Director: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck
Writer: Jennifer Lee
Starring: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad
Genre: Musical, Fantasy
About time. Finally, I can lay all the products of my anxiety and pessimism to the table and weigh it in the balance. Maybe it’s the 90s kid in me talking, but I’ve always been of the impression Disney movies should never have sequels. I cannot for the life of me name one actual sequel from Disney’s golden age that actually did justice to its predecessor, and examples outside that era are few and far between. Some have argued last year’s Ralph Breaks the Internet is an exception to that rule, but that seems to largely depend on how well they responded to Wreck-It Ralph back in 2012.
As some of you who have been keeping up with my reviews may have noticed, I’ve been cruising towards the release of the hotly anticipated sequel to Disney’s 2013 musical hit Frozen with nothing but bone-shaking anxiety. I adored the first film, and considering the external pressure many cultural ideologues have been pushing on the production crew to be more “inclusive” towards the abnormal strains of sexual behavior in how they shape their lead characters, I was concerned I might lose sleep with what direction this film might take.
Thank God some of my concerns were laid to rest by writer/co-director Jennifer Lee some time in advance, so all I had to worry about was how solidly the film worked on its own merits. Let’s close this chapter already.
Violence/Scary Images: Potential spoilers throughout this section. Several flashbacks to battle that involve weapons (mostly swords), injury, danger, nongraphic death (we’re told of one death, and one other person is obviously killed — they’re shown moments before assassination). The sisters find remains of their parents’ shipwreck in an unexpected place, which makes them sad; other references to their parents’ deaths. Frequent peril and risk: Chases, smashing, panic, falls, etc. Enchanted Forest can be scary: Enormous Earth giants are initially frightening (especially when they hurl boulders at people), as is a water horse. Air spirits use a tornado-like cloud to roughly grab, spin main characters. Elsa is repeatedly tossed around by huge waves. Various elemental spirits (air, earth, fire, water) magically threaten Arendelle; the whole kingdom is in danger at a couple of different points; citizens must be evacuated. Billowing smoke and swirling, magical-looking fire that burns quickly and endangers characters. Definite spoiler alert! At one point it looks like Elsa has frozen permanently, and Olaf melts/flurries away as a result (little kids may be quite upset by this, but it’s not permanent) — Anna is extremely sad after that scene.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Anna and Kristoff are a couple, and they show affection for each other several times: Hugging, a peck on the cheek, him carrying her, one big kiss and embrace. In flashbacks, Elsa and Anna’s parents embrace.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Spiritual Content: Fantastical depictions of fairy-tale style nature magic
Other Negative Themes: Trust is broken a few times between family
Positive Content: Although it’s not an educational movie, it offers lessons on importance of family and loyalty, of being open to the truth about the past, even when it implicates your own family or ancestors.
Themes include teamwork, courage, and perseverance. Positive messages include accepting and getting to know people from different backgrounds, protecting and helping the people you love, knowing how to be supportive, moving past obstacles by “doing the next right thing,” acknowledging and understanding history and the past, even if it’s uncomfortable and/or problematic. Continues to promote unconditional love, bonds of sisterhood, and idea true love is about partnership, communication, mutual respect, and understanding.
Anna continues to be a brave, kind, loving sister, as well as a good partner and friend to Kristoff (if somewhat impetuous). Elsa uses her powers to help her kingdom and loved ones. Both sisters are strong, independent women who lead confidently, and communicate with and support each other. Kristoff is a supportive, encouraging partner to Anna and loyal friend to reindeer Sven. Olaf is cheerful, loyal, but also thoughtful and philosophical. The people of Arendelle are a diverse group. The Northuldrans have many similarities to indigenous Scandinavian people.
It’s hard to believe Frozen was released six years ago. Perhaps it’s merely a relic of my age as time seems to flow faster now. A combination of both that and the ceaseless self-perpetuating enthusiasm for the highest grossing animated film of all time is the most plausible explanation I can muster. Children too young to have seen the original film when it was first released maintain the same appreciation for the 2013 release as those who first saw it in theaters. It reminds me of the continuous fandom that sprang up in the wake of the release for The Little Mermaid, as it was the harbinger to what is now recognized as a Renaissance period in the life one of America’s oldest and most beloved houses of family entertainment.
It is quite popular among the younger crowds to voice their genuine and unending admiration for Frozen, even today, and it is equally popular among animation aficionados closer to my age bracket to voice either resentful dismissiveness or actively hostile antipathy to the same. Allow me as a curmudgeonly millennial thirty-something to establish myself as something of an outlier among my peers. I ADORED Frozen.
I liked the story. I loved the characters. I loved the animation. I loved the art direction. I LOVED the music. I consider it in many ways to be a much-needed return to form for the Mouse House. What was present and successful in this animated musical fairytale that played fast and loose with its classical source material for the sake of the brand that wasn’t present and accounted for in the most popular entries in Disney’s oeuvre from the 90s? Had it been traditionally animated, Frozen would have been more appropriately sandwiched between the releases of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (the good ones).
Because of these and other reasons, I was diametrically opposed to there being any official follow-up to Frozen. While the studio behind some of the greatest animated films ever made has more than proven themselves in delivering outstanding single entries that stand the test of time, when it comes to sequels, they’ve left much to be desired more often than not. Were you aware The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan were among the Disney Renaissance titles that got secondary entires? If not, then I envy the comfort of your ignorance, dear reader.
For what reasons was I particularly apprehensive with regard to Frozen II? Let me count the ways. Firstly, what we were left with at the end credits back in 2013 was complete deliverance with no excess. Every moment served exactly what it was supposed to, the characters had the most critical adventure of their unnatural lives, laughs were had, tears were shed, songs were sung (some are STILL being sung), and everyone went back home changed for the better. There’s hardly anything to my mind that could be added to this that wouldn’t carry with it the significant risk of detracting from or befuddling what was already a fully recognized and beautifully rendered tale of reconciliation between estranged sisters and the tortured past carried apart from each other.
Another bit of fuel to my trepidation didn’t so much have to do with the film itself as it did the public reaction to certain thematic strains therein. While the suggestions of a gay subtext to the arc of lead character Elsa (Idina Menzel) were dubious at best, many advocates in the viewership who seek to promote or normalize such a lifestyle have latched onto Elsa as an emblem of the “gay identity” and have even gone so far as to petition Disney to officially declare Elsa to be a lesbian and give her a love interest. This was so antithetical to one of the most revolutionary thematic suggestions of the original film – namely, that “true love” need not exclusively or primarily pertain to the erotic or romantic sort – that I was more or less certain I would lose sleep if writer and co-director Jennifer Lee actually gave in to those radical demands.
Thankfully, my worries were unfounded. It was officially announced a couple of months ahead of release that Elsa was not going to receive any love interest at all, and the story was going to be directing its attention on whatever the filmmakers felt made for the best story rather than what would be most useful in some insipid ideological culture war. With that out of the way, what have they offered to us with Frozen II, and can we say that even my aversion to the very idea of a sequel was misbegotten?
In the six years between these two films, we’ve been treated with two shorter productions preceding Disney’s other releases that added onto the setting, stories, and lore (if that is the appropriate word) of Frozen. The comedic short Frozen Fever was released in 2015 ahead of the quietly brilliant live-action remake of Cinderella, and the longer-formed episode Olaf’s Frozen Adventure premiered alongside the 2017 release of Pixar’s Coco, with many viewers expressing dissatisfaction with the latter’s unusually extensive length. For my assessment, while Frozen Fever was perfunctory at best, seeing Elsa stumble around in a drunken stupor while belting out a birthday ballad was worth the price of admission. Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, by contrast, actually earned its keep by delving into some finer points of the lore of the original film, such that it almost seemed to be a collection of much needed deleted scenes. While its length may have been a nuisance to some, the plot was fetching enough to warrant my approval at least.
None of this necessarily means I went into Frozen II with the highest of hopes. These shorts simply garnished or accentuated what was already a complete tale. What we’re to receive here is a whole other tale that needs to not only measure up to what came before, but operate as a work that can stand on its own rather than simply capitalize on its predecessor’s accomplishments. What to do now that these characters have already had what should be the most devastating experience of their lives?
A smart move was to place a lot more focus on Elsa and Anna’s still-developing relationship that was tragically put on hold for so many years at such a young and vulnerable age. We get flashbacks to before the two were kept in confinement from each other, in which their mother Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) provides something of a “mystical prophecy” in the form of a lullaby that’ll certainly be a driving force to their actions later.
In the present, a genuine period of peace is in place, as all are so free in their time now they can comfortably celebrate the approach of Autumn. Of course, we’ve got to have a story going, so what screenwriters know as a “call to adventure” is in order. This is delivered in the form of a literal voice calling out to Elsa (Idina Menzel) in a hauntingly mellifluous vocalization that only she can hear. This elicits the signature Broadway-style solo “Into the Unknown” from Elsa, which I found incredibly on the nose, to put it kindly. The title of the song is also a phrase anyone who has studied screenwriting has heard enough times to be nauseated by it. I had to wonder if there was going to be another number later titled “Falling Action.”
Regardless, this upheaval doesn’t only effect Elsa, as she inadvertently awakens a torrent of nature spirits that wreak enough havoc on Arendelle to require evacuation. Sadly, no mention of Elsa once again bringing her kingdom (which is more a royal city-state than anything) under a natural disaster due to her lack of self-control is brought up. It would have been a recycled character moment, but a necessary one if the plot is to be taken seriously. Instead, Elsa and Anna plan to trek north to an enchanted forest their father Agnarr (Alfred Molina) spoke of in their youth, one that should provide some information about the history of their kingdom and the origin of Elsa’s powers. Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the reindeer Sven, and the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) accompany them because marketing.
Structurally, everything here works remarkably well. It’s quite condensed, but the story follows a very solid format of a hero’s journey. There’s the winding road, the stepping into the belly of beast, the wisdom of the herald, the mischief of the shadow, the fall into the abyss, and subsequent resurrection from it with newfound power in tow…yes, screenwriter Jennifer Lee knows how to deliver where it counts, and in a way that matters.
The plot also expands upon what’s been already established in ways that are intriguing but not upending. Within the enchanted forest dwells a native group of nomads known as the “Northhuldra,” who seem to have a deeper knowledge of Elsa’s powers than even she does. They seem to be in a constant stand-off with some guards of Arendelle who were trapped in the impenetrable fog of the forest decades ago. As for what the catalyst for the conflict is and how it is to be resolved, well, that would be telling.
If there was one thing I could say that undermines the effectiveness of Frozen II more than anything else, it would be “too much, too fast, too soon.” While the format promises a grand adventure, what that format ultimately gives us and how it is given seems to require a more expanded brand than a single Disney animated musical fairytale. I’m certainly glad the story doesn’t end with the characters in the same place or the same state of mind that they were in before venturing off, but a few developments led me to echo Anna’s comical remark of “wait, WHAT?” It seems like a whole other movie needed to happen before there was any justification for the resolution.
Musically, I can’t say anything here hits as hard or as well as what we got in 2013. Forget “Let it Go,” even some of the less cited pieces such as “Love is An Open Door,” “Fixer Upper,” and “First Time in Forever” were more memorable and fetching than most of what comes to us today in 2019. Elsa’s “Into the Unknown” has some very nice harmonic flourishes, but there isn’t much in the way of a consistently resonant cadence throughout. Groff as Kristoff gets a centerpiece belting out a Michael Bolton-style 80’s love ballad titled “Lost in the Woods,” though the visualization accompanying the music is more memorable than either the lyrics or the melody for a reason I dare not spoil here.
The area where there is the most improvement is with the visual direction. Frozen II looks incredible, which is saying a lot considering the splendor its predecessor is known for. From the grand expanses of the open fields, the haunting labyrinthine rhythms of the fogged woods, the screaming waves of the nighttime ocean, and the tantalizing realization of various magical realms and elements, this is one Disney production dressed to impress.
I can set my mind to rest concerning a lot of things having finished this saga. There are other concerns and questions I’m left with, but none that threaten my sleep quality. Structurally, it works. Aesthetically, it dazzles. Narratively and musically, it’s seen better days, but it services where it counts. Shoot, even Olaf is still funny. I’m more than prepared to hate that snowman someday, but it isn’t today.
+ Solid structure + Looks incredible + Daring resolution + Surprisingly still funny
- Somewhat implausible resolution - Music is weaker this time - Still largely unnecessary
The Bottom Line
I don’t think kids will be serenading us with “Into the Unknown” the same way they did “Let it Go," but hey, prove me wrong if you wish. Sorry parents…