Spoilers for Frozen II.
I like Frozen. I love Frozen II. And of course I love both of Elsa’s songs. “Into the Unknown” is a fun, energizing call to adventure, and I still have not gotten through “Show Yourself” without crying at least once, usually when she starts the duet part with her mother but sometimes as soon as the song begins (I’m a crier, and I’ve accepted that about myself). But the best song in Frozen II is “The Next Right Thing” and I am willing to throw hands about it.
Elsa and Anna, despite being sisters, are fundamentally different people. Each is a near textbook representation of the Introvert and the Extrovert. Elsa’s journey in both movies is about self-discovery and finding a way to be okay with herself. She sings an entire song about how few fucks she gives about what other people think of her (although, like a true introvert, it’s all lies). While she enjoys the company of other people she’s learned to be comfortable by herself, and finds social engagements draining (I, too, would rather climb a snowy mountain in the middle of the night than be in a party where I’m the center of attention for more than fifteen minutes).
Anna is the quintessential extrovert. She doesn’t just love people, she thrives on them. She gains energy from her sister, her boyfriend, her magical snowman friend, and the townspeople. Her first big song in the first movie is how excited she is that she’s finally going to get to meet people. Just like Elsa, she spent most of her childhood in isolation, but instead of being scared of suddenly meeting hundreds of people at the same time, she can’t fucking wait. Yeah, fine, she also doesn’t have to be afraid of freezing an entire ballroom of people, but the point still stands. Anna needs people.
Which is why it was kind of shocking that the creators had the balls to do what they did. Of course killing Elsa was never going to stick, but they still did it and dealt with the fall out. Happy, spitfire Anna finds herself trapped in a dark cave, her boyfriend miles away, her family history a lie, and her magical snowman friend and her sister are dead. And it destroys her. Before the song begins we find her in a fetal position on the floor, practically unable to move. The first couple of verses of the song are her contemplating completely giving up.
First off, kudos to Disney for signing off on something this fucking dark in one of their animated features. I am still in shock, to be honest. I think it shows a lot of trust in children to be able to handle something like this. I don’t think every kids movie needs to do something like this, obviously for the most part kids should just be allowed to live in their comfortable web of lies and simplicities. But sometimes adults mistake what kids should have with what they can handle. And gently easing children into the realities of grief and depression is a necessity that, when done right, they can handle. Anna was always happy. Now, something so terrible has happened, Anna is sad and thinks she’ll never be happy again. What is Anna going to do?
So, yeah, if she’d just stayed in the cave and starved to death or something, that’s obviously not very kid friendly and would just make for a terrible movie. So Anna makes a conscious decision, and the song leads into the main theme and title: do the next right thing. Or, just the next thing at all. “Take a step, step again.” Anna is looking no more than two seconds ahead of her, because if she tries to look at the big picture she’ll crumble again. Anna isn’t going to just be the same plucky girl she was before. She has changed. She is sadder. But she has the strength to keep going.
The subtleties in this song are exquisite, as it balances being a lamentation and an anthem at the same time. Through the stiff and stilted way she climbs out of the cave and the tremor in her voice, it’s very clear that Anna is Not Okay. As she finally climbs out of the cave into the sun the music rises into a triumphant crescendo, but these are the lyrics:
“And with the dawn, what comes then?
When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again.”
The song doesn’t end on that crescendo, because grief doesn’t just end when the tragedy is over. Anna takes a breath, and as she once again resolves to ‘do the next right thing,’ it’s in a quiet voice, one almost of resignation. She’ll do the next right thing, because there’s nothing else for her to do.
When this movie came out, this song did receive praise, and a lot of it specifically for this message. It’s an idea psychologists use, not just for people in grief or with depression, but also for anxiety and just generally stressed-out people: if a task seems like too much, just break it down into smaller and smaller chunks until you can manage. It’s what ultimately justifies putting such a dark moment in a kids movie: its teaching children a valuable coping mechanism without coming right out and saying, “Hey kid, your specific life is going to absolutely suck someday, and this is what you need to know to climb out of it.”
It’s also a moment of growth for Anna. Up until this moment she had drawn most of her strength from her sister, she even says as much: “The only star that guided me was you.” Now, she has to find that strength in herself and decide what to do next on her own. And even though the loss doesn’t stick, and she finds out Elsa isn’t actually dead, like, forty minutes after singing this song, the effect of the loss does. The movie doesn’t explicitly state this, but I don’t think Anna would have been able to let Elsa move in with the Northuldra and leave her in Arandale, much less become queen of the place, without this moment in her life where she learned she could survive on her own.
This was never going to become a poppy, fun radio hit (it became increasingly hilarious to me as I wrote this that the video I linked above is a ‘sing-along’ version. Who wants to be invited to that kid’s party?) but that’s okay, because not everything is going to be poppy or fun. Not every moment in life is fun and exciting and full of adventure. Sometimes life is dark, and quiet, and sad. And you can tell yourself there’s a reason for it, or just let it wash over you. But you have to find a way to get past it, even if that’s just by doing the next right thing.