Somewhere out there, in all the different planes of the multiverse, there is a universe in which “The Snow Queen” made history as the first animated feature-length film ever made. Yes, Disney had been toying with an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale since before Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For literally as long as the company has been in existence, Disney had been trying on again and off again to crack this story. For over seven decades, through the wartime propaganda phase to the post-Walt era to the ’90s Renaissance and the rise of Pixar and the CGI resurgence of Disney animation, the best and brightest at the House of Mouse simply could not figure out how to adapt this story to cinema, or how to wrap their heads around the titular queen.
The film was put back into development hell for the last time in 2010. They were rewriting the damn thing right up through June 2013. Remember, that’s five months before the film was finally released.
In hindsight, it’s little wonder the promotion for the film was such a pitiable clusterfuck. The trailers were outrageously bad, and the posters barely even showed the characters. Even the title was hastily changed to Frozen, very likely to distance the film from their precious Disney Princess lineup, thereby preserving their preteen girl fanbase while hopefully courting any preteen boys who might otherwise be turned away by a movie about princesses.
Frozen was a fluke. It was a happy little miracle that somehow came together into a world-conquering smash hit franchise. Of course a sequel was inevitable, and now Disney finally knew and appreciated what they had. Or did they?
On the one hand, Disney immediately threw the full weight of its unstoppable vertically integrated media machine behind the franchise. Anna and Elsa were quickly inducted as centerpieces of the Disney Princess lineup, and Olaf practically became Disney’s answer to the Minions. We got theatrically released short films, the Disney theme park rides, “Let it Go” on a ubiquitous infinite loop, endless oceans of merchandise, and even other Disney franchises destroyed for the sake of crossover cameos. (Pour one out for Wreck-it-Ralph.) The Mouse spared no expense whatsoever toward keeping Frozen in the pop-culture zeitgeist, getting us good and ready for a sequel that would inevitably be made with the full financial and creative support of the studio.
But on the other hand, while the notion of a sequel was of course inevitable, it raises an inherent conundrum: How to replicate the success of a film that succeeded purely by accident. How do you create the illusion that a second film had been planned all along when the first film barely had any planning to begin with? Looking back at the 75-year shitshow that was this movie’s development, and looking at the multibillion-dollar goliath the film has become, how in the Nine Hells did we even get here from there?
The easiest answer is in pointing to the Disney Princess trope subversion, delivering a princess who didn’t necessarily need a romantic interest and didn’t fall instantly in love with the first handsome man she met. In fact, it was such a radical and lucrative notion that Disney proceeded to use it over and over again in the subsequent five years. Hell, they practically made selective and strategic self-subversion the raison d’etre for their ongoing “live-action remake” phase. With their one great novelty (which wasn’t even all that new to begin with — Enchanted and Tangled had both primed the pump for it) more or less reduced to a cliche and thus rendered unusable, what else could Frozen II capitalize on?
Honestly, I don’t think the filmmakers could figure that out. Nobody had any idea what made the last film so effective, so they instead chose to focus on what made the last film marketable.
Obviously, that means bringing back Idina Menzel as Elsa. Of course we also need Kristen Bell at her right hand, reprising the optimistic effervescence of Anna and getting some songs of her own. Josh Gad is a given — hell, it feels like half the sequel mostly consists of Olaf clowning around and spouting non-sequiturs. He also gets a shit-ton of slapstick physical humor, as if to rub in our faces that the character is literally indestructible and we’re stuck with him forever regardless of whether we like it or not.
Oh, and let’s bring back Jonathan Groff to play Kristoff while we’re at it. It’d just be weird not to at this point. What’s that? Ciaran Hinds wants to come back and phone in another exposition dump? Sure, why not? It’s maybe two minutes of voice-over and the money’s there.
Is there a plot? Does it even matter? heavy sigh Okay, I’ll try my best to make this quick.
The film opens with an extended prologue, detailing a time long before Anna and Elsa were even born, back when their father (Agnarr, gamely voiced by Alfred Molina) was barely much more than a boy himself. Their grandfather (King Runeard, voiced by Jeremy Sisto) brokered a peace deal with an enchanted forest far to the north. This particular forest was populated by the tribe of Northuldra, gifted with the ability to work in magical harmony with the elemental spirits of the forest.
Things were going great until the peace deal broke down for unclear reasons. Runeard was killed, Agnarr was spirited home through unknown means, and the entire forest was covered in impenetrable mist. In all the years since, nobody’s ever gone in and nothing has ever come out.
Flash forward to about three years after the previous film. Elsa starts hearing a mysterious singing voice from the north, just before weird magical shenanigans force the entire kingdom of Arendelle to evacuate. Our heroes deduce that something strange is happening in the forest up north, so they set out to investigate and hopefully save both kingdoms.
To be entirely honest, it’s not really a plot or a movie so much as it’s a concept album. I know that may sound like a petty criticism, like I’m bagging on the musical for being a musical, but it’s so patently obvious that the filmmakers are more interested in selling soundtracks and trying to recapture the last movie’s lightning in a bottle. And they never really do.
Take, for example, Josh Gad’s big number. “When I Am Older” is set against a series of weird paranormal shenanigans happening all around Olaf in this strange forest he knows nothing about, and how he’ll presumably be a lot less scared of everything when he’s older and wiser and knows everything. The comical irony is in Olaf’s assumption that the whole world makes sense when you’re grown up. Compare that to the comical irony of “In Summer” from the last film, in which a snowman yearns for summer while blissfully ignorant of the fact that he’ll melt. That’s a strangely endearing kind of dark comedy the sequel never even aspires to.
Elsa gets a couple of huge numbers. “Into the Unknown” is a fun little number, but it only works if we assume that Elsa is going stir-crazy in Arendelle. After the prologue, Kristoff’s abortive attempts at proposing to Anna, and that massive Arendelle festival number, there’s no time at all in the first act to show the audience that Elsa is doubting her own abilities as the queen of Arendelle, and thus the whole angle falls flat.
The other big one is “Show Yourself”, which other critics have already singled out as a subtle kind of queer-coding for Elsa.
(Side note: Gay marriage is still illegal in China, and issues of LGBTQ equality are still a massively controversial hot-button topic over there. So as long as Hollywood keeps courting that lucrative Chinese box office, don’t expect to see any kind of substantial gay representation in blockbuster media anytime soon.)
Both of these songs are okay, primarily due to the phenomenal production and Idina Menzel’s powerhouse vocals. The big problem is that they’re so obviously trying to be “Let it Go”, directly inviting doomed comparisons. To start with, “Let it Go” is a landmark transformative moment for the character, a liberating payoff to half a movie’s worth of captive setup. Elsa doesn’t really have any huge threshold-breaking moments like that in the sequel, in large part because all the musical numbers leave so little time for setup, which in turn leads to weak payoffs.
Moreover, “Let it Go” — the chorus, anyway — works as a standalone anthem of empowerment. Anyone (most especially the target audience of preteen girls) can listen to it or sing along with it and feel like they’re breaking free of all constraints and chasing their full potential. By comparison, both of Elsa’s songs are so specifically tailored to her exact situation in those exact moments that they can’t possibly work the same way. Can you picture anyone bolstering their confidence with a chorus of “Into the Unknown” or reaching out to someone with a few bars of “Show Yourself”? I mean, if they can, more power to them, but I find it a bit of a stretch.
Funny enough, the closest thing this movie has to a “Let it Go” spiritual successor is probably “The Next Right Thing”. It’s a huge leap forward for Anna as a character, a song all about finding the courage to pick herself up and keep moving forward. Yet even that song falls way, WAY short of the mark because it never really kicks into gear or reaches the appropriate level of bombast. Also, with all respect to Kristen Bell, she’s no Idina Menzel.
Oh, and Kristoff gets an honest-to-God ’80s power ballad. Seriously, what the fuck?
Stepping away from the soundtrack and back to the film itself, I want to give the filmmakers credit for expanding the world beyond Arendelle. The Northuldra forest introduces all sorts of neat possibilities for the franchise moving forward, and I appreciated a bit more elaboration as to why everyone was so skittish about magic in the previous film.
Yet I have to take that credit right back for some transparently awful choices in the world-building. The elemental spirits were all clearly designed with merchandising in mind, but Disney would’ve made toys out of them anyway, so I can let that slide. What really gets stuck in my craw is the recurring plot device about how water has memory.
I’ll repeat that: Water has memory.
Which means that Elsa can summon the water particles that have apparently been sitting around after however many years, charge them with her ice magic, and they’ll automatically freeze into ice sculptures of specific moments in time. This is how the plot dispenses certain valuable clues at the prescribed moments in time.
Do I even need to explain why this could be the dumbest and laziest storytelling hand-wave ever committed to film? Even allowing for the fact that we’re dealing with magic here, this whole plot device immediately falls apart with even the most basic and cursory logic. Why is it this particular memory that crystallizes? Why don’t different water particles freeze into different memories? Why is that same water still there after so many years? How can water even remember anything or think of anything when IT’S JUST FUCKING WATER?!
The filmmakers also provide us with more details about Anna and Elsa’s parents and what they were doing out at sea to begin with, all without coming off as a cheap retcon. Impressive. Alas, it would be far more impressive if these huge discoveries were given enough time to breathe.
We are, after all, talking about the reason why Elsa has her powers. You’d think that revelation would be a colossal game-changing development for the franchise as a whole, and for Elsa in particular. But the filmmakers more or less sweep it under the rug in their rush to get to the next set piece. FAIL.
I could keep going, but I feel like pretty much everything else about this film — for better or worse — can be boiled down to the climax. I promise I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers.
Long story short, events unfold in such a way that Anna is on her own. She’s more or less back to where she was in the first movie, out on a dangerous mission with no one else to help her and no powers of her own. Once again, Anna has to prove to herself (and to the audience) that she’s not just Elsa’s sidekick, but a strong and capable hero in her own right. All well and good.
Moreover, the climax does technically hold the fate of both kingdoms at stake. There are giant monsters involved, there’s a huge set piece, and Anna puts herself at risk of mortal danger. Even on a technical level, the animation is great, the editing is fine, the camera angles and score are on point… It looks and feels like a huge blockbuster climax.
All that’s missing is tension.
For one thing, there’s simply no way to look at the film separately from its parent company. Disney made this film to sell merchandise, they made it to sell the main characters, we know perfectly well that none of them are getting killed off or altered in any serious way. Even Marvel and Star Wars are demonstrably less protective of their characters and status quo than Disney Animation.
Right at the very start of the film, Arendelle is subject to a massive natural disaster in which everyone survives and the kingdom is somehow still completely intact. There was a lot of noise, a lot of scary things happened, and no harm was ultimately done. In the opening minutes, the film sent the crystal-clear message that no substantial harm would come to anyone at any time.
But more than that, Anna is met with virtually no resistance throughout the entire climax. There is nothing of any substance between her and her goal. Even when the movie thinks about floating a potential obstacle in her way, it’s visibly tiny to the point of nonexistent and it crumbles away pretty much instantly with no time or effort.
Speaking of which, there’s the matter of the elemental spirits that started all of this. Obviously, I’m limited by spoilers here, but suffice to say that the spirits are pretty much completely in full control from start to finish. Everything happens exactly according to their plan. Not only does this seriously damage the agency of our main characters, but again, it completely robs the story of all tension. We’re never given any kind of an explanation as to why these spirits even needed our main characters or what could’ve possibly challenged these spirits in any way.
That’s not even getting started on the various plot holes that get introduced when we learn more about what these spirits are, what that mysterious voice is, or why it summoned Elsa up north. Hell, we never even learn why these spirits waited until this exact moment in time to bring Elsa up north, which means that the catalyst for this whole freaking movie goes completely unexamined.
Frozen II is all flash and no substance. The voice acting is all aces, the animation is jaw-dropping, and the songs are all immaculately produced. It looks amazing and it sounds amazing, but it all falls apart with even the most superficial examination. The plot is fundamentally broken and the filmmakers are in too big a hurry to rush to the next action scene and/or musical number, resulting in too much lazy world-building and too many botched payoffs.
Yet even as I see this film in theaters, I look at Playing with Fire and Arctic Dogs playing just next door. Given those choices, I would so much rather families take their kids to see a movie with genuine effort and heart put into it. A film that genuinely tries to be bigger and more ambitious, a sequel that takes its characters into a totally new journey in a markedly different setting, even if it’s hamstrung by the needs of franchising and merchandising.
In the final analysis, I’d say that the entire Frozen franchise has gotten too big for its own good. The first movie was clearly never designed to be a franchise on the scale that Disney built it up to be, and the sequel is the unfortunate victim of those over-inflated expectations. Still, the sequel is enjoyable enough in its own shallow way and (for better or worse) it doesn’t do anything to significantly injure the franchise.
I still don’t know how we got here from there, and I don’t know if anyone can say for sure. But while we’re here, let’s see where it goes.