Disney doesn’t produce many theatrical animated sequels. Frozen II, coming a year after Ralph Breaks the Internet, finds the studio in an unprecedented situation in that regard. While Pixar has found a way to capitalize successfully on sequels to many of their features, perhaps it has to do with what Disney feels they can hope to accomplish with follow-ups to their hit films. Frozen II faces the same challenges as Ralph, as both are films willing to blow their worlds open and explore the characters on a deeper level, yet seem to hold back from going too far at risk of alienating fans. That’s understandable to a point, but despite having a collection of new ideas, songs, and terrific animation, I couldn’t let go of the story issues holding this film back from greater success.
Set three years after the events of the first film, Elsa (Idina Menzel), Queen of Arendelle, has begun hearing a strange sound calling on her to go north. Upon revealing this to her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), the two decide to embark on a journey together, bringing Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf the happy snowman (Josh Gad), and Sven the reindeer along as well. Heading north means entering an enchanted forest, where the group learns plenty about the history of Arendelle and the origins of Elsa’s magical ice powers.
Strangely, perhaps the most significant improvement from the first film also feels like a bit of a detriment. The animation in 2013’s Frozen was one of the few areas not earning universal praise, and it appears this sequel had the filmmakers working very hard to show off what they could do this time around. As a result, there are some terrific sights to see as far as the environments, character model designs, and various other bits of innovation to show off the fantastical nature of this film.
Alas, for all the work going into making Frozen II a visual wonder to behold, the bold visual choices emphasize how oddly structured the story is in terms of tone. The sequel has all the makings of a film that wants to move the characters in a darker direction, and yet the film is at its best when it wants to have fun. Some emotional components land towards the end of the film, as everything about certain scenes has been designed to play with the emotions of an audience. However, the core story being told feels like an attempt to dive into more adult material, without knowing how to contend with taking that chance.
For example, much of the film takes place in a new location where other characters are introduced as having been lost for decades. They include Sterling K. Brown’s Lieutenant Destin Mattias, a leader of Arendelle soldiers, and Martha Plimpton’s Yelana, a leader of the native tribe from the north. Having a better handle on these new characters would allow an audience to understand the struggle they’ve presumably had in being locked away in a forest for years, but that’s never touched upon.
At the same time, much of Elsa’s journey involves her learning the truth about her family and powers. This means getting in touch with other elements, and spirit creatures or forces representing them. However, there’s very little done to explore better what this is supposed to mean, beyond merely a reason to see more of Elsa using her ice powers. Admittedly, there are a few sequences that feel ripped straight out of a comic book movie, when it comes to watching Elsa use her powers in creative and thrilling ways. Still, there’s a lack of stakes to go along with these moments.
The film’s setup comes out of nowhere, as far as why sounds suddenly begin to be heard by Elsa, but even in granting the movie a few passes as far as narrative convenience, there was little impact upon learning what needed to be done, and at what cost. Yes, some climactic moments could result in a massive change in the status quo if things aren’t handled accordingly, but neither the intended darkness or the gravity of the situation ever came on as strong as I feel the film wanted me to believe.
While narratively flawed, however, Frozen II features ample amounts of character-focused comedy and other areas of entertainment value to make it, at the very least, a satisfying trip for the myriad of families feverish with anticipation. If you want more scenes of sisterly bonding between Elsa and Anna, there’s plenty of good moments balancing the regal nature of the elder sister with the spunkiness of the younger one. The returning supporting players also have their chance to shine.
Groff’s Kristoff doesn’t have a ton to do, but he admirably deals with the challenge of delivering the perfect proposal to Anna, which allows for some fun comedic beats, as well as a power ballad inspired by 80s love songs. It would be distracting, were it not so cleverly staged. Similarly, directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee deserve plenty of credit for knowing exactly how to deploy Olaf.
The cheery snowman is designed to mildly grate on the other characters, despite spouting off many funny lines, and Frozen II utilizes that energy just enough to be humorous, without overdoing it. Given how tempting it is to increase the amount of what worked the first time around, it’s pretty wonderful to have a comic relief character I still wouldn’t mind seeing more of.
Honestly, the madcap humor that plays a role throughout the film is pretty inspired. There’s a lot of comedy coming out of pretty much everyone who isn’t Elsa (as she’s a part of the serious side of the plot). By making that element work, the personal drama that arises has all the more impact because you don’t want to see bad things happen to such a likable cast. Still, I do wish the new characters registered more.
We get a lot of backstories this time around. While useful in filling out the world these Frozen films are set in, I was hoping the end result would help justify the necessity of a sequel. As it stands, while there are building blocks to even more Frozen, the film is too thematically shallow to offer much beyond new information about where things come from. Additionally, the pacing is off-balance enough to feel as though things are just getting started as far as what could happen next, only for the film to come to an end.
As far as the songs go, the best I can say is how unashamed this film is of being a musical. While the first film obviously delivered on some key tracks, recall how the final song in that film is the one sung by the trolls and is no one’s favorite. Songwriters Kirsten Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez certainly put in the work to build a new soundtrack allowing the cast to do a lot of singing, even if too many of the songs are tied extremely close to what’s going on in the story. “Into the Unknown” is obviously designed as another standout ballad for Menzel, and the rest, while sounding nice, make me wonder just how out of it I am when it comes to understanding the musical tastes of those who are predisposed to taking all of this in.
It’s odd to feel somewhat mixed on a Disney cartoon. Perhaps that comes with the desire to stretch beyond simplicity. It’s admirable to see Buck and Lee acknowledge the growth of the audience who loved Frozen by aging up the characters as well, but the adult issues they are tackling this time around simply don’t register as strongly as they could in a better-developed story. At the same time, the fun that comes from seeing these characters is present, and I genuinely like the interplay and comedic moments taking place. Add to that some awe-inspiring visuals, and a solid enough soundtrack, and you have an animated adventure that is sure to entertain, even if things become a bit lost in the woods.