(Photo: The Walt Disney Company)
I went to watch Frozen II in the cinema with my cousin’s daughters, both were under the age of five. I was happy to go along as I love the cinema and musicals. But what I didn’t expect is that I would adore the film and be listening to the soundtrack afterwards, while both of them would end up in tears and haunted by it. Yeah, not exactly what you had in mind for a Disney animated film. It seems like they weren’t the only ones, as parents and children alike were shocked by the mature content included in Elsa and Anna’s latest adventure. In particular, how they approached mental illness, depression in particular, completely unabashed.
But if we’re going to look at how this popular Disney franchise approaches mental illness, we’ll need to take it back to the first film of the series.
The most iconic song of the first Frozen film is Idina Menzel’s “Let it Go”. You couldn’t walk down a street in 2013 without hearing a child try to mimic Idina’s iconic belt. But it wasn’t just children who adored this song, for it managed to become an anthem for individuals with a mental illness. It’s a song about being different, for Elsa is finally accepting that she will never be like her sister or the citizens of Arendale, and she is welcoming her true self. For individuals with a mental illness, it is accepting who they really are, and deciding that they no longer seek others approval.
It is a hit. Next time you’re feeling blue, blast this song and you will remember what a mighty individual you truly are. You too can “rise like the break of dawn” if you realise that “the past is in the past”. The lyrics of this song are more than just lyrics, they’re a mantra to live by.
And it seems that Disney wasn’t blind to the anthem that this song became for those with a mental illness. They must have spotted a demographic to target and capitalise on, as when Frozen II came out six years later, they were storming ahead.
Disney seemed to decide that the next right thing was to include a song focused on mental illness in their new film. This time it wouldn’t be people adapting the lyrics to their situation and using it as a generic anthem, nope, this time Disney openly dedicated a song to the theme of depression. That song is “The Next Right Thing” and is sung by Anna, who is played by Kirsten Bell, when she thinks that everyone else has perished and she searches for the strength to save the day.
Kirsten Bell has spoken out about the song, saying that it came from a discussion she had with the co-director Jennifer Lee. The song stems from her own experiences with anxiety and depression.
“It really is for anyone who is feeling low and struggling and does not know what to do. Because the only thing that you can do at those lowest moments is one step at a time.” - Kirsten Bell
I love dissecting lyrics and larger texts, it takes me right back to GCSE literary exams, so let’s look at this song step by step. I think that will also highlight just how strongly they have gone with the theme of mental illness, and how little alternative interpretations are made available. You can find the full lyrics here.
I've seen dark before, but not like this
This is cold, this is empty, this is numb
The life I knew is over, the lights are out
Hello, darkness, I'm ready to succumb
I follow you around, I always have
But you've gone to a place I cannot find
This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down
From a young age, everyone will experience sadness at some time, we may even experience what we would label as a depressed mood. But when depression hits, when it truly claws its way in, you realise that you have never felt this before. It is a darkness that we are unfamiliar with, we’ve felt sadness “but not like this”. You feel like the life that you once knew is gone, the happiness you once experienced is now out of reach. People think depression is always sadness and crying, but as Anna sings it is also feeling empty and numb, sometimes it is not feeling at all, the absence of emotion.
There can be an almost pleasure to the pain, feeling depressed and revelling in it feels better and easier than trying to feel better. You feel “ready to succumb”. The next lyrics are about losing Olaf and Elsa, and how she has no one to follow. In terms of depression, this could be feeling lost and alone, left behind by the people you knew or isolating yourself due to your sadness. Or it could be grief, actually losing someone and the gravity of it pulling you down. I particularly like how she relates grief and depression to gravity and being pulled down. There is a heaviness to days of depression, the will to get up but your own body turning against you and forcing you down. There is a heaviness to every moment of happiness you feel within this darkness.
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind
You are lost, hope is gone
But you must go on
And do the next right thing
The voice of depression can feel like our only companion, so powerful as it whispers dark thoughts in our mind. No one likes you, you’re worthless, things will never get better. They’re convincing, manipulative as they tell us that we are lost without any hope of redemption. But the song manages to both capture the darkness of these moments, and not belittle them with instant improvement, whilst still igniting hope. Because we truly must go on, we must do the next possible thing and push forwards. Our life is worth living, even when it seems impossible to do.
Can there be a day beyond this night?
I don't know anymore what is true
I can't find my direction, I'm all alone
The only star that guided me was you
How to rise from the floor?
But it's not you I'm rising for
Just do the next right thing
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing
I love the first line of this verse, “can there be a day beyond this night?”. To me this captures how impossible happiness feels once you’re depressed, so foreign and out of reach. Sadness becomes so familiar that you no longer know who you are without it, how life could ever be without it. Sadly these are the darkest moments that capture lives. When I feel so low and heavy, I struggle to know where to go, especially as the star that guided me passed away two years ago.
But right here is when Anna takes ownership, perhaps for the first time in these films, as she recognises “but it’s not you I’m rising for”. She must get up for herself, as we all must do. You cannot help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, it’s impossible. I went to therapy, I pretended to be doing all the right things to friends, but I didn’t want to get better yet. My depression came so much easier than happiness, my coping mechanisms brought me immediate pleasure and ease, I didn’t want to do the work. But once I did, then I was ready to get better, and then I did.
When things are hard you must simply “Take a step, step again”. Start small, don’t make things impossible. Get out of bed and get changed. Even if you achieve nothing else today, you managed that and you can be proud of that. Do a little more everyday, and one day you won’t recognise the shell you used to be.
I won't look too far ahead
It's too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I'll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing
And, with it done, what comes then?
When it's clear that everything will never be the same again
Then I'll make the choice to hear that voice
And do the next right thing
In this final verse, Anna almost advises us on how to continue, how to keep going. Don’t look too far ahead, focus on small tasks and goals that you can achieve, revel in the success of them. Be real with yourself, what you can do, what is “too much for me to take”. Make those small steps and choices as you start “stumbling blindly toward the light”. Do the next right thing for you, no one else.
I really recommend listening to the song as well, as Kirsten Bell’s voice adds to the somber tone of the song. At the beginning she is sniffling, with small gasps and hesitations. She is struggling to get the words out, to express her pain, something familiar to us all. Towards the end of the song she manages to sing without pausing, but there is still a scared and lost resonance to her voice. I like this, as it isn’t suggesting that you start singing/speaking about it and then you’re all better, cheerful tones and giggles! No, it’s a long road, but one which you gradually grow strength in as you speak about your struggle and push yourself forward. She sounds like she is trying to convince herself as much as us.
Disney is finally starting to consider the importance of diversity and inclusion with their princesses and characters, although they certainly have far to go. I consider Anna to be part of that milestone, to have a Disney princess feeling depression. Disney princesses are usually never ending balls of energy and joy, they’re optimistic and hopeful. It can make you feel grey in comparison, it can make you unsympathetic to people who struggle. Maybe this is a step forward to including mental illness in our everyday stories, introducing them from a young age to properly normalise. I know how important seeing BPD in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was for me. One in four people will struggle with a mental illness, you know plenty of people who have, whether or not you realised.
But is Frozen II too mature in the themes and topics discussed? From mental illness to environmental damage and political choices. Not many Disney films feature the death of a character other than a villain (don’t worry, Olaf came back, he’s fine!). Are we politicising our children from too young an age? Are we using their content for our own needs?
I don’t think so. I don’t think films are the ones politicising them so early, I think it is the world we live in. We’re confronted with information from all angles, you can’t escape the media and news. Maybe we’re just trying to be a part of that conversation, to ensure the correct messages are included amongst those of hate and negativity. What’s wrong with a child knowing about depression? It won’t make them more likely to be depressed, simply to understand if they or someone else become that way. Knowledge is power, and only with it can we find empathy as a community.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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