Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: Return of the Disney Juggernauts

Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Walt Disney Pictures)

In the next issue of this magazine, hopefully, I will report on the good movies that came out during the Christmas-season rush. First, though, we need to talk about the big, bad ones — Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — that collected the lion’s share of the holiday box office: north of $800 million domestically between them, easily equaling all the season’s other offerings combined, and all of it going to line the pockets of our Disney overlords. 

We’ll take the less interesting of the two first. For some time, Star Wars fandom has been consumed by debates over whether the previous installment, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, ruined the saga or whether racists and Russian bots whipped up unjust ire against it. Critics tended to be on Johnson’s side and zealous fanboys against him; with Rise of Skywalker, we’ve learned that J. J. Abrams is among the fanboys, because under his direction the third movie of the new trilogy retcons away various Last Jedi plot points, sidelines characters Johnson introduced, and clearly labors to return the story to the spirit of Abrams’s The Force Awakens, of unapologetic nostalgia and uncomplicated homage.

But the truth is that the Last Jedi debate mostly reflected the narcissism of small pop-culture differences. In the end these are all similarly mediocre movies, and if — as the critical consensus has it — Rise of Skywalker is slightly more mediocre than the others, that’s partially because it has the obligations of a concluding chapter, and thus necessarily deprives the viewer of any hope in future developments or unexpected revelations, any dream that there might be something better waiting another film or a few plot twists ahead. 

The problem shared by all the Disney Star Wars movies is that their screenwriters came up with an interesting human drama — the charged relationship between Adam Driver’s pedigreed Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren and Daisy Ridley’s up-from-nowhere Force wielder Rey — but never figured out an interesting aftermath-of-war political drama to build around it, reverting instead to the exact same empire-versus-rebellion dynamic as the originals, to vastly diminishing returns. The Last Jedi was distinctive insofar as it made the Kylo–Rey dance particularly intriguing and the political-military plotting particularly stupid, but it was basically operating inside the same structure as Force Awakens and Skywalker — a structure created without any sense of novelty or imagination, destined to just repeat the beats of Lucas’s original, with a busier but less compelling galactic backdrop.

I won’t say that the new movies retroactively improve Lucas’s dreadful prequels, but the chosen mediocrity of their storytelling does make you appreciate his ambitions, doomed though they were. And there are a few pieces of dialogue in Rise of Skywalker — notably “We had each other, that’s how we won” and “It’s not a navy, sir, it’s just people” — that even manage the remarkable feat of rivaling Anakin Skywalker’s “I don’t like sand” soliloquy in Episode II of the prequels, heretofore the worst Star Wars lines yet written.

Nothing quite so howlingly awful adorns the script of Frozen 2, the sequel to Disney’s animated juggernaut, but nothing in the story justifies its existence as a motion picture either. The original movie was a case study in how psychological potency can trump narrative coherence. The plot of the first Frozen is an obvious palimpsest of script drafts with a nonsensical heel turn at the end, sufficiently ridiculous to be mocked via summary by the snowman Olaf in one of the sequel’s few genuinely funny sequences. But it somehow tapped into deep archetypes of sisterhood in a way that no Disney fairy tale had done before — and no male film critic can hope to understand.

The new one has nothing so psychologically interesting to offer. It packs Elsa and Anna off on a quest to the misty north of Arendelle to unravel a curse afflicting an enchanted forest; it rehearses a little of their first-movie drama but mostly just keeps them, boringly, as besties; it finds nothing for Kristoff, the notional love interest, to do save wander in the forest; it adds zero interesting villains; and it demonstrates that Olaf the Snowman is mostly grating in a second dose.

And yet, unlike Rise of Skywalker, the Frozen sequel does have something novel and fascinating about it: not its thin plot, lame dialogue, or meager characterizations, but its slowly revealed commitment to the full mythology of wokeness, an intense blend of feminism and environmentalism and anti-colonialism and pantheism and white guilt that easily exceeds antecedents such as Avatar or Dances with Wolves in its spectrum of causes and commitments. 

Indeed, if you ignore the clunky storytelling and just focus on the thematics, Frozen 2 comes as close as an hour-and-40-minute kids’ movie can come to uniting every grievance and aspiration, every resentment and ambition, every theoretically in-tension element of the intersectional Left into a single animated master narrative, a story about smashing the patriarchy and rewriting history and saving holy Mother Earth so that feminist queens and men who practice appropriate allyship can rule a society that’s perfectly multiracial but otherwise resembles northern Europe.

If the mediocrity of the new Star Wars is just more pop-culture decadence, in other words, the surface mediocrity of the Frozen sequel is a husk for something much more interesting: a new worldview or religion, its hour perhaps coming round at last, slouching toward Arendelle to be born.

This article appears as “Return of the Disney Juggernauts” in the January 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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