Hollywood gets Indigenous consultation right in Frozen 2, Sami experts say

A team of Sámi experts worked with Disney filmmakers on the representation of the fictional Northuldra tribe.

Team of Sámi experts collaborated with filmmakers on representation of fictional Northuldra tribe

Anne Lajla Utsi, who was consulted on Frozen 2, said the process could be a model for future collaborations with Indigenous communities. (Marie Louise Somby)

When Disney's Frozen borrowed from Scandinavia's Indigenous Sámi culture, some people couldn't "let it go."

But this time, with Frozen 2 hitting theatres this weekend, Hollywood's depiction of Indigenous culture will be a source of pride, not embarrassment, according to a group of Sámi experts that collaborated with Disney's filmmakers on their depiction of the fictional Northuldra tribe.

"It has been a very, very good collaboration, I must say," said Anne Lajla Utsi, the managing director of the International Sámi Film Institute and a member of the group. "We are really proud of that, and happy about the film, as it is now."

The collaboration was the result of an agreement between the Walt Disney Company, the transnational Saami Council, and Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

"We have been working very closely with the filmmakers," said Utsi. "When it comes to the Sámi-inspired elements of the film … it feels right for us."

That wasn't the case for the first Frozen. Even though the film opened with a song inspired by traditional Indigenous joike singing, Utsi said the clothing of the Kristoff character, a Sámi outdoorsman, was "not exactly how we would have done it."

"In all Indigenous communities … when someone from the outside is using or being inspired by our culture, it's always a big issue," said Utsi.

Elsa, Anna and Kristoff are back in Frozen 2, which opened in theatres this weekend. Topics explored in the film touch on themes sensitive to Indigenous audiences, including the ancestry of Elsa and Anna and their kingdom's historical relationship with the Northuldra tribe. (Disney)

Utsi said the Frozen filmmakers did visit Norway and conduct their own research — news that spread quickly through the tight-knit Sámi community.

For Frozen 2, Disney struck a different note. It created the Verddet advisory group, made up of Sámi playwrights, artists, historians, political leaders and elders.

"They have been visiting us in Norway, and we have been visiting them in Burbank, in their studios," said Utsi.

'It's a good story'

The collaboration went beyond the costumes of the film's central characters. Topics explored in Frozen 2 touch on themes sensitive to Indigenous audiences, including the ancestry of Queen Elsa and Princess Anna and their kingdom's historical relationship with the Northuldra tribe.

"It's a good story," said Utsi. "It will give us visibility internationally, and that's a good thing."

The Verddet advisory group with Disney filmmakers at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California. Anne Lajla Utsi, centre, said the collaboration was 'very, very good.' (Submitted by Disney)

There were benefits for Sámi people beyond being faithfully represented onscreen. The community partnered on producing a version of the film dubbed in the North Sámi language, and it is being released at the same time as the English version — which Utsi called a first.

"It's a big thing for us, and especially our children, that we can go take them to the film and it will be in our language," she said.

Some Sámi filmmakers and animators will also head to Burbank for internships with the Walt Disney Company's animation studio, part of the collaboration agreement reached with the Sámi leadership.

"I think it's a good example for every other … film [company] in the world who want to be inspired by Indigenous culture," said Utsi. "If you want to do it, you have to collaborate."

Based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally, produced by Mark Hadlari and Joanne Stassen