I remember walking out of the original Frozen back in 2013, mildly entertained by its unusual storytelling (the true love was between sisters, not romance!) and catchy tunes, but ultimately convinced it would never eclipse another recent Disney animation retelling re-dubbed with an adjective.
“It’s alright, but it’s no Tangled,” was my takeaway. But six years and several billion screeched sing-alongs of Let it Go later, it’s possible I may have underestimated the impact of Elsa and Anna’s story. Rapunzel, we hardly knew ye.
Now, the long-awaited sequel Frozen II is finally arriving, and following up on the success of the original must have been a formidable pressure for returning writer-directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. Happily, though, they rise to the challenge with aplomb, delivering an entertaining, beautifully-animated and thoughtfully self-aware follow-up – even if it does struggle with moments of incoherence and a slightly predictable story.
Said story picks up three years after the events of the original Frozen, with the once-angsty Elsa (Idina Menzel) now largely happy in control of her kingdom (the people of Arendelle have largely gotten over the ice giants and accidental Narnia winter she caused in the first film) until a mysterious voice appears to be calling her “Into the Unknown” – incidentally, the title of this film’s attempt at a Let It Go-style anthem, which while catchy probably won’t quite reach the heights of the original.
Anna (Kristen Bell), meanwhile is worried about her sister’s over-reliance on her ice powers, while her blonde boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) ponders the best way to pop the question and living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) riffs on his growing age and wisdom.
All these concerns coalesce when the gang (plus reindeer Sven) end up travelling into an enchanted forest, seek out spirits based on the classical Greek elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) and discover the secrets of Arendelle’s past, all while slipping a few more songs and comedy interludes into the action.
To say more would be to court spoilers but it’s quite a different sort of story to the original film, delving lightly into ideas of depression and hopelessness (particularly in Kristen Bell’s affecting solo The Next Right Thing) as well as, believe it or not, the impact of colonialism, treading surprisingly familiar ground to Taika Waititi’s Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok.
With that said, it’s unlikely that any of the film’s twists and turns will surprise many viewers who saw the original, with some big moments pretty clearly telegraphed and the ending turning into a bit of a cop-out when one or more heroic sacrifices are cheerfully undone with magic.
There’s also a surprising incoherence when it comes to the magical logic and “rules” of the film, with the enchanted forest’s all-important elemental spirits and their motivations never really explained properly while also overlapping in a confused way with an entirely different second quest for Elsa towards the film’s end (which does, to be fair, boast some of the movie’s most arresting visual moments).
But perhaps I’m being pernickety about a children’s film where the main attraction for the target audience is just spending time with beloved characters – and by that metric, Frozen II has plenty of strong moments.
Anna and Elsa are obviously front and centre again alongside intriguing new and expanded characters played by the likes of Sterling K Brown and Evan Rachel Wood, while Olaf (a massive highlight for the children in my screening whenever he appeared) has some new and inventive sequences to enjoy.
Jonathan Groff’s Kristoff, by comparison, has slightly less to do than other characters but does deliver Lost in the Woods, by far my favourite musical sequence of the movie. A bizarre pop-rock ballad framed like a 90s music video, the song includes Groff harmonising with himself and several reindeer, crooning into a hanging pinecone like a studio mic and running to embrace his true love only for her to fade away, repeatedly, in his arms.
Tonally, it’s a very strange scene – his emotional pain is presented entirely straight, but the song is animated as a joke – but I couldn’t stop smiling throughout as Groff hammed it up onscreen over and over again.
Frozen II is packed with these fun, self-aware moments, with one highlight including a one-man recap of the first film (starring Gad’s Olaf, of course) and an icy reminder of Elsa’s Let it Go blowout, which seems to embarrass her years down the line. Also, it’s worth staying after the credits for one last gag, because even Disney animated movies have to include post-credits stings now.
Overall, it’s these funnier, character-driven beats rather than the overarching mythology or even the songs that made Frozen II work for me as a worthy successor to the original.
Sure, it’s unlikely that this follow-up will be able to recreate the strange pop-culture alchemy that made Frozen Classic the go-to watch of every kid (and the bête noire of every parent), but they’ve definitely found new depths to explore in this second movie.