Frozen II (2019)
Whilst I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2013’s Frozen, at least it gave us John Travolta’s hilarious gaffe at The Oscars. The film also featured some pretty catchy songs such as, ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?’ ‘For the First Time in Forever,’ and the exceedingly popular ‘Let It Go,’ which took home a golden statuette for Best Achievement in Music at the 86th Academy Awards; the song is probably the bane of many parents’ existence, with little girls everywhere incessantly belting out the Oscar-winning show tune at the top of their lungs.
Despite my overall ambivalence towards the original film — I really should just let it go — Frozen cast a pretty big blizzard over the box office, becoming the highest-grossing animated feature of all time worldwide. Over the subsequent years, it’s developed into something of a pop culture phenomenon, spawning memes, merch, and parodies, as well as a couple of gap-filler shorts to scratch the itch until the inevitable release of the Frozen follow-up — there’s the über-fun Frozen Fever (2015), the best the series has churned out thus far, and Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, its length annoying a shit-ton of moviegoers when it played in front of Pixar’s Coco in cinemas back in 2017.
Six years on, and we’ve been struck with the avalanche that is Frozen II. Using Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Snow Queen’ to tell an unconventional story about love, acceptance, and female empowerment, Walt Disney Animation Studios lucked out with the original film, docking into a gold-slated harbour — it was a genuine celebration of sisterhood, rich with relatable themes and memorable characters. Frozen appeared to speak to girls and women everywhere (of all ages) — in that sense, I understand its appeal — despite upsetting the Sámi people, whose myths and rituals it appropriated and got somewhat wrong. The sequel, however, almost puts the franchise on thin ice by falling short of its predecessor — narratively, thematically, and musically.
Set three years after the events of the previous instalment, Frozen II finds former Ice Empress Elsa (Idina Menzel), her sister Queen Anna (Kristen Bell), wisecracking snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who’s still enchanted with life, outdoorsy ice harvester Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and his trusty reindeer pal, Sven — whose thoughts are occasionally interpreted by Kristoff via a goofy voice — all living a peaceful existence in Arendelle, a fictitious Nordic kingdom nestled among the mountains. We see the gang play games like charades and celebrate Autumn with the townsfolk, and life, in general, seems pretty great; so great that Kristoff has plans to pop the big question to his lady friend Anna, the pair now entangled romantically — a relationship that sparked after Kristoff awkwardly asked Anna’s permission to confer a kiss of gratitude at the close of the previous film. Of course, he doesn’t know how or when to get down on one knee, struggling to muster up the courage.
But wedding proposals seem to be the farthest thing from Anna’s mind, as her sister Elsa is being haunted by a mysterious melodic voice that appears to be summoning her from the Enchanted Forest, a faraway place the girls were told bedtime stories of by their father, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina), when they were kids. Out of the blue, Arendelle gets stormed by the forces of nature — the earth trembles, water fountains dry out, and lanterns extinguish. Fierce gusts of winds quite literally shove the people out, forcing them to evacuate to a cliffside nearby. So, they’re attacked by elementals from The Last Airbender. From there, the Rock Trolls show up and dish out some mystical mumbo jumbo, sending Anna, Elsa, and the rest of the gang in tow, off ‘Into the Unknown’ — which, conveniently, is Elsa’s flagship ballad — to unravel the mystery of the natural disasters. Though on a quest to save their kingdom, our heroines wind up having to confront their own murky heritage, having to right the wrongs of their ancestors, with their sisterly bond challenged along the way.
Initially, Frozen II was fraught with a storm of production delays until it was officially announced in 2015, two years after Frozen’s ticket booth takeover — at first, a sequel wasn’t seriously on the cards out of fear of not creating something as timeless as the original.
Rumor has it that Disney’s then-chief creative officer John Lasseter gave returning writers-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck total creative control on the project, allowing them to make a movie about anything they were passionate about at the time, seeing as they were struggling to find a story that didn’t seem forced or mandated, and felt like a natural extension of the narrative. Consequently, this artistic freedom winds up being a double-edged sword as Frozen II suffers, the film weighed down by a complicated and convoluted plot — I honestly couldn’t tell you what it’s about. It’s as if Lee and Buck (probably toiling away unchecked), working from a story penned by themselves, Marc Smith, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and Robert Lopez — creatives who labored on the first Frozen and/ or its subsequent extensions — had conflicting, almost contrasting themes and ideas they wished to explore — so, heck, why not do them all in the same one film! So, if you’re like me and found the trailers confusing, you’re in for a head-scratching ride.
You see, Frozen II is a lot more mature than its precursor. Although the characters embark on a physical journey — through other-worldly mists, across rivers, and over peaks — their trip is very much metaphysical. Essentially, the central story focuses on the errors of our ancestors, exploring things like dishonorable treaties and forced colonialism, with moviemakers shining a light on the impact this has on indigenous communities and the environment. So, yeah, it’s kinda missing that Disney Princess Magic of the former film, don’t ya say, which is one of the chief reasons why it was such a snowing success; here, viewers are pummelled with grown-up messages that deviate from Frozen’s principal theme of being true to oneself and finding one’s calling. But, hey, we’re given insight into the origins of Elsa’s powers and Anna’s lack thereof — however baffling these revelations are.
And it’s not just the story that’s a bit icy, but the songs, too. Those Broadway-stage-musical friendly tunes have all been replaced with haunting melodies and bedtime lullabies, which are cool if you’re, um, a grumpy grown-up, and not a bubbly 6-year-old girl. There’s no ‘Let It Go’ to anchor the picture musically, with most of the tracks melding together and having little earworm quality — I might need to give the soundtrack another spin, though. The clear winner for me is Kristoff’s ’80-style power ballad ‘Lost in the Woods,’ which comes complete with split screens and reindeer accompaniment, the visuals mimicking an ’80s MTV music video — I loved his wistful stares, and that clever use of an acorn as a mic. Summer-lovin’ snowman Olaf is also given another tune, ‘When I’m Older,’ and though it’s a fun slapstick little ditty that’s sure to please the kiddies, he’s singing about some pretty deep stuff, questioning the countless uncertainties in the world around him, which, hopefully, will make more sense when he gets older — notions that many young children probably won’t grasp.
Although falling short in some respects, Frozen II does get several things right. At its core, it’s still a girl power film with a relatively gender-equal creative team behind it, so that’s one thing in its favor. It’s also more culturally sensitive to the native people of Scandinavia, so that’s another plus.
In terms of design, the tech kids at Walt Disney Animation Studios have really outdone themselves. The artwork-animation is out-of-this-world jaw-dropping, Frozen II certainly the most beautifully animated film you’ll see this year. Elsa’s third act transformation is resplendent and stunning, while her horse-shaped elemental spirit of water, in this case, a water horse, stands as the picture’s design highlight (it has a mane of running water for Pete’s sake) — this ice pony is sure to be on top of every young girl’s Christmas list this year.
Furthermore, filmmakers have traded in the colder blues and whites for more warm Autumn tones, the color palette a real delight. The dazzling costumes and simulated environments/ terrains wholly impress — Disney has the Best Animated Film Oscar in the bag here. And while the climax is the hands-down highlight, and features some super-cool colossal Earth Giants, it may be a wee bit grim for young’uns.
Which brings us to characters themselves. Reprising their roles, the voice talent is uniformly great, most giving lively, nuanced turns. And here’s the thing, I actually like the feisty big-eyed heroines, I find Olaf amusing and think the rugged Kristoff is kinda rad, so too is Sven by extension — because, you have to be a Grinch to not dig reindeers? The problem is they’re not given a sufficient story. It’s one thing if a 30-plus straight white dude like myself can’t connect with the material, but if its target audience is disengaged and doesn’t relate, that’s something else entirely. For one, the narrative is too muddled and messy — scenes of Olaf fluffing about feel as though they belong in a different picture entirely. Lee and Buck try to lighten the colonization storyline with ham-fisted humor and cutesy characters like the salamander Bruni (the elemental spirit of fire), and other supernatural components. But none of it gels, or not nearly enough as it should, with the film coming across as tonally inconsistent and certainly not child friendly.
Echoing a lot of the failures of the original’s story, which while unorthodox as a princess tale was relatively commercial and generic, Frozen II plays it safe. For me that’s another mark against the franchise overall. The first film was a mess of Disney cultural appropriation, and that was fine, I guess, as it still managed to hit the right chord with its demographic, young children. Frozen II assumes that those children are now a tad older and wiser, and attempts to teach them about life, telling them that things may not be as black-and-white as they first seem, and that sometimes simple solution just aren’t there. But these messages are lost in the woods, so to speak; Lee and Buck want to have their cake and eat it too — as stated earlier, there’s too much going on and not nearly enough focus.
Then there’s the issue of LGBT representation. Allowing the fan base to simply speculate, Disney remains schtum and does a lot of queer-baiting here (much like with the original film), dropping hints and passing references that audiences will have to wish-fulfil later on via vlogs and other online forums. It’s back to the whole Josh Gad thing in Beauty and the Beast (2017). Or the possible same-sex couple in Finding Dory (2016). Unless the Mouse House starts making bolder choices, creatively, Pixar shorts are going to be the place where this stuff is explored. It’s the same thing with other marginalized groups — for example the immigrant community in Bao (2018). Outside of Moana (2016), which I think did an incredible job mainstreaming Polynesian culture, there doesn’t seem to be a push to explore new narrative avenues in Disney feature films. And when it is done, it’s usually in a very inoffensive, all-inclusive manner, the animation goliath desperately trying to maintain that universal family appeal.
Ultimately, children might get a kick out of seeing their favorite characters up on the big screen again, even if they can’t figure out what’s Frozen II is genuinely about. Teens who enjoyed the 2013 movie may get a bit more out of it. Regrettably, it’s just an average film, giving occasional glimpses of what a better Frozen series might have looked like had more guts and scrutiny gone into the creative process. Filmmakers could, and should have crafted a more fitting narrative that pushes the franchise forward — story-wise and in terms of representation. Disney straight-up said ‘Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People,’ so why not make Elsa a fully realized queer character and a real symbol for the underrepresented.
With the long-awaited follow-up to Frozen, however, setting a new record for the biggest global opening for an animated film ever ($350 million), the inevitable third entry is no doubt chugging along like Steamboat Willie at Disney HQ. Let’s hope the expression ‘third time’s a charm’ rings true.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by S-Littner
Frozen II is released through Disney Australia