Following a decade in which it alternated relatively inspired ideas that were not carried to the full extent of their potential, like Lilo & Stitch, with utterly lackluster efforts, of which the most extreme example is Home on the Range, the Walt Disney Animation Studios kicked back into high gear when it approached the 2010s. The result was an excellent run of feature films; one that threatened to gain traction with Bolt as well as The Princess and the Frog, but that only confirmed its force a little later on the heels of Tangled. It was a much needed display of strength, not only because it showed the house of mouse could put up a fight against the new dominant force in the market, Pixar, but also for how it proved the magic of Disney cartoons could still connect with an audience that had very much changed since the company’s heyday.
Amidst an impressive chain of successes, there was Frozen: arguably, its brightest link and, unquestionably, the one that had the biggest cultural impact. In fact, given it was born into a world far more connected and fast-moving than the one that existed when Disney produced other major animated landmarks, it is possible to say Frozen was a victory of a kind that the studio – by all means an absolute giant of the industry – had never seen. It crossed so many boundaries that it became absolutely ubiquitous; it remained so relevant for so long that it was inescapable; and media appearances of its characters, songs, and scenes were so frequent that they put the fantastic piece that originated them – the animation itself – under the risk of drowning by overexposure.
Frozen was lightning in a bottle. And like all phenomena of that kind, it cannot possibly be explained: it simply happened. Some of the movie’s features, however, were certainly vital to that occurrence. Based on a formula that is rather familiar to Disney, the one of using an ancient fairy tale as a very vague basis for a new story that is then given the contours of a musical, the flick was further stuck in the land of traditionalism by being – superficially – a product of the most clichéd of the company’s recipes: a princess film. To Frozen, though, that nature only held true because it was centered around two sisters that, as members of a royal family, happened to possess such title.
Deep down, Disney knew that the central ingredients of Frozen were more likely to doom it than to guarantee its success; furthermore, the minds in Burbank seemed to be aware that many of their classic female heroes were starting to age very poorly under the scrutiny of a contemporary light. The movie, as such, was set to address all of that at once. In music, setting, and setup it absolutely recalled the Disney features of old. To revive and revalidate that mixture, it looked elsewhere when it came to other fronts. In humor, it aligned itself neatly with the self-deprecating tone of modern cartoons; in Anna, it exposed the ridiculous shallowness of the love that was once prevalent between princesses and princes; in Elsa, it found not just a tremendous arch of redemption but also the rare – and much needed – image of the independent female heroine; and in the relationship between the two sisters, it unearthed a breadth of drama and a heart of a size that is only seen in the finest movies by the studio.
With so much cultural, critical, and financial success, the idea that Frozen would get a sequel down the line would be absolutely natural if not for the fact that the Walt Disney Animation Studios – in spite of a few exceptions, like The Rescuers – have never been too keen on such endeavors, since even their most popular flicks of the past only got subsequent chapters as low-budget afterthoughts that were mostly relegated to the trash can of history. However, given Pixar, after being bought by Disney, has gone on to make a habit out of revisiting established properties, it was only a matter of time before the mothership caved in and developed the same habit. And even though it was up to Winnie the Pooh and Ralph Breaks the Internet to blaze that road, a sequel to Frozen would be too good of an opportunity to overlook.
Opportunity, though, does not equal necessity, and in that sense, Frozen II has to deal with a challenge that other theatrically released continuations by Disney avoided altogether: it has to sell the idea that its existence is not forced. The Rescuers and their roles as detectives left enough room for new cases to be tackled seamlessly; the storybook nature of Winnie the Pooh allowed the franchise’s films to stand as individual pieces; and the awareness that Wreck-It Ralph has towards popular culture made another go, whether focused on the same field or on a different medium, an intriguing possibility. Frozen, contrarily, was a perfectly self-contained tale; one that left no clear loose ends or visible open doors, a characteristic that puts it in pretty much the same position as other Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Frozen II, fortunately, does find an unresolved thread to use as a guide: the origin of Elsa’s powers. It was a subject that, in the original, did receive a certain degree of attention; yet, due to how the movie’s focus was obviously somewhere else, it was more of a cursory glance than a solid analysis. The sequel, meanwhile, dives into it straight ahead, for even if it is not the element that sets the new adventure in motion, it certainly is the piece that lies at the heart of most of what takes place.
It is fair to say that placing a meaningful explanation behind Elsa’s power was never exactly a pressing issue: in the Disney universe, after all, ever since Snow White got put to sleep by a poisoned apple, spells and otherworldly feats are as part of the equation of that world as oxygen is to ours. Therefore, the fact a girl can produce ice out of thin air can be accepted as reasonable without the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, as Frozen II hints that it is going to address that matter, one cannot help but feel excited about what is to come.
That mystery begins to have its veil lifted right as the movie starts. During a flashback, Elsa and Anna – as children – hear from their parents a story regarding their grandfather, King Runeard. During his time as ruler of Arendelle, he struck a deal with a neighboring tribe that lived in an enchanted forest, constructing a dam in their land: a structure that allowed the girls’ kingdom to flourish. Soon afterwards, though, a battle ensued for unexplained reasons and the spirits of the woods, enraged over the bloodshed, cursed the people involved in the skirmish to stay locked inside the area by using an impenetrable wall of fog. So tight was the prison that the story of what occurred only got out of those confines, in its vague details, because the princesses father, who was also present at the site of the conflict, escaped thanks to an unknown helping hand.
Just as everything seems to be about fine in Arendelle, with the heroes of the first adventure settling into their new and safer lifestyle, Elsa begins to hear a mysterious siren-line voice calling out to her. Initially, she shrugs it off but remains naturally curious about what exactly is going on; down the line, though, after a period of time in which the film feels a bit too uneventful for its own sake, she decides to go after it and – in the process – awakens the elemental spirits that had been dormant for a while. Seemingly enraged, they cause chaos in the kingdom through wind, fire, water, and earth. With their people effectively homeless, Elsa and Anna set out to discover what is behind that mess.
If that plot description seems slightly convoluted, that is not a mere impression or a result of reading about it rather than actually watching it unfold. Within its running time, Frozen II touches upon a lot of points that intrigue: there is a dive into the backstory of Arendelle and of its royal family; a look at why Elsa can summon winter without much effort; and even a very thorough examination of how exactly the parents of the two protagonists died out at sea and why they took such a trip. These are points that should make all of those who watched the original at least interested in paying the ticket to see the sequel, and – to different degrees – these questions offer a good payoff. Sadly, they are wrapped with a whole lot of magical mumbo jumbo.
Frozen II, therefore, falls into a very odd middle ground in the attempt to prove that it is not a forced second chapter. The reveals that the development of its plot leads to say that its existence is justified; the story itself, however, indicates that the film was either not an organic creation or not a very inspired moment by screenwriter Jennifer Lee, who had showed a load of talent in the prequel.
Carrying a cursed forest, four elemental spirits, a mythical river, a magical tribe, and a legendarily dangerous sea, Frozen II has more than it can chew on its plate; as a consequence, it lacks focus, alternating moments when it is utterly lost with occasions when it relocates its soul. The confusion rubs off negatively on some characters: Olaf, despite being responsible for a good deal of laughs, the movie’s finest scene, and one especially touching sequence, has for some reason hit an out-of-place existential crisis whose sole purpose seems to be to squeeze out a handful of jokes; Kristoff, meanwhile, has degenerated into comic relief, for he spends a major part of the flick stuck in a conflict – which is as unnatural as Olaf’s – over finding a way to ask Anna to marry him.
Still, Frozen II is not made up solely of components that mix the good and the ugly: some of its aspects are purely bright. Its musical lean is excellent not just because it once more brings forward the structure of the operatic fairy tale, but also due to how its tunes are mostly strong – even if it does not offer anything of the height of Let It Go – and how the scenes they back up are wonderfully animated. Furthermore, repeating the recipe that was used in the first chapter, the movie gets a lot of mileage out of the relationship between Elsa and Anna; an element that is obviously not as original this time around, but that keeps on delivering the emotional weight one expects out of a good Disney film.
Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the feeling that Frozen II could have been better than it is. If stripped to its more basic elements, the movie shows good intentions and solid direction, for when its turns and reveals are paired up with its songs and heart, any viewer can see that the framework for a worthy sequel was right there. The final product, sadly, misses the mark when it strives for a scope that is just too big and when it tries to fill up that space with plot points that fail to come together, falling apart into a convoluted mess instead. In the end, it is impossible not to feel touched, happy, excited, and amused by a good portion of what Frozen II offers. However, when it is all said and done, the movie simply disappoints: not because it is unable to match its prequel, as that possibility was never really on the table; but because its missteps are likely to make audiences wonder if its existence is more corporate than creative. And that is just not an environment in which Disney magic can flourish.