Starring: Idina Menzel (Enchanted), Kristen Bell (The Good Place), Jonathan Groff (American Sniper), Josh Gad (Beauty and the Beast), Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld), Sterling K. Brown (Black Panther)
Directors: Chris Buck (Tarzan) & Jennifer Lee (Frozen)
Writer: Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph)
Runtime: 1 hour 43 minutes
Release Date: 22nd November (US, UK)
So here we are six years later, and the Frozen phenomenon still hasn’t died down. Unlike so many other animated films that fade away until we rediscover them as nostalgic adults, Disney’s loose adaptation of The Snow Queen has taken on a life of its own and essentially became the Beauty and the Beast of the animation studio’s Second Renaissance. However, unlike the films of that last generation, the sequels this time aren’t relegated to direct-to-video. Only the third theatrical follow-up in the company’s history (after The Rescuers Down Under and Ralph Breaks the Internet), Frozen II has an incredibly large pedigree to live up to. It ultimately succeeds by not relying on what made the first film work and strikes out in a bold new direction, even if the transition isn’t as smooth as one would hope.
In much the same way as the Harry Potter series, Frozen II has decided to mature with its audience. It’s still ultimately a family-friendly story, but it steps away from the regular Disney Princess formula and moves the series into something more of an epic fantasy direction. The result is a fascinating and surprisingly seamless blend of tones, as the film drifts back and forth from light-hearted family musical to a surprisingly mature contemplation on colonialism and righting the wrongs of the past. At its core, the film ultimately still focuses on its predecessors themes of sisterhood and arrested development, but the added complexity will certainly give older audience members something to take away too. It beautifully and cleverly expands on the limited mythology set out by the original, crafting a larger story world ripe for expansion, though it disappointingly gets very little time to ruminate on it.
The plot is structurally sound and moves at an effective pace, but the story still often feels rushed from beat to beat. The second act feels especially truncated, introducing a handful of new characters it mostly forgets to develop until the final third, and leaves little room to bask in and enjoy the fantastical new concepts introduced to the world of Arendelle. As films like Warcraft and The Golden Compass have proven before, delivering an epic fantasy adventure in anything less than 135 minutes is a tall order in a genre that demands expansive world building and lore, and though Frozen II excels in many other areas it still can’t help but feel restrained. What’s there is fantastic, and in many facets it exceeds the first film, but it either needed more room to breathe or to drop some ideas and focus in on the key themes. The How to Train Your Dragon films are a top-tier example of how to flesh out and add maturity to a family-friendly fantasy series, and perhaps the creators of Frozen would do well to take some pages out of their book should they decide to return for a third outing.
What made Frozen so endearing to many audiences is the strong bond between Anna and Elsa and the themes of unconditional sisterhood and love that relationship delivered. Frozen II is smart to expand on those ideas and gives the royal sisters more time together to further their tumultuous relationship. The two are given far more equal footing this time around, as Elsa begins to further understand the origins and strength of her powers whilst Anna grapples with maturity and change. Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell are as charming and magnetic as ever, and once again their characters are what make the film so appealing. Jonathan Groff’s Kristoff gets an amusing subplot, though it is unfortunately one of the victims of the film’s truncated second act, whilst Josh Gad manages to stave off the potential for Olaf to become a cloying presence and delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as the befuddled snowman. Evan Rachel Wood and Sterling K. Brown are great when present, but Wood’s performance is mostly relegated to a prologue flashback and Brown’s character is introduced with a great potential for conflict that never actually pays off.
The songs of the original Frozen quickly became pop culture staples to the point of frustration for many an adult, but it’s hard to deny they aren’t some catchy tunes once you separate them from their overexposure. Whilst there is no song quite as zeitgeist-catching as “Let It Go” to be found in Frozen II, the overall quality and plot-relevance of the music here is far stronger; there are no disposable tunes like “Fixer-Upper” or that one about cutting ice. Obviously positioned as the new flagship song is Menzel’s “Into the Unknown”, which is a fantastic belter ripe with much of the same longing and conflict as her prior hit (and with just as much potential for mining queer subtext). With that said, her second number with Wood “Show Yourself” is arguably even stronger and more heart wrenching. The film’s first big number “Some Things Never Change” is apt and clever way to start off a story all about monumental change, Gad gets another chance to shine with comical “When I Am Older”, and Bell delivers the exact opposite of the blind optimism of “For the First Time in Forever” with “The Next Right Thing”. However, the major surprise there is Groff’s number for Kristoff “Lost in the Woods”, which is a major departure from the film’s otherwise traditional musical aesthetic and is something of a parody of pop movie soundtrack hits in the vein of Peter Cetera or Bryan Adams. It’s a song that is simultaneously sincere and subtly hilarious, but also one likely to split the tastes of the audience.
It’s amazing how quickly the quality of animation evolves over a short period of time, as in only six years Frozen II looks vastly superior to the still technically impressive first. The style has stayed relatively the same but the subtle details are much richer. The fine precision of the texture mapping and physics makes this cartoon world come alive, and if the characters were removed these environments would feel perfectly at home in a live action feature. The production design is as bold and fantastical as ever, and the film’s expanded use of action sequences feel fierce and raw whilst still feeling a part of the same picture as its otherwise Disney-like self. Of course the musical numbers take top billing, but one must not overlook the phenomenal work of Christophe Beck in composing the traditional score, further incorporating Nordic influences into his compositions to create a moody and authentic experience that helps keep the film hopping beyond the usual song-and-dance.
Frozen II is an ambitious and challenging animated film that tries to evolve not only its own story but also the expectations for all of Disney animation. It occasionally feels a little too limited by its tight structure and young audience to go as brazenly out there as it clearly wants to, but what of that intention that is on display is so rich in tonal maturity and subtext that it still delivers a strong emotional impact. It has everything a young audience member wants from a Frozen sequel, but it also has deeper layers for an adult audience to digest and help send a good message about being intersectional and fighting for a better tomorrow. There is clear room left for this world to go on and on and, though the fears of alienating younger viewers and the international market may continue to hinder it, I hope they eventually reach a point where they can drop some of the subtext and embrace the potential this world they’ve created has to offer. For a movie that’s about overcoming fear and prejudice, it’s strange that Disney still has some of that do itself.
FINAL VERDICT: 8/10