In 2013, you couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing Idina Menzel belting “Let It Go” and, by 2014, Halloween looked like an army of Elsas and Annas coming to pillage your candy. As much of a pop culture phenomenon as the original Frozen is, attributed to the catchy songs, silly magical creatures, and happily-ever-after of it all, the real joy of the film is in how it takes everything audiences love about a traditional Disney film and subvert it. All too often, stories about brothers and sisters become tales of romance and adventure, punting the siblings to the side in favor of new love, mystery, and excitement. Frozen doesn’t do this. Instead, the new beau turns out to be a third act villain and the saving appearance of true love comes not from bumbling ice man Kristoff but from the sisters. Their bond is what saves them in Frozen and, by extension, all of the fictional land of Arendelle. By credits roll, Frozen is revealed to be a different type of Disney fairytale, one wherein the princess saves herself through her own empowerment, and with a little help from her friends. Returning for round two are co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee and songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who are joined by first-time feature writer Marc E. Smith (Frozen Fever). This time around, Anderson-Lopez and Lopez assisted in developing the story with Buck, Lee, and Smith. What they bring to the table this time opens up the world only hinted at in 2013 and, in the process, offer answers to questions audiences may never have considered. By doing this, Frozen II becomes something braver, bolder, and, yes, more frozen.
Three years since the end of Frozen, Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) has settled into her role as queen and Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) has reveled in the close relationship she always wanted with her sister. It doesn’t hurt for Anna that she also gets to spend her free time with beau Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff) and snowman Olaff (voiced by Josh Gadd). Things couldn’t seem to be any better, even as autumn wind starts to blow in off the nearby fjord and the leaves turn from a vibrant green to a striking brown. More than a chill, the wind brings with it a secret siren call that only Elsa can hear, beckoning her to a land unexplored for generations. With Anna, Kristoff, Olaff, and Sven the reindeer, she embarks on a journey that will change their lives forever.
The trick of any sequel is not to make more of the same in a newer package. To avoid this, the story delves further into a mythology that audiences likely took for granted in the original. Be honest, did you really question why Elsa has magical powers and Anna doesn’t? Of course not. It’s (1) a Disney film where the magical is expected and (2) the people in this world accept trolls as reasonable, so why would the audience put forth any questions whatsoever? That, frankly, is what makes Frozen II a better story over the first one and more fun to revisit. It begins to ask the questions we took for granted and makes them plausible without feeling like a retcon. The film purposefully pushes the crew out of their newly established comfort zone nearly right from the start. If Frozen is their coming of age story, their bat mitzvah, their quinceañera, then Frozen II is about completing that transition into adulthood. Even before the gang sings “Some Things Never Change,” a song in celebration of the consistency of their lives, the sight of autumnal change makes it clear that no matter how we long to freeze moments in time, to each comes a season. For every beginning, there is an end. If this sounds a tad dark, don’t worry, Olaff, wisely used in moderation, makes things better with “When I Am Older,” a silly ditty in which the naïve snowman sings about mortality while avoiding various dangers. Older audiences might squirm in their seats at the magic man’s frightening sequence, but my audience took it in stride, giggling at every single joke and misstep. These are just two examples in which the creators of Frozen II balance the needs of the current target audience while aging-up the content for older fans of the 2013 original. Growing up doesn’t mean saying goodbye, something which made Frozen such a heartrending tale and which Frozen II delves deeper into.
But how do you dig deeper into a tale of two sisters? By asking questions the first film didn’t have to explore.
Consider the opening of the original Frozen. Not “Frozen Heart,” the rather prophetic song about fearing a cold heart, but the wordless tune that opens the film. Called “Vuelie,” it’s a song of the Sámi people, an indigenous community within Scandinavia. According to an article from Now Toronto, the song was meant as much as a nod to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen whose “The Snow Queen” serves as the inspiration for Frozen, but also as a means of character building for Kristoff (shown wearing Sámi designs) in the original film. Serving only as set dressing, cries of cultural appropriation make sense as the blonde-haired blue-eyed Kristoff passes for the average Norwegian, even if he doesn’t explicitly possess a connection to the Sámi. For Frozen II, “Vuelie” becomes more prominent as its providence is not only explored through the introduction of a new group of characters, a tribe called Northuldra, but is directly connected to the inciting incident at the heart of Frozen II. In this regard, if Frozen prompts Elsa and Anna to question “who am I?,” then Frozen II asks “why am I?.” This is a more mature question, which tends to explain why the songs within Frozen II lack the anthemic nature of “Let It Go.” That song is a bold statement of self-agency and acceptance. The first to challenge it is “Into the Unknown,” in which Elsa begins to question whether the secret siren call deserves an answer, but it doesn’t quite get to the heights it longs to hit. The second is “Show Yourself,” in which Elsa announces a challenge of someone else, of something else, yet there remains a sense of questioning, of uncertainty that remains. The songs are strong, even emotionally compelling, but they lack the universal appeal of “Let It Go” as the songs dig into the character’s specific emotionality. This isn’t to suggest that the songs are lesser than their processor, just that their purpose is different and, in turn, is received differently. Suddenly the songs aren’t about how we’re all trying to break free or find out purpose, but are, instead, drilling deeper into who these characters are and why they are. The value in this is that audiences are treated to a richer, deeper story. As narratively powerful as these song are, Anderson-Lopez and Lopez crafted something special for the adults with the Jonathan Groff ‘80s hair band-inspired “Lost in the Woods.” Don’t be surprised if you end up leaving the theater with your lighter raised firmly in hand. That song really is the gift that keeps on giving.
Which brings us to the last aspect worth exploring in any animated feature: the look. In 2019, so far, Hiroyuki Imaishi’s Promare is the premiere animated feature film of the year. Frozen II comes closest to knocking it out of contention. Much of this comes from the creation of the elemental spirits and other designs of new characters, as well as depictions of the old. Granted the main group can’t stray too far from their depictions in the original, but they are given more natural-seeming looks. While the almost tangibleness of Olaff is appealing, what will make audiences long for a premium theater experience are the magical scenes. So real does the enchanted forest seem, it truly seems to breathe, especially during several scenes featuring dark colors or deep, inky blacks, the pinkish-red flames of the fire spirit, the icy blue of the water spirit, and all the shades in-between absolutely POP! Where normally the obvious 3D pandering would grate, these sequences actually made me long for the see them as the designers intended. I, too, wanted to be surrounded by Elsa’s crystalline creations, as swept up in the imagination of the storytellers had I become, which is the aim of any storyteller, but especially an animated one.
Frozen II is the rare sequel which breaks from the safety of its foundation to create something new. In doing so, not everything is perfect. As notable as it is to offer proper, respectful representation of the Sámi via the Northuldra tribe, the characters are still voiced by Caucasian actors. Good actors, mind you, but not authentic to the region. That would go a long way in offering more authenticity and serving as the bridge the film so naturally is inclined to be. Additionally, there’s a sub-plot between Anna and Kristoff which is, while charming, still tethered to the rom-com tropes the original Frozen beautifully subverted. It’s not a step back by any means, but when so much of the film is progressive in its attitudes toward women (like the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it adorableness of a young girl playing with a sextant), it’s not so much a regressive moment, as it is unexpected. All that said, Frozen II is delightful fun, which is likely to only get better upon repeat viewings, once more capturing that classic Disney magic with a modern spin.
In theaters November 22nd, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.