Given how often I’ve heard “Let It Go” since it first got belted out by Idina Menzel, it really doesn’t seem like it has been six years since Frozen came out of nowhere to stake a claim at the top table of Disney – and general – animation. Frozen was a genuine masterpiece of that genre of cinema, and I don’t use the term lightly: on the fronts of animation, character, narrative, villain and, of course, music, it was the best thing Disney had come out with since the halcyon days of the mid 90’s. It hit effectively on such varied themes as coming out, pick-up artist manipulation, rushing into things and sibling bonds, and it did it all well.
A sequel was inevitable. You don’t make a film this successfull, that reverberates as much with the popular consciousness as it did, without lining up some manner of continuation, and direct-to-video isn’t going to cut it this time (sorry Return of Jafar and Simba’s Pride fans). It is only natural to fear for some manner of easy cash-in, but if that was to be the case, surely it would have comes a few years before now? The question was whether there was anything else to say in the Frozen world, or at least worth saying: myself and so many others were betting – and hoping – that there was.
A few years on from the events of Frozen, Queen Elsa (Menzel), Anna (Kristen Bell), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gadd) and Sven the Reindeer are living a happy life in Arendelle, with Kristoff on the verge of proposing to Anna. When Arendelle comes under threat from elemental powers, the five must venture north to a mysterious forest, following a ghostly tune that only an ever more restless Elsa can hear.
I mentioned above the key themes that Frozen hit on, and I want to emphasise that the film made good use of its time to explore those themes without one dominating or without the experience being diluted by multiple focuses. Frozen 2, while trying its very hardest, is not a film that can the same. Unfortunately, it seems very much to be a case that nothing was planned for a Frozen sequel, and in their efforts to create one, the Disney team decided that having eight or more good ideas meant they should try and put them all in.
Frozen 2 is a film that doesn’t really know what it is about, or what it clearly wants to impart. Scene to scene, conversation to conversation, even line to line at moments, the film changes tack to focus on a new theme, a new plot point, a new character. Very little gets the time to breathe in Frozen 2, not like things were allowed to develop in 2013. It’s hard to offer an assessment of the film from a narrative standpoint as a result, but I will zero in on three aspects of note.
The first, with Elsa, would appear to be a natural continuation of her character arc in Frozen. That was about learning to accept who you are and be proud of it, and to cast off the pressures of societal expectation, with fairly obvious LGBTQ allusions. Here, Elsa is “out” and better for it, but must now find a sure footing in a whole new world, a niche where she can be comfortable with herself after the legwork has been done to reach the plateau. In line with the slightly more grown-up audience, the film is about the perils of growing up. The quest for this, manifesting in the form of a ghostly call from the north and a journey into a succession of magical environments, is well put together for the most part, right up until it has to intertwine with the main plot, and then things start to seem a little clumsier than you might be used to with this franchise.
That takes us onto the second plot point of major significance, which is an effort to resolve the problems of the past that continue to echo into the present. Essentially, the Arendelle royal family have some skeletons, and the sins of the grandfather, father and mother, are now being visited upon the children. Elsa and Anna have to redeem some of their family’s past failures that have upset the magical balance and here the director/writing team are able to play around with nods to bias, fake news and exploitation of native groups.
While ostensibly being based on a Danish book, Frozen takes many of its cues, visual and musical, from Norway, and specifically Sami or Lapland culture. Frozen 2 continues this and makes the connection more explicit, with the forest denizens being a fairly obvious stand-in for the Sami, from their clothes to their rendition of “Vuelie”. As we get into the nitty-gritty of how the “Northuldra” have been manipulated and exploited by the urban power centre down the way, you begin to realise that we are seeing an allegory for the concept of “Norwegianisation”, the Oslo government’s efforts to enact a common culture across all of its territory, which included laws that aimed to strip the Sami of their own lands, language and culture, that only formally came to an end in the 1980’s. Frozen 2 ties all three of these ideas in to each other pretty well – Elsa needing to discover some important things about herself, which are connected to the mis-remembered actions of her ancestors, which were a negative for the Northuldra people – and if the film had stuck to that trinity of themes, it might have been able to scale the heights of 2013.
But it doesn’t. Among the other things that get heaps of time in Frozen 2 are Anna’s distress that her sister may be becoming too reckless with her powers; Anna’s own lack of agency, and obvious need to be more than just someone else’s support; a general commentary on what to do when your own support structure vanishes; Kristoff’s bumbling attempts to propose to Anna, which then become a deeper introspection into whether the two do belong together long term (some real clumsy “crazy girlfriend” dialogue here); a general theme of nature vs technology, symbolised by a Arendelle-made dam that is later revealed to be at the heart of environmental problems in the mysterious forest; a thirty year long conflict between the Northuldra and a remnant of Arendelle’s military that was trapped in the forest; a mystery to be solved around the identity of a figure that rescued Elsa and Anna’s father when he was a young man; a commentary on the nature of morality in the face of hopelessness; and a very strange turn from Olaf, who attempts to have something akin to a comical existential crisis throughout the film, as he ponders on the warped perceptions the young have about the nature of maturity, and on the general impermanence of things (he’s a step away from declaring that “Nothing beside remains”).
I hope I am not out of line to note that Frozen 2 has an expanded writing team, and I fear that Disney executives had a bigger say in its production than they may have had in 2013. It just seems like too much has been shoved in here, as if nobody could make up their minds and, worried about missing the mark, chucked everything at the wall. Frozen 2 seems overloaded as a result. Even with Menzel, Bell, Groff and Gadd giving it socks in terms of VA, even they seem laden down with the amount of material they have to get across. That’s especially regrettable in the case of Gadd, who would have been better off without the ennui: a scene where he sums up the plot of Frozen in around 30 seconds, to a fully engaged audience, is probably the film’s funniest.
One of the things that made way for all of the above is an antagonist. This isn’t so much a criticism, because films of this type don’t necessarily need villains, but more of an observation: perhaps if Frozen 2 had an antagonist in the mold of Hans, it could have been a bit more focused plot-wise, which may well have been to its betterment. Frozen 2 struggles a bit with its pacing and how to wrap up its final act, with some character death fake-outs that fail to land in a big way. As it is, the main antagonist force is mostly the darkness of the far past, which you can’t give a kick-ass villain song to (aside: “Love Is An Open Door” was the best Disney villain song since “Hellfire”).
But Frozen 2 is not some shallow exercise in hoovering up money from the movie-going world, something that can be seen from the other key aspects of its production, namely the visuals and the music. The technology may not have moved on much in six years, but the world of Arendelle and beyond still looks great, awash as it is with those Scandinavian inspired landscapes and translated fairy-tale elements.
The first film was awash with ice, but the second wants to take in new environments: crisply presented forests of brown and gold, black waters of immense size and depth, and dark caverns where the long night of the soul can be undertaken as well as it can be for certain characters. The individual details and touches are what make the film stand-out: the stone-giants, the ice sculptures created from water’s memory, an ocean-living horse spirit and a mindmeltingly fractal glimpse into the secrets of the past are all good examples. The human (and snowman) characters continue to look as well as CGI can make them look, avoiding the uncanny valley deftly.
And then the songs. It would be hard to match up to Frozen’s motley collection of top tier musical choices, and Frozen 2 doesn’t manage it. But that doesn’t mean that it is a soundtrack that is not something worth praising, being more than good enough to match up to most of Disney animation’s back catalogue. We open with a haunting fairy-tale lullaby dubbed “All Is Known” that will become a recurring plot-point, before going straight into the jauntier heres-what-everyone-has-been-up-to-since-the-first-one tune “Some Things Never Change”. Frozen’s 2 big number is the soaring “Into The Unknown”, where Menzel does as much as she can to match “Let It Go”, aiden by a four beat addition from AURORA, and while it isn’t as memorable as “Let It Go”, it still has a power all of its own.
“Lost In The Woods”, an 80’s style power ballad where Kristoff wonders if his relationship with Anna has a future, complete with 80’s style music video touches, is a nice diversion, while “Show Yourself” and “The Next Right Thing” help to emphasise the key plot points for Elsa and Anna’s arcs respectively, without being truly memorable. Finally, Panic! At The Disco contribute a very catchy version of “Into The Unknown” for the credits, that is arguably a bit better than Menzel’s. They’re all catchy in their own way, and a credit to the returning song-writing team.
Despite the strength of its songs, its cast and its visuals, it’s difficult for me to classify Frozen 2 as anything other than a disappointment. It wants to do too much in too little time, and the end result is a dilution that leaves this follow-up feeling regrettably rushed and ironically bland in its desire to be so many different things at once. A third is probably inevitable, and perhaps lessons will be learned, with a recourse to a few basic themes, the re-introduction of an antagonist character and a maintaining of the high production standards that the franchise has otherwise continued to exhibit. If they do that, then Frozen may have a sequel worth the praise that the original quite rightly acquired. Frozen 2 isn’t that film, though it comes with plenty of redeeming elements. Partly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).