There are a couple of very brief moments during Frozen II in which the filmmakers poke a bit of fun at their previous billion-dollar-grossing success, gently mocking the ubiquity of “Let It Go” and the out-of-nowhereness of the villain reveal. On the other hand, both of these occur during greatest-hits reprises of the first Frozen that seem calculated to remind audiences of how much they loved the original, as if any of the kids (and their parents) who watched it a bajillion times on video could forget its events. The little ones who adored the adventures of Elsa, Anna, Olaf et al. will likely be just as captivated by the sequel; for adults, well…
Bear in mind, this grown-up has admired and overwhelmingly enjoyed a lot of Disney’s output over the last decade or so, from the progressive adventurousness of Moana to the pop-culture fantasias of the Wreck-It Ralph duo to the remarkable complexity and great anthropomorphic humor of Zootopia and even the simpler but charming fairy-tale pleasures of Tangled. (And that’s not even counting Pixar’s many achievements.) Frozen, on the other hand, struck me as second-level Disney, its poignant themes of sisterhood, gorgeous animation and Broadway-caliber songs making up for otherwise thin characters and simplistic plotting that sometimes felt made up as it went along (particularly when it came to the unveiling of the bad guy, which actually was). Frozen II doesn’t quite avoid those same pitfalls, once again delivering moments of genuine emotion and visual splendor amidst a storyline that feels contrived—and, in its motivating events, borrowed from Moana and Ralph Breaks the Internet.
We’re first reintroduced to Elsa and Anna as kids, being told some family history by their father that will be key to the events in the present, i.e. three years after the first Frozen. “Some Things Never Change,” the lead characters sing, though of course, they’re about to in a big way. Elsa (Idina Menzel), now queen of Arendelle, is feeling restless and literally called (by an ethereal voice) away from her kingdom to the mist-shrouded forest of Ahtohallan, where the explanation of how she came by her magical, ice-conjuring powers may lie. Her quest becomes more urgent when the natural elements begin rebelling against Arendelle, and Elsa insists on going alone. Needless to say, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is equally insistent on following her, joined by her woodsman boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer Sven and their living-snowman sidekick Olaf (Josh Gad), who has a sweet early number called “When I Am Older” in which he pines for the answers to life’s bigger questions. The more immediate mystery is how Elsa is tied to Ahtohallan, and its solution will confront the sisters and their friends with a tragic legacy, a wrong that must be righted to restore balance to the land.
Frozen II is nothing if not conscientious in the topical concerns—the environment, the treatment of indigenous peoples and the redressing of past misdeeds—that it addresses through a fantastical lens, and that directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (the latter also scripted) convey with a gentle hand. Both sisters face individual trials and their bond is tested as well, and their relationship is once again the strongest part of the film, in both senses. Meanwhile, Kristoff is largely on hand for comic relief, as his attempts to pop the question to Anna are consistently undone by bad timing and his own awkwardness, while Olaf keeps up a steady string of slapstick and one-liners. The humor is pleasant, occasionally quite funny, and overall not terribly inspired, and the latter goes for the storytelling in general. The narrative pieces, setups and conflicts and resolutions snap into place smoothly without much of a spark of surprise or discovery, and the general feeling is of a sequel that owes its existence more to financial imperatives than to narrative necessity.
That said, the craftspeople behind Frozen II have undeniably given it their all. The animation is lush and at times dazzling, with painstaking attention to details, right down to the way the tiny jewels on Elsa’s costume catch the light. The autumnal central setting provides this film a different look from the original, though Elsa is able to get her ice queen on for a few spectacular moments. Returning songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez give everyone a big number; Elsa’s “Show Yourself” bids most explicitly to become this year’s “Let It Go,” though my personal favorite is Kristoff’s ’80s-style power ballad “Lost in the Woods”—at least, as it plays on screen, with animal accompaniment that makes it especially entertaining. On first listen, though, it’s hard to say for sure that any of them will have “Let It Go”-esque staying power, and the same could be said of Frozen II in general. It will no doubt amuse and maybe even enrapture its target audience, but it doesn’t seem like a lock to earn the heavy rotation of its predecessor.