2019 | rated PG | starring voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gadd, Jonathan Groff | directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee | 1 hr 43 mins |
What’s about to happen here is not, at all, what I expected to write when venturing into the sequel to the wonderful 2013 Disney powerhouse return to form Frozen. After a handful of duds and a spark of life with Tangled, Frozen was a triumphant return to form for the studio, adapting “The Snow Queen” into a lavish animated Broadway-style musical, the movie both played in the sandbox of Renaissance Disney films (snowman Olaf standing in as the comic relief sidekick) as well as mounted a subversive tweak of the Disney Princess fables by telling a tale of sisterly love and unleashed an exceptional roster of musical ballads, the much-played “Let it Go” only the tip of the tuneful iceburg.
At first all is right returning to the little fairy tale town of Arendelle, with Elsa (Idina Menzel) ruling as queen and her sister Anna enjoying relaxing bliss with boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, Mindhunter), planning to propose, and magic snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), ready to grow up and mature after 6 years. Arendelle looks great and the animated detail has only gotten better since the first film.
Almost immediately, Frozen 2 drops straight off a cliff from a story perspective. The first film was moved along on character motivations – Elsa, angry, confused and isolated, using her powers to lash out and run away. Anna looking for adventure, to get out of the castle and form her own identity while trying to bring her sister back. Frozen 2 is not at all character-motivated, and almost nobody in it has agency other then to react to the magical elements that are pushing them, and the story, along. It all kicks off when Elsa starts hearing a 4-tone voice singing in her head, pulling her toward an enchanted forest. Nature itself attacks the town and sends the group off to save it and all of it explained by a legend told by the girl’s parents of a fateful moment in time when the Arendelle warriors came to clash with the woodland natives who lived in harmony with the natural elements (Earth, Wind, Water and Fire) until the clash angered nature and locked them all in the enchanted woods.
Elsa, Anna, Olaf and Kristoff move along on their journey with one dues ex machina after another – a magic gust of leaves that shows them where to go, a magic water horse that gets Elsa across the bay. Ice structure ghosts that ignite memories and the exposition trolls from the first film rolling in to fill in the gaps. Frozen II is underdeveloped and over-written, as each new reveal in the very slim, obvious, predictable plot is over-explained multiple times as each character relay the information to themselves and then each other. Characters behave in bizarre ways only to suite the story as well, constantly overreacting to tiny foibles. In one scene Kristoff plans an elaborate marriage proposal with the help of the native people’s reindeer and when someone else comes upon it, instead of just, you know, resetting and trying again, he gives up entirely because it’s not meant to be. Each of these little things is a nit-pick. All of them stacking up to create a dizzying free-fall experience where the movie stops making any sense from minute to minute. Instead of devising puzzles for the characters to solve or issues to overcome, the film guides them through a series of set pieces like a theme park ride. It’s maddening. I’ve seen worse-made movies this year that weren’t as frustratingly as Frozen II.
At some point Frozen II breaks away from disappointing to actively bad. About the 5th or 6th time the magic gust of leaves showed our perfect characters the way to go I started mentally checking out. The movie has a too-clever-by-half habit of poking fun at itself. Having Olaf recount the plot of the first film, Elsa walk through ice sculpture scenes or Olaf knock Anna’s Frozen love interest is cute at first, but the movie goes to this well at least 3 separate times. Anna and Elsa went on their character journey in Frozen and instead of devising a new one for them, the film decides to have them journey into the past, flesh out their parents and uncover how Elsa got her powers. That’s a great idea for a sequel, the broad strokes all work here, but none of the details do. Elsa wants to find the voice, Anna wants to go on a journey with her sister – that’s it – and Olaf setting up a theme of maturing and accepting that things change with age – goes nowhere. At no point does the movie move from A to B to C in a way that doesn’t feel random and artificially forced to set up the next magic set piece or musical number. From that perspective none of the songs are as memorable as anything in Frozen, with “Into the Unknown” cued up to be the next “Let it Go”, offering Menzel another chance to belt it out, but with none of the emotional weight (it occurs very early in the movie). Nobody is going to doubt the singing talent on display in these movies. That’s the last of it’s problems.
Frozen II still feels like the singular vision of it’s creators, writer/director Jennifer Lee and co-director Chris Buck, which is a rare thing in mass-market studio family films. It’s also what makes the film’s collapse all the more mystifying. We didn’t necessarily need a sequel to Frozen but what we got is a beautiful mess.