disney movies, but this version feels more like an accessible, family-friendly tribute to the wuxia genre’s greatest hits, particularly Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In retrospect it’s obvious that, while the animated Mulan remains my personal favorite version of the story and my favorite Disney animated movie, this is how the legend of Mulan deserved to be told all along: as a war film with dark, adult themes, masterfully choreographed action scenes, and beautiful, luxurious imagery.
As for Mulan herself, the woman who disguised herself as a male soldier to take her father’s place in battle is a national heroine in China, and it’s no secret that Chinese audiences never liked how she was written in the animated film. This time around, Liu Yifei embodies a quieter, more reserved version of the character, who is hiding her inner power from herself and her family. But the key aspects of Mulan’s personality have not been changed: she is still a strong-willed woman endeavoring to carve out a place for herself in a world dominated by an unwavering patriarchy. If anything, these aspects have only been emphasized through the way the story has changed.
Gong Li’s character, the mysterious and absolutely stunning sorceress Xianniang, balances out Mulan’s storyline with her own sad, cautionary tale. Like Mulan, she is a woman with aspirations and ambitions, but unlike Mulan, she has already fully embraced herself and her truth before the story opens; and it is for that reason that she now finds herself an unwanted outcast on the fringe of society, reviled even by her allies, who feels compelled to try and warn Mulan of the dangers she will face if she ever tries to upset the “natural” order of things. Her complex relationship with Mulan forms the film’s emotional core, and, side-note, has already sparked substantial interest from members of the LGBTQ+ community who have pointed out that, in the original ballad, the character of Xianniang is Mulan’s best friend and maybe love interest. There’s hints of that chemistry in their interactions here, although Mulan has a more explicitly romantic relationship (in fact, too explicit for some Chinese audiences) with a new male character named Honghui (Yoson An), a soldier in her regiment.
Throughout the film, a great deal of the plot revolves around Mulan trying to unlock her qi, an internal life-force that can give her gravity-defying acrobatic and martial arts skills, if only she can learn to control it. Xianniang is already in touch with her own qi, though she has been using it for evil for many years. It is this qi which allows both women to shine most brilliantly in their numerous action scenes, which – thankfully – have not all been revealed in the trailers. Xianniang, in particular, has a lot of tricks and surprises up her long, flowing silk sleeves (which themselves double as weapons designed for quick and easy strangulation of all enemies within about a ten-foot radius).
The animated Mulan had numerous story issues, but none was bigger than the problem with its villain, the Hun leader Shan Yu: who was definitely one of Disney’s most terrifying and threatening villains, but maybe not one of the studio’s most well-written or dynamic. That problem has been solved. The duo of Rouran warlord Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and Xianniang, and the bond of mutual distrust between the two is very well-written. Bori Khan isn’t quite as menacing as his animated counterpart, but he has a much cooler look, a much more personal motive, and a much more compelling performance. Although in the trailers you’ve seen him and Xianniang working together, the movie establishes early on that their pairing is necessary for both to achieve victory, but is by no means motivated by any strong affection for the other. I absolutely love characters who have separate needs and wants, so this development worked for me.
There are several other standouts in the cast who make so much of their roles that they’ve instantly surpassed the animated versions of their characters. Mulan’s father, war veteran Hua Tzo (Tzi Ma), has a much larger role to play in the story, and his character’s kindness and genuine love and respect for his daughters made me very happy to see: I particularly enjoyed watching his internal conflict play out, as he tried to reconcile Mulan’s unconventional dreams with the more strict, uptight wishes of his community and culture. The village matchmaker, no longer a grotesque caricature, has a slightly expanded role and even gets a moment of payoff to her character arc that I never knew she needed. And The Emperor (Jet Li), while no longer charming or sassy, is again less of a caricature and more of an actual character, who even gets to participate in the third act battle. I did miss the antics of the Hua family’s matriarch, Grandmother Fa, but I never once found myself bemoaning the loss of the diminutive dragon Mushu or the lucky Cricket Cri-Kee (oddly, the lucky cricket does show up in a way, but not how you might expect). Mulan has gained a new animal guardian: a majestic Phoenix, which follows her on her journey. It’s not a very talkative bird, but it is very pretty to look at, and it feels much more appropriate with the tone of this movie.
There are only two major instances where the 2020 film stumbles in comparison to the 1998 film. Neither one is a spoiler (unless you don’t know anything about the animated Mulan), so I can share both. The first is the iconic scene where Mulan dons her disguise and flees her home to join the army: in the animated film, this scene is set to a pounding, exhilarating piece of music, and is loaded with striking, memorable imagery: the rain and the lightning making bold silhouettes, the reflective sword-blade slicing Mulan’s hair, Mulan’s father stumbling in the mud and the bejeweled comb flying from his hand. In this version, it’s all over in a matter of moments, and lacks all of that potent symbolism. In fact, many of the iconic shots and symbols of the animated movie are gone completely; however, in most instances they have been replaced by visual cues that are almost as compelling. To name a few: a sprig of flower blossoms discreetly hiding Mulan from view as she bathes in a lake; droplets of blood falling ominously from one of Xianniang’s wounded claws during a fight; a lone soldier descending an unbelievably long flight of stairs in the Imperial City; and a number of extraordinary uses of fabric, such as Mulan twirling in purple silk, a black scarf untwisting around Bori Khan’s face and being caught in a desert wind, Xianniang’s deadly sleeves swirling heavily through the smoke of battle. None of them, however, match the power of a dead girl’s doll resting in the snow, or a flower blooming in adversity.
The second misstep is the pacing. This is a movie that needed to be much longer than it ended up being. The first thirty minutes fly along far too quickly, barely giving us any time to indulge in the opulent Hua family household or explore the dynamic of their peaceful village before we’re whisked off to war. Throughout the film, this continues to be a problem: the entire story feels rushed right up until the third act. A large part of why that is has to do with the lack of songs, because it’s important to remember that in the animated film, songs don’t just act as cheerful interludes between plot points – they literally are plot points. And if you’re going to remove them entirely, you can’t just leave blank spaces where they used to be: you need to do the work to replace them. This is done most effectively with You’ll Bring Honor To Us All, which is effectively supplanted with nuanced dialogue and a sprinkling of exposition that doesn’t feel heavy-handed or forced. But nowhere is it more badly handled than with A Girl Worth Fighting For: without that song, it’s impossible for the film to effectively recreate that shocking transition from the animated film where the untested Imperial army suddenly, unexpectedly, runs into the site of a brutal massacre. And without Reflection, we never get to fully understand Mulan’s motivations from her own point of view – and because we spend hardly any time in her village, that scene isn’t replaced by anything, so she sets out to war before we’ve even had time to understand why. Earlier in this review I criticized the remakes that bloat the story with filler material: but I’m not going to let this one off the hook because it does the opposite and subtracts important story beats without putting anything in their place.
But even with what feels like so little time, Mulan still captivates the heart and captures the eyes’ undivided attention, and it left me feeling satisfied – and wanting more. Sign me up for the next movie! Even though this remake doesn’t surpass the animated movie, it’s the first Disney live-action remake that feels justified: as if it’s actually taking steps toward trying out new things and making exciting creative choices…not all of which pay off entirely, but all of which feel intentional.
The eagerly-anticipated sequel to 2014’s blockbuster Maleficent has a slow-paced, sluggish story that rarely, if ever, matches the splendor of beautiful visuals bursting in rainbow hues on the screen. Having strayed so far from the original fairytale that the occasional name-drops of “Sleeping Beauty” are actually jarring, Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil lacks a clear narrative purpose, but makes up for that with stunning beauty, fabulous world building, and the power of Angelina Jolie’s knife-edged cheekbones.
Never underestimate Jolie’s ability to carry a scene, or even an entire movie, with the sheer force of her presence alone. She commands any scene she walks (or flies) into, and her physicality conveys the depths of her emotions far better than any of the rather poorly-written dialogue she is given. She’s still not really the Maleficent that most Disney fans are familiar with, and she’s never likely to be, except in those behind the scenes photos and videos that somehow give off more classic Mal vibes than anything in the actual movie: but what we get from Jolie is just as good – a raven-dark persona with a heart of gold, wielding height, severity, and an impressive wardrobe. In short, she’s the witch-mood, without actually being a witch. Jolie is only rarely able to make much use of the CGI wings her character is burdened with, but does achieve some form of composure when she’s in flight or descending with the force of a small helicopter (on the other hand, her “hovering” scenes leave much to be desired). Nonetheless, she’s still able to do more with them than her co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor, who fights a losing battle with the wings of his troubled Dark Fae character, Conall, for most of the movie. While it’s Conall who carries Maleficent to safety early in the film’s run-time, it’s Maleficent who returns the favor and carries the entire movie in her clawed grip, though she has so little competition until Michelle Pfeiffer’s Ingrith heats up the forges of war, that it’s hardly a surprise.
In the first half of the movie (the weaker half), the script leans heavily on the “romance” between Elle Fanning’s Aurora and Prince Phillip of Ulsted (Harris Dickinson), two of the most boring and frustratingly naive people to ever step foot in a Disney movie. Fanning has her moments, but the role is so underwritten in this movie that she doesn’t get much time to do anything in particular: almost at once, she is forced to neglect her only duties as Queen of the Moors when Phillip proposes to her, and so we never get to see her develop a close relationship with her subjects – as the leader of an entire nation, she fails spectacularly, attempting to have peace for peace’s sake, without considering any of the subtleties involved with aligning oneself with a foreign and possibly hostile power. As for Phillip, he shows up every so often in a loose-fitting shirt to stare dreamily into the camera, as Disney princes so often do: his only concern in the movie is Aurora’s safety, and he too is thwarted so many times, and so dramatically, that he’s an almost laughably pathetic addition to the cast. There is no chemistry whatsoever between the two, who spend almost every scene together talking wistfully about fairy politics – hardly romantic material.
Then, Ingrith gracefully steps onscreen, haughty, cool, calculating and formidable in a pair of diamond-encrusted high heels and a pearlescent gown, and for one brief, shining moment in the faux Camelot constructed for the film, the violent, power-hungry Queen appears to be one of Disney’s best villains in recent history. She handles a loaded crossbow with ease and assurance, goes through extensive costume-changes that showcase her wealth and luxury, keeps a collection of creepy mannequins, and is accompanied by a black cat: a more classic formula for a villain could not be imagined. But it’s the execution of Ingrith’s power-play that causes things to fall apart: while the heartless queen (speaking of heartless, I give it a couple of years before Ingrith shows up in a new iteration of the Kingdom Hearts Disney video game franchise) should have been an easy parallel to the caring mother that is Maleficent, the movie largely misses the mark with Ingrith, never quite using her (admittedly vicious) ambition to the full potential, never quite exploring the depths of her hatred for fairy-kind. She nearly gets there! She has a striking visual style, looking for all the world like the White Queen off a chess-board of death, and an intricate plan to establish total control of the fairy realm. She is certainly an active character, driving much of the plot, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty with the blood (or magical dust) of innocents – and yet the film establishes her as so aloof, so high and mighty, that she never actually seems involved in the action she’s causing: not until she’s threatened, and in a place of weakness: and, well, who wants that? She could have made for an incredibly fun villain, one operating from the topmost pinnacle of the impossible heights of her CGI cathedral – but to achieve that, she would need effective servants, loyal to her cause. And the only one who fits the bill is her henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray), who is in absentia during the third act due to a sudden fit of musical ecstasy that sees her transform into a crazed, sadistic prodigy of Mozart. The scene in which this happens is one of the most memorable in the entire film, just for the absolute craziness of the scenario, but it does rather undermine Ingrith’s own control over the hearts of her servants (the rest of whom might betray her at the drop of a hat).
But craziness is what keeps Mistress Of Evil aloft for as long as it does, right up until a predictably average ending. Whether we’re watching Gerda tickle the ivories and take down waves of innocent fairies (there’s a surprising amount of death in this movie!), or witnessing the rituals of the Dark Fae with their vast, multi-colored wings and distinctly unique cultures, there’s always something to look at – occasionally so many things at once, such as when Maleficent first soars through the realm of the Dark Fae – that it’s hard for one’s eyes to focus, there’s just so much. In terms of visual spectacle, the film outdoes itself time and time again, culminating in a final battle that is actually surprisingly engaging and emotional, and sees humanity pitted against the Dark Fae in a war for peace.
There’s a lot of stuff going on in Mistress Of Evil, and thus a lot of themes and messages that the story tries to get across, with varying degrees of success. One line of dialogue delivered at the end of the movie attempts to sum everything up by saying that “we’re not defined by where we’re from, but by whom we love”. But in my opinion, no dialogue from the imaginations of scriptwriters Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue can achieve what is already being said countless times throughout the movie, without a single word spoken: that the entire story is focused on the mother/daughter relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. War rages around them, and this time between them, they are parted and reunited, but they endure. And the vividness with which their relationship is realized is a stark contrast to the flimsy connection between Ingrith and her son, which is nothing more than a shapeless concept that goes nowhere: as I previously noted, there was plenty of potential for a parallel there, but the film loses its one and only chance to demonstrate this parallel by not having Ingrith ever try to kill her son or even hinder his actions very effectively, despite how many chances she gets, and how much motivation she would have for doing so: yet it seems like such an obvious choice, in light of what else happens in the movie, that I can’t imagine that it was never discussed.
One of the most interesting elements of the entire Maleficent franchise is its focus on femininity, and a different kind of strong female character than is usually seen in modern film: the three women at the heart of Mistress Of Evil are diplomats and politicians rather than warriors – even Ingrith, unabashedly a warmonger, only bears arms under dire circumstances; for most of the film, she exercises her power either from behind or atop a throne. Maleficent, meanwhile, moves in the shadows, preferring wars of wit to open conflict: and as for Aurora, she is sunny, optimistic and gentle, ruling with kindness and tender compassion. Yet all three are rightly considered powerful forces in the world they inhabit, as queens and unchallenged guardians of their respective plots of land. And there is one female character (no spoilers!), who has only a small role throughout the film, but a critical part to play in the third act: the culmination of her arc has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality that is at once startling, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking.
With so much progressive, forward-thinking messaging going on, there is one notable instance that stands out to me as either a bad – and unintentional – decision on the filmmakers’ part, or a conscious decision with a third film in mind (a third film that will only happen if Mistress Of Evil takes off at the box-office): and that decision is putting humans in control of fairies. It screams of colonialism every time it gets brought up, and the film outright denounces it, but never actually does anything about it when it’s Aurora, our heroine, doing it. Queen Ingrith has a point when she tells Aurora that there’s more to ruling a kingdom than running around barefoot with flowers in one’s hair – but, well, Ingrith is evil, so obviously Aurora doesn’t actually heed her warning or do anything to remedy the glaring problem. She’s simply not a very effective queen, and she spends probably ten minutes (at most) with her own people – but we’re supposed to trust that she’s the best person for the job because…she left the fairies in the lurch while she went off to plan her wedding? She angered Maleficent and caused her to leave the moors unguarded against human threats? She did basically nothing for the rest of the film? The film never adequately explains why a human should be allowed to rule fairy affairs, and the open hostility from the Dark Fae makes one wonder if everything will really be fine and dandy after Aurora’s marriage to Phillip firmly establishes that more, not less, human interference is on the horizon.
However, unlike some films, Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil successfully stands on its own, requiring no previous knowledge of the franchise to follow along with its plot and leaving no cliff-hangers or unresolved storylines to torment the viewer afterwards – all in all, this movie is not what I would call necessary viewing, but it is fun, beautiful and spectacular. And it has got Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer together onscreen, which is itself worth the price of admission.
The fact that I’m even writing a post about Frozen fan theories says a lot about just how different this sequel is expected to be from the 2013 musical we all know and love. If I had tried to write something similar back then, it probably would have boiled down to: “um, I’m getting the feeling there might be a catchy song and a snowman”. These days, though, we’ve got pages worth of ancient Nordic runes, Scandinavian magic and epic assumptions to scroll through.
Firstly, because this has nothing to do with the rest of the post but is still important to me, I completely overlooked the fact, in my initial Frozen 2 trailer reaction, that Disney released said trailer for their Autumn-themed Frozen sequel on the first day of Autumn: that’s a not-so-subtle nuance that really shouldn’t have escaped my attention, but did. Just thought I should point that out, since it’s a clever little thing that I would have praised, had I been paying attention to the calendar.
Anyway, moving on! We have, surprisingly, quite a lot to talk about in this post: the first Frozen movie might have been a relatively one-dimensional story about an unbreakable bond between sisters and the power of true love, but its sequel is heading in a completely different direction: into the unknown. From here on out, you can trade in your expectations of singing snowmen and dancing trolls for a more bleak, introspective vision of war, dark magic, and the attack of the Autumn leaves (which sounds like a parody of a bad 1950’s horror movie, but whatever).
It looks, from Disney’s hints and fans’ speculation, that the big question we all had after the first movie will finally be answered in some capacity: why, exactly, does Queen Elsa have the power to manipulate ice and wintry climates? How did her parents know about her magic, and how did they know exactly what to do when Elsa nearly killed her own sister with an icicle? How did they know about the trolls? And because they technically died off-screen, are we sure they’re not really still alive?
All of these questions look like they might get answered, because all of them seem to be intertwined with each other. There’s a lot of stuff going on in this latest trailer alone, and, combined with the previous trailer and the initial teaser, we actually have a pretty solid idea of what might be going on in Frozen 2. Let’s go through it all.
Firstly, what is Elsa? Well, so far, the trailers have been hinting that Elsa is wondering that too, and that she’s been receiving strange visions and hearing mysterious voices in her head: she stares off wistfully toward the north, out past the borders of her country, and she receives a visit from a spectral snowflake that leads her astray, dancing wildly, into the wilderness beyond the walls of Arendelle. This bobbing light has much in common with the will-o’-the-wisp of European folklore; a ghostly lamp that guides unwary travelers off the beaten path and into danger. Since Frozen takes place somewhere in a roughly Norwegian-inspired fantasy setting, we can safely assume that the basis for this particular wisp might be the Hessdalen lights, which have been sighted in Norway for about the last years – but there’s also a strong chance that Disney’s creative team is inspired by the legends of phantom horses such as the kelpie and nøkk, whom we’ll talk about a little later.
Wherever the mystery light comes from, it causes Elsa to lose control of herself and accidentally cause a blast of ice-magic that drops hovering, diamond-shaped crystals over Arendelle; diamond-shaped crystals which may or may not be marked with ancient Norse runes signifying the four seasons, and the elements of earth, air, water and fire (for more on that, see here). It’s hard to tell, but this might happen at the same time as the sudden gust of wind that sends Autumn leaves cascading through the city streets, and the strange purple flame that blows up all the streetlamps: the flames look very much like the ones that later encircle Elsa in the enchanted forest, and its erratic nature seems to bear much in common with the will-o’-the-wisp at first, at least until you take a closer look at Norwegian folklore and uncover the little-known (but fascinating) myth of the revontulet, or “fire fox”. A tiny Arctic fox scampering across the sky so fast that the sparks from his tail cause the Northern Lights to appear, the fox is also a manifestation of winter, with some versions of the story suggesting the “sparks” are in fact snowflakes. It might not be a coincidence that the Northern Lights themselves have actually shown up a few times in the trailers for Frozen 2, with Elsa and Anna’s mother seen staring out the window at them in a flashback sequence. For more about the significance of the Northern Lights in folklore, see here.
Elsa and Anna’s mother is, herself, an interesting character. It’s been teased that the sisters’ now deceased parents might have known more than they let on, and I’m beginning to suspect that the mother, especially, had a very intriguing backstory. In this new trailer, we see her watching with a curious expression while her husband, King Agnarr, recounts the story of the enchanted forest to their daughters: she pauses at the door, maybe smiling, maybe saddened, before leaving the room – almost as if she knows a part of the story that even Agnarr doesn’t. But Agnarr certainly seems to know a lot: from the flashback sequence that plays over his narration, it looks like he lived in the enchanted forest as a young man – or was stationed there as a soldier, since everyone there seems to be wearing military uniform. In the flashback, a swirl of Autumn leaves dancing in the wind catches his eye, and leads him to a glade in the forest where a girl appears to be using magic to fly. And if I’m not mistaken, that girl, who everybody thought might be Anna’s daughter when she showed up in the first teaser, is actually Anna and Elsa’s mother, Queen Iduna – and that means Agnarr is the boy we glimpsed flying through the air with her, too. Which means that, assuming that was Idunna’s magic and not the inherent magic of the forest, Elsa inherited her power from her mother; just in a slightly different form.
But it’s not that simple. Agnarr’s narration is quite obviously edited to hide a secret (probably the “that’s where I met your mother” moment), but he also doesn’t say what caused him and the rest of his people to leave the enchanted forest. But again, I have some guesses, and I’m kind of excited, because it looks like Disney might – might – be going in a very unexpected direction with this story. One of the most interesting new snippets of material in this trailer is a flashback where people dressed in the military uniform of Arendelle are seen fighting others clad in the heavy furs of the indigenous Sámi peoples of Scandinavia. Could it be that Disney is attempting a fantasy allegory for the real-life persecution of the Sámi by the Norwegian and Swedish governments – a wide-spread persecution that spanned several centuries, during which the native peoples were exiled from their ancestral homelands, converted to Christianity, burned at the stake for witchcraft, and robbed of their culture: to this day, the damage done to the Sámi has not been made up for, and countries such as Sweden and Finland continue to stamp on their freedoms, and use their lands for mining, wiping out the reindeer that the Sámi depend upon to live: speaking of reindeer, an entire herd of them is seen in the Frozen 2 trailers, adopting Sven into their ranks and riding into battle. Is it possible that the battle we see in the trailer is partly inspired by this historical tragedy, and that that is the reason why Agnarr says the people of the enchanted forest hid themselves from the rest of the world, behind a wall of magical mist, never to be seen again? Is that why Iduna, possibly a Sámi herself, seems so sad when she hears the story? If Disney is doing this, and can pull it off with some degree of sensitivity and logic, it could make this movie a very important one indeed: if done wrong, well…it could become another Pocahontas.
The Sámi also have a rich magical history, one that could easily make the move to the big screen: in their culture, men and women known as noaidis acted as shamans and guardians of the community, using magic and meditation to speak with spirits and ward off evil. In the trailer, we catch a glimpse of a woman with long gray hair who appears to act as a noaidi for the enchanted forest, questioning Anna and Elsa about their own magic. We also see a man, Lieutenant Matthias, who is dressed in the Arendelle uniform but is quite clearly living in the forest, and is quite friendly with the rest of his people. Did he choose to stay there because he saw the error of his ways? Or does he have a different purpose? It’s hard to say just yet. For more information on the history of the Sámi, see here.
Whatever Elsa might find out in the forest, she is probably not the only one who wants to find it: somebody, or something, is coming after her, and is using magic to do so. We see a large giant made of stone, possibly one of the Stallo of Sámi folklore, chasing Anna and Kristoff through the woods, and hunting for Elsa at night, while she cowers behind a tree. The “fire fox” could also be an enemy, assuming it’s not one of Elsa’s accidents. In the teaser, we saw its pink flames encircling Elsa and Olaf in a heart shape; in the first trailer, it was seen leaping from tree to tree, spreading rapidly, and we also got a quick look at its aftermath – a burned out clearing in the woods, and Elsa hunched over in the ashes and snow, crying, while Anna came slowly to her side; before being abruptly carried out of the scene by Kristoff, who appeared to be trying to save her from Elsa. Now, something that I think is pretty important to note is that in between the fire starting and the fire ending, Olaf disappears. I’m not saying that he gets melted, but…well, actually, that is what I’m saying. Obviously, he’d probably be brought back to life soon enough (Elsa being a walking ice-machine and all), but a tragic death scene would certainly raise the stakes and remind us that this isn’t the Frozen we thought we knew.
As for what happens in the third act, when all is said and done, I can’t even hazard a guess, but I feel pretty certain that the scenes of Elsa’s underwater battle with the horse, Anna’s captivity in the cave, and all of that amazing ice-magic imagery from the new trailer might come from the latter part of the movie, as Elsa unlocks her full potential and gains new purpose, understanding whatever it is she has to do in order to save Arendelle from…whoever or whatever her enemy is.
But why, you ask, is she fighting an underwater battle with a horse? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I have an answer. That horse is in fact a Nøkk, a creature very similar to the kelpie of Scottish legend: a male water-spirit taking the form of a horse, the nøkk is a master of music and magic, a malevolent phantom that carries its victims into the ocean to drown – something it clearly tries to do to Elsa in the trailer, holding her underwater with its hoofs, before Elsa responds with a blast of ice magic. But it looks like Elsa is eventually able to tame this nøkk; possibly, as in the legends, by using his true name. Does this mean that Elsa will also be allowed to learn the enchanting song of the nøkk, which bestows its singer with the power to basically mind control your enemies?
So…what are your ideas? Am I overthinking everything, or is there a possibility that Disney is, in fact, drawing on the depths of Scandinavian folklore for this new movie? Share your own thoughts and theories in the comments below!