Principal Cast : Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Jeremy Sisto, Ciaran Hinds, Aurora.
Synopsis: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient, autumn-bound forest of an enchanted land. They set out to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom.
Disney really dropped the ball with Frozen. Oh, I don’t mean they didn’t capitalise on the 2013 film’s gargantuan pop-culture success, the generational touchstone moment the film became for little girls and boys the world over, and rode the spectacular success of the film’s most enduring song, because they sure rode that gravy train as hard and as brutally as any global corporation could have hoped to. No, what Disney failed to do then was immediately greenlight a sequel. Instead, it’s been six long years between big-screen drinks for Elsa, Anna, Olaf and Kristof, a few minor short featurettes notwithstanding. Now, with the cringe of Travolta mangling Idina Menzel’s name long behind us, the sequel everyone expected three years ago has finally landed and… was the wait worth it?
Three years after the coronation of Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), ruler of Arendelle, she is haunted by a mysterious voice that calls her out across the fjord. Her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s boyfriend Kristof (Jonathan Groff) and their magical sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), help Else uncover the source of this mysterious voice, unpacked by a history lesson involving the girls’ long deceased parents, whose past actions are now coming back into focus. Travelling north from Arendelle, the quartet locate a hidden realm inside the Enchanted Forest where formerly missing tribes of people live in constant conflict, borne from a long-distant quarrel. It is here that Elsa discovers the source of the mysterious voice, one that will lead her to discover the truth behind her powers and the truth about her parents.
Frozen II is one of those rare films that actually works better than the film that came before it. Yeah, I’m saying Frozen II is a better film than Frozen. Bold? Perhaps, but this statement does come with caveats. For a start, the songs in this film are nowhere near as memorable as those before – “Into The Unknown” isn’t a patch on “Let it Go”, despite trying earnestly and with the latter song even being given a slapdown in the climactic third act – and the film lacks a villain of any kind, something you might not expect from a studio where the Big Bad has become a subgenre unto itself. Yes, Elsa and her posse go up against…. the four elements? Consider me confused, baffled even, that some of the fantastical elements to the story felt a touch stretched to contrive a plot worthy of these characters and this franchise. A sentient gust of wind? Olaf names it Gale (yeah, Josh Gad’s banter and non sequiturs are the film’s only legitimate saving grace for comedy), and there’s a fire-starting chameleonic lizard thing no doubt designed to be this film’s “latest cute plush toy in the store after the film”, but by and large the film works its best when focusing on the human characters.
Conversely to the first film, the sequel leans heavily into Elsa’s story (rather than Anna’s) in digging deeper into her feelings of isolation and disassociation from the rest of her family and friends, due to her ice powers. There’s a heavy amount of flashback as well, a reprise for the child versions of Elsa and Anna, while their parents are now afforded some dialogue (Evan Rachel Wood playing the Queen, and Alfred Molina the King) which broadens the emotional connection to their mysterious past considerably. To be honest the story does feel like it’s hamstrung by its historical perspective – the film revolves around a decision made long ago that continues to form part of Arendelle’s legacy – to the detriment of its central characters, and that despite an aggressive repositioning of their relationship following the first film, Anna and Elsa continue to work better as a pair rather than separately. Crucial to this is the introduction of a secluded group of former Arendelle residents, Mattias (Sterling K Brown) and Yelena (Martha Plimpton), who both lead separate tribes secluded for thirty years by a curse upon the nearby forest. They form part of the quest narrative Frozen II involves, providing a short respite from the journey Elsa and Anna are on and assisting in uncovering aspects of the girls’ parents that wouldn’t be known if they weren’t there – the film prides itself on a contrivance of exposition.
The core ensemble are once again excellent, although you do get the sense that Idina Menzel feels either bored or annoyed she had to come back for this film, whilst Kristen Bell is given surprisingly little to do other than doe-eye her sister and inexplicably avoid being proposed to by sweetheart Kristof. Jonathan Groff has very little character arc here other than to portray the typically addled love interest to the strong female type in Anna, his Kristof a complete dunce when it comes to telling the girl he loves that… well, he loves her. He even has a Rick Astley-esque song about being “Lost In The Woods”, with the woods being love, which is quite cute and romantic until you realise it stops the film dead for four minutes and is remarkably pointless. Also pointless are more of Josh Gad’s silly musings in “When I’m Older”, which is no doubt a thematic reprise of “In Summer” from the first film, although only half as amusing this time. Gad, however, works overtime through the rest of the film to turn Olaf from a one-joke punchline into a legitimately endearing comedic punchline, his sidebar whisperings and off-kilter humour more delightful than deleterious (thankfully), so he manages to save the film from becoming some bleak Homer’s Odyssey trauma experience for the young audience. The film does waste the immense talents of Ciaran Hinds, though, giving him exactly three lines of dialogue before he’s never seen or heard again. The hell?
But, as I alluded to earlier, one of the big things I felt was a challenge for the film was a complete lack of villain. As in, there isn’t a Bad Guy you can specify. Sure, there’s a couple of angry rock giants stepping straight out of The Hobbit, a flashback sequence involving two tribes going to war, and a mysterious siren call that draws Elsa to potential doom, but Frozen II lacks a Maleficent or Jafar or Prince Hans Of The Southern Isles to ratchet up the antagonism. Instead, the conflict within the story comes from the conflict within Elsa herself, and I think it’s a brave choice by the writers to take this tack with such a high profile film. Lacking a pivotal villain, we’re reliant upon the characters we’re familiar with to generate an emotional connection servile to the nature of good storytelling – growth depends on conflict of some kind – and I think the writing in Frozen II works. It might not suit all tastes, but the darker tone the film takes with Elsa’s witchy powers and Anna’s apparent obliviousness to it all was actually quite a turn from a film property I figured might take a safer option. Instead of our heroes battling some overpowered villain, they’re battling their own inner demons, which to my mind is a far more interesting angle to take.
Of course, one can’t go far in a Disney animated film review without mentioning the remarkable quality of… the animation. Although Pixar remains the benchmark for CG animation in film, Disney’s in-house studio is rapidly becoming a powerhouse of its own, with some simply mind-blowing effects and attention to detail layered into every frame of this movie. While it might lack realism, Frozen II’s aesthetic adheres closely to its progenitor whilst also leaping forward technically; the landscapes are deeper, the “magic” powers all feel more distinct, and the subtlety of atmosphere within the frame is also remarkably better. It’s an incremental advance on 2013’s Frozen, for sure, but the details are what sell it. Elsa riding a magical water horse creature (which isn’t explained at all), the whippering zephyr chasing them through the forest, and the dynamic snowbound landscape of Arandelle’s Nordic inspiration are a visual treat not to be passed up, even if the film occasionally feels too much in a hurry to get to where it needs to go.
Despite being entirely unneeded, and with a mountain of pop-culture prominence to try and recapture, Frozen II could have gone the direct-to-Disney+ route and been a happy little streaming film for kids to while away a rainy afternoon. Bless them for trying, returning directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck don’t try and re-bottle lighting a second time, instead branching out into a less obvious tone and a far more adult thematic process than the original film might have aspired to achieve. It doesn’t always work, and the film had problems with pacing and an overblown sense of its own theatricality (although, honestly, it seems as if Frozen II acknowledges the gargantuan juggernaut its predecessor became with several canny nods to the audience) but changing gears in this manner is a worthy opportunity to go someplace new. A more sombre tone, apropos of the film’s audience having grown since 2013, as well as a more acute melange of familiar themes, turn Frozen II from an also-ran into quite an unexpected journey. It’s a journey well worth taking.