The cultural impact of 2013’s Frozen still resonates six years after its release. Children can be seen dressed up as the film’s heroic sisters on Halloween; its insta-hit song “Let It Go” is performed annually at school talent shows; film geeks are constantly parsing its many references and in-jokes; and even before the sequel’s first trailer dropped, toys and other related paraphernalia were still flying off of store shelves. (Believe me – I have two daughters in elementary school. I see these things.) The hype machine has been steadily churning along since the sequel’s official announcement in 2015, culminating in the release of this week’s Frozen II.
Let’s get this out of the way: Nothing will be able to match the undeniable power of the music and songs of the 2013 original. Any attempt to rebottle this lightning is pure folly; it seems the filmmakers have accepted this, as not one of the sequel’s songs is anywhere near as catchy, nor do they tug at us in the peculiar ways “Let It Go” or “Love Is An Open Door” did. Instead, they rely more on visual magic than songcraft, becoming less show-stoppers and more plot-movers, which makes them lean more toward the perfunctory than the organic. You’ll remember how the songs were presented more than the songs themselves, especially one very 1980s music video-style (read: absolutely and perfectly cheesy) number toward the middle of the film.
The foregoing “perfunctory” comment does not apply to the rest of the film, which strikes a totally different tone with high action and comedy. Most importantly, we find sisters Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) of Arendelle working together, a welcome contrast to the soap operatics and misguided romance (between Anna and Hans of the Southern Isles) which separated them in the first film. It’s a joy to see the combined strength of these sisters – Elsa being more of a brawny character, Anna being the heart which centers them both – as a force to be reckoned with throughout Frozen II. Menzel and Bell voice their respective characters with a care and love befitting their relationship; hearing them, whether singing or in dialogue scenes, provides the wings upon which this film so deftly flies.
Also returning are Anna’s love interest Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and snowman sidekick Olaf (Josh Gad), each with their own problems; Kristoff’s having trouble finding a way to propose to Anna, while Olaf seeks more existential guidance throughout his own growth process. But these are small beans compared to what’s brewing north of Arendelle, where an enchanted land is sending out a siren song only Elsa can hear. Especially problematic is the legend concerning an Arendelle-conquered tribe and how it ties into Elsa and Anna’s family history, a mystery they need to unravel before they’re trapped in a dangerous forest forever.
Not content to give us a mimeographed story of self-discovery and recognizing one’s self-worth, writer (and co-director) Jennifer Lee thankfully steers us into an enjoyable adventure full of delight and wonder, reliant on inner strength, goodwill, and friendship to carry them through. It’s good to be back in step alongside Elsa with her incredible powers, Anna with her mischievous and open heart, Kristoff with his goofy persona, and Olaf with his inquisitiveness about the things which make us human. It’s Olaf and Josh Gad who threaten to steal the show from underneath everyone, as our favorite snowman’s (yes, I like him more than Frosty) presence livens the screen up with every appearance. He’s also given more depth and gravitas through his maturation and questioning his own nature, thus making him a broad-stroke touchstone for both young and older audiences. A turn he takes toward the end of the second act may upset younger viewers – hell, it upset me, even though my training as a Joss Whedon acolyte should prepare me for such things.
Whereas Frozen embraced the theme of female empowerment and self-acceptance, Frozen II goes more toward the morality-tale vein, seeking to right long-buried wrongs. The magic of animation is used to its utmost extent to show us a past shadier than we’re comfortable with, reflecting our disillusion with our own history. Genocide is discussed in frank terms here, with the conquerors and the conquered still at odds with each other; to its credit, the film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the horrors associated with it. Yet the animation is also used to provide us with near-photorealistic and lifelike displays of nature and its treasures, giving us impossible vistas and grandeur capable of taking our breath away. Crystals hang in the air with mathematically-perfect spacing; a spirit horse speeds Elsa to lands unknown; something as simple as leaves flying turns into something mystical; and an impish firestarter (and the damage he does) becomes one of the film’s touchstone sights. The animation serves as a double-edged sword, all at once filling us with awe and giving us a glimpse into unsavory past dealings.
Even though the songs may not rise to the high bar set by the original (conversely, returning composer Christophe Beck’s stirring score is a highlight of the film), Frozen II sneaks its way into our hearts with the same aplomb and wit, grabbing our hands and pulling us into its world of incomparable visions and sounds. Although it may be a sequel merely approaching the level of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a gorgeously-rendered furthering of Elsa and Anna’s story which doesn’t feel like a needless cash-in. It’s a story worth telling due to its revelations about Elsa and Anna’s lineage and Arendelle’s history, no matter how dark the subject matter may be. Frozen II is able to bring its plea to do “The Next Right Thing” to children and adults alike, with its twists and turns, the excellent voice cast, and jaw-dropping animation creating a package sure to please this franchise’s adorers.
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