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"Frozen" Sequel? Let Kids Educate Disney About Climate Change

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency

Maybe it's just the approach that's missing.

Just recently, the Obama administration reached out to Walt Disney Co. with a simple request -- or so it probably seemed to Rear Adm. Robert Papp, the administration's special representative for the Arctic and former commander of the U.S. Coast Guard.

As Papp recounted at an Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromsø, Norway this January, his mission was to ask the 92-year-old company if the Obama administration could use Disney's new blockbuster, "Frozen," to teach kids about climate change.

After all, who would be more likely to connect with kids than a film production company that engineered the concept of the Mousketeers and taught kids about basic social values and responsibility? And what characters could better engage the imagination and concern of family film enthusiasts than two girls who, despite their foibles and make-believe origins, seem able to conquer the challenges of both climate and foe?

So, when Disney's answer came back "no," Papp -- and the administration -- were genuinely shocked.

"What’s striking about Disney’s rejection is how it stands out against the Disney's past participation in public awareness campaigns," explains ThinkProgress writer Jessica Goldstein. "Disney didn’t always shy away from the prospect of being associated with potentially unappealing subject matter." Venereal disease, taxes, coming-of-age topics that shape young outlooks have all made it to the company's feel-good, ultimately upbeat movies.

Even climate change has made it to a Disney release. Yes, although they didn't garner the attention that "Frozen" or "Snow White" received, the Disney archives do contain several environmental topics. In this case, Disney co-produced  "Earth,"  a documentary that was designed to tell viewers about the environmental challenges facing the planet's wildlife.

Why then, would a Disney exec reportedly tell Papp no, suggesting that "[here] at Disney, it’s in our culture to tell stories that project optimism and have happy endings ... "?

Various critics have weighed in on this mystery, with some suggesting that the present-day film producer shapes its repertoire by the political leanings of its backers. That may indeed be true (what nine-decade-old American corporation wouldn't?). But maybe it's just as simple as the Disney exec says: Climate change is scary, and there is no known, absolute cure to date. And while Disney will convert gonorrhea and syphilis germs into humorous-looking armies that look villainous but beatable to get across a public service message, it's not so sure it can craft a scenario that will honestly tell its viewers climate change can be stopped.

And that, more than the prospect of rising seas and melting glaciers, should really scare us.

When a film producer that has built its reputation on inspiring the imagination of children doesn't believe in its own ingenuity, it's sobering. It's also time to look elsewhere for the answer.

What troubles me about the Obama administration's pitch is its linear viewpoint. Apparently, sending the special representative for the Arctic to negotiate the use of "Frozen" was all there was to it. If the company didn't agree, and couldn't see the merits of using a mega-seller like "Frozen" for the world's environmental good, well then, bad on them. Children will not hear about the need for climate change advocacy. Generations may go uneducated about why climate change requires action now, and what they can do about it.

The funny thing is, however, it's our own kids that have already pioneered that effort.

In 2011, a group of teenagers, along with nonprofits that focus their attention on the welfare of children, sued the United States government in order to force federal agencies to plan and strategize against global warming.

"This lawsuit relies upon the long-established legal principle of the Public Trust Doctrine," explains OurChildrensTrust.org, "which requires our government to protect and maintain survival resources for future generations."

While the Supreme Court refused to hear their case last year, the plaintiffs have garnered national attention for climate change initiatives. Similar state suits have also been launched in Oregon, Massachusetts and New Mexico. Whether they win the suits or not, the kids have already won by encouraging federal (and most state) agencies to act on climate change.

Maybe it's the adults here that need to be reassured that the villains that have the potential to transform "a fantasy kingdom" into an underwater wasteland can be beat back with social activism. If the Obama administration wants Disney to step up to the plate and help inspire education on this topic, well then, send in the kids.

Let them tell Disney why climate change should be the next backdrop for heroic youth that must battle the elements and the adversaries. From the sounds of it, the Obama administration, and the state legislatures of Oregon, Massachusetts and New Mexico, could benefit from a little positive PR. There's nothing like negotiating with the other party across the courtroom to find compromise and inspire action.

Since no one speaks louder than the parents of a future consumer base, Disney will probably be listening. And the myriad of corporations that have financially benefited from the movie and rely on its continued success for future products, like Kellogg's (the makers of the "Frozen"-themed sugar-covered cereal), Delta Children (canopied children's bed) and Huffy (girl's bike), will be listening, too.

Papp and the Obama administration shouldn't feel snubbed, though. Disney's list of successful movies includes at least 18 treatments that never made it to film, largely because Disney's sixth-sense told him they'd never fly. So, maybe the movie moguls do know best. They just need a little convincing from their viewer base that unabated climate change, pitted against the fearless ingenuity of a young hero and heroine, would make one rockin' blockbuster adventure story.

Image of Disney "Frozen" DVD and Kellogg's cereal - Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel/JeepersMedia

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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