I adored Frozen when it was released back in 2013, but it’s a film that I find gets weaker on repeat viewings. There are certain elements that just don’t fit together quite right or feel cobbled together from previous versions like starting off the movie with what sounds like an indigenous peoples’ chant before swapping over to fully Nordic look and sound. And yet despite these emerging flaws, Frozen still has that special Disney magic that allows it to overcome those shortcomings and wrap you up in the characters, story, and songs. Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s Frozen II feels like an attempt to reverse engineer the first movie, but with diminishing results from the outset. It’s a movie that plays like it ran out of time to find the right story, so it forges ahead hoping that the charm of the characters and the catchiness of the songs can carry it through. The kicker is that the characters and music plus the gorgeous visuals are enough to make Frozen II a fun film even if it has none of the staying power of its predecessor.
After a prologue where we’re treated to exposition regarding a battle between the people of Arendelle and the tribal Northuldra who work to live in harmony with nature, we kick off with a song that’s basically, “We’re older, not much has changed, but we’re probably headed for some big transformations.” Elsa (Idina Menzel) starts hearing a voice in the distance calling her, and she wants to go investigate it. Anna (Kristen Bell) insists on coming along, which means that Olaf (Josh Gad), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and Sven are also along for the ride. When they reach Northuldra, the group makes some startling revelations about Elsa and Anna’s parents and also begins to fracture as loyalties are tested.
The best thing about Frozen II also leads to its worst moment. The film seems concerned about the sins of the past on a societal level, and so the narrative conflict between Northuldra and Arendelle contains a revelation (which I won’t spoil here) that leads to some really interesting questions about what we owe each other for the wrongs of previous generations. Unfortunately, the film’s resolution to this question is a shrug, a hug, and a “let’s move on.” Disney Animation isn’t afraid to go dark and mature in its movies. We saw it last year with Ralph Breaks the Internet’s take on toxic masculinity and Big Hero 6 dealing with grief and trauma. But Frozen II wimps out on how to approach the past, which makes the movie feel even more like a corporate cash grab than a story that needed to be told.
For what it is, Frozen II is fine. These are endearing characters and they remain so. Olaf is still a hoot who also gets another big, heartwarming moment. The movie has no idea what to do with Kristoff, but he gets a big, 80s-style power ballad that had the entire theater cracking up. The movie once again hammers on the importance of sisterhood between Anna and Elsa, which is nice and all well and good. But nothing in Frozen II really pushes the story forward in a rewarding way because the script feels like it’s still several drafts away from where it needs to be. Frozen pivots on the central relationship between Anna and Elsa, and how Anna doesn’t understand why Elsa has pushed her away. In a story where Elsa could have easily been (and in earlier drafts of the story, was) the villain, Frozen pushed towards reconciliation. Because it whiffs on its big thematic motif at the end, Frozen II isn’t really about anything at all.
Even the songs don’t have that same punch this time around. Songs like “Into the Unknown” and “Lost in the Woods” are certainly catchy, but there’s nothing in here that I think will take the world by storm like “Let It Go”. If anything, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez kind of play into their weakest aspects with a song from Anna that veers into Randy-Newman-sing-about-what-you’re-doing territory. Thankfully, it’s just that one song, but overall, you have a movie where it feels like no one is taking any chances on any level.
That makes for a safe, predictable movie, and one that kids will probably enjoy and parents will probably find fun as well. There’s nothing atrocious about Frozen II, but it’s a movie that easily gets overshadowed by the first film as it attempts to figure out what made that film such a success. Perhaps 2013’s Frozen was lightning in a bottle; it was clearly a movie that not even Disney expected to land as big as it did back when it was released. And perhaps that audience goodwill for the original will carry over to Frozen II. But taken on its own merits, Frozen II lacks any unique magic. It’s songs and jokes and then you can easily let it go.