Firstly, let it be known that our fearless editor had to reach out to see if anybody was willing to see Frozen II over its opening weekend. I chose to fall on the sword. Not because I was hopeful that Walt Disney Animation’s latest would be worthwhile – no, I knew going in that I was going to leave the theater in some kind of dazed, dismayed zombie state. But as an aficionado of Disney Animation, right up until the turn of the century, there’s always been a part of me that desperately hopes someone over at the House of Mouse might remember what made their animated efforts essential entertainment during the Disney Renaissance. But the further we get from that golden decade, the more I’m convinced that was lightning in a bottle, a magic that can never be recaptured. Although Frozen II greatly benefits from the ever-expanding capabilities of digital animation, the gussied up production is really no better than the direct-to-video sequels the company shamelessly started shilling out in the late 1990s.
It’s not like we should be surprised about this. The company’s efforts have been trending in this direction for quite some time now. At the start of the 2010s, Tangled presented itself as a phenomenal vehicle for the company’s full-time transition into computer-generated productions only, smartly using tried-and-true classical storytelling and animation that recalled the familiar art styles of the traditional 2D features. But that’s proven to be more of a missed opportunity than a raising of the standard. In all those subsequent years, the various Disney animated films have become increasingly patchwork-like in quality, benefiting from advances in technology while the story is propped up only by the company’s insistence on building a narrative around buzzwords. The result is several films that really do mean well – like Big Hero 6‘s meditation on loss, and Moana‘s attempt to explore a culture too often ignored – but largely feel a bit mechanically produced. It’s always the narratives that suffer the most in this scenario. Gone is the simple but involving storytelling that once characterized the studio. Disney knows how to make their pictures seem to be about important things without ever plumbing their incisive topics with actual narrative or thematic depth.
And that’s a problem that plagues Frozen II, which wants to be about reparations and destroying barriers that have been built because of prejudice between two communities. But this comes at the expense of the narrative bending over backwards to try and re-mythologize the continuity of the first film, adding a few tidbits of the past that were oh so conveniently left out of the prior film’s narrative, all in an effort to justify why that story ever deserved a sequel in the first place. Plot twist: it never did, but Disney hasn’t been anything but forthcoming about the real reason Frozen II exists, and that’s because the first was a cultural phenomenon that made the company a lot of money.
The sequel begins some time after the first. What’s the exact timeline? I have no idea, and trying to guess is putting in more effort than the screenwriters did, so let’s just keep going. Anyway, after almost freezing everyone to death, magical Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) is now in charge of the kingdom of Arendelle. Lately, she’s been hearing a phantom voice singing to her – and only she can hear it. After the city is ravaged by strange magic, Elsa, her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and that damned talking snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) go off in search of the phantom voice. Their journey leads them to a land they’re only familiar with from bedtime stories, where magic lives amongst the woods. What they discover beyond the mist…
Okay, let’s just stop here. Confused? Me too. But that’s exactly how Frozen II operates as a narrative. It’s all go-go-go without much in the way of actual causality. Events sort of just happen, characters appear where they need to, and it all becomes convoluted when the film actually remembers to explain things. Ultimately, the narrative is about Elsa and Anna reconsidering their nation’s past and its unsteady history and relationship with the magic people of the forest. It’s got the now-trademark Disney twist where the villain is someone we thought was a good guy, and all the external antagonism up until that point has been a case of misunderstanding. Except, in this case, there’s really not a villain, because the person responsible for building the barriers in the first place is already dead and doesn’t even manifest spiritually. Instead it’s supposed to be nature itself that’s falling apart, meaning that the story is probably as much about environmentalism as it is about reparations… which is to say, it’s not really about either of those. There are a few moments where it feels like the film’s adventure into the wilderness is going to be something akin to The Black Cauldron, but mostly just turns out to be a follow-up to Pixar’s disappointing Brave. A total shame.
The whole film is a structural mess, a series of moments haphazardly strung together. So it’s not surprising that it can’t even muster a baseline of the emotionality that at least allowed the first film’s fable about sisterly love to be involving and satisfying. Disney lacks true conviction to tackle difficult topics. The reparations storyline doesn’t work because none of those sacrifices mean anything, or they’re just undone so that everyone can live their happily ever after. And the environmental aspect largely feels shoehorned into the narrative because I’m sure the writers realized they had no external antagonists and instead of crafting a human variant, it was easier to make a water horse and flaming gecko provide some last-minute conflict instead. Like I mentioned before, the film steps over itself trying to create a new canon that we had no clue about in the first film so that we’d have something to work with on this journey. That includes finally understanding where Elsa’s powers come from and what happened to the siblings’ parents. Once again, neither of those conclusions are particularly important, nor were they necessary at all.
It’s pretty bad when that abominable talking snowman is the most consistent thing about your film.
The same team of songwriters (unfortunately) return for the sequel, and while the music is largely more varied and much better spread throughout the narrative, it’s also largely forgettable. There’s nothing here that captures the earworm sensibility of “Let It Go,” let alone something sturdy like “For the First Time in Forever.” And the the problem with the varying styles goes back to the film’s struggle with tone. For something that’s trying to deliver a serious message, that wants to venture “Into the Unknown,” as Mendel sings, the music serves to distract rather than enhance.
Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the animation. Outside of the character models, which still rank amongst the least impressive in the modern computer-generated canon, the environments, textures, and lighting effects are absolutely stunning. The film is gorgeous to look at, and there’s a great many moments that are visually inspired, such as a sequence where Elsa attempts to freeze a stormy sea in an attempt to get to the other side. The muted color palette is wonderfully offset by the colorful costumes, and the film really takes advantage of crafting a widescreen aesthetic that does recall The Black Cauldron in a way that satisfied this reviewer (by the way, what a criminally underrated film… but that’s a write-up for another time).
Frozen II is ambitious, I’ll give it that. And the initial pitch, that the film would be something darker, more overtly magical and adventurous, definitely has some appeal. But it never sticks the landing. It’s far too cluttered and shambolic, reliant on fantastic production values and bogged down by a pretty terrible screenplay. Never mind that it’s largely forgettable. The whole thing passed through my brain and largely left my train of thought a few hours after the film had wrapped.
As they say, good intentions are only worth so much.