Long ago, in far distant past of 2013, I had a random day off and I was bored. So I decided to schlep down to the nearest theatre and see Disney’s latest animated feature, Frozen. I had no hopes at all for a quality picture. Disney had basically ceded its position as the forefront of animation to Pixar, almost as if it had become the official animation arm of the Disney corporation. They handled the truly groundbreaking stuff, while the main animation house seemed destined for an eternity of second-tier, straight-to-video quality new properties and sequels. Apart from Wreck-it Ralph the year before, I hadn’t seen a core Disney animated film in the theatres since Fantasia 2000, and even that was because it was in IMAX. You’d have to go back to Pocahontas for standard-issue Mouse House.
I honestly only saw Frozen on a complete lark. I had nothing better to do, and it was worth the $10 to get out of my apartment for a couple hours. I figured at best the film would be a mildly pleasant distraction, and at worst I could mock it from the back row. I even shelled out the extra five bucks for 3D, because at this point, why not?
I fell in love.
I never saw it coming.
The film absolutely floored me. It was the first time that I truly thought Disney had recaptured its former magic. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved Wreck-it Ralph, to the point that it was my favorite film of 2012. But a large part of that was nostalgia and a fondness for self-reference. I was also in a period of my life where I saw myself as the bad guy of my own life story, so Ralph’s adventure resonated deeper than I had expected.
But even with that in mind, Frozen blew me away like I never expected. I saw life, true life, in Elsa and Anna’s eyes. The quality of the animation surpassed anything I could have anticipated. The story was sweet, subersive, and deliriously funny. The music was unlike anything I had heard from Disney since The Lion King.
And then Idina Menzel sang “Let it Go.” I cried. Watching this truly beautiful, misunderstood, agonized character reclaim her own existence through the most pristine, triumphant voice I had ever heard, it was more than I could handle. I wept in my seat, overcome by a song that in the span of three minutes seemed to encapsulate every painful insecurity I had bottled up in me for the past decade-plus, and in one single defiant statement of self-worth, I felt release for the first time in years. As Elsa smirked her final line, “The cold never bothered me, anyway,” with just a hint of flirtatious sexuality behind it, shutting the door on the world that turned her away, it gave me a moment of clarity. It was an instant of cathartic joy. I steeled myself to finally break free of the life I was leading, that was slowly killing me creatively and spiritually (it also didn’t help that two weeks before, I taped my appearance on Jeopardy!, a lifelong dream that ended in defeat after a mere 25 minutes). Eight months later I left the gainful yet soul-crushing job I had maintained for eight years, moved out to Los Angeles, and began chasing my dreams for real. I haven’t made it, yet, and honestly this year has been very trying professionally, but I’m much happier despite it. When I left that job for the last time, I sang “Let it Go” at the top of my lungs, even though I have nowhere near the vocal range of the Wickedly Talented Adele Dazeem. I didn’t care. I was free.
So yeah, in a perfect storm of emotion, I found beloved high art in a film where I had zero expectations going in. It wasn’t perfect by any means. The trolls were a bit too campy for my tastes. The music, while awe-inspiring, basically ebbed away about midway through the film. Jonathan Groff, a highly-accomplished Broadway actor (who had a recurring role on Glee along with Menzel), basically didn’t get to sing apart from a four-line jingle about reindeer. The Demi Lovato cover of “Let it Go” during the credits was the latest in a string of Disney ballad pop covers that almost felt insulting after the fact. But still, for me that movie was about as high as one could go, and all the minor gripes faded in the breeze.
All that is to say that going into the long-awaited sequel, Frozen II, I had to temper expectations to a very large degree, otherwise I knew I’d be let down. A theatrically-released core Disney sequel is a rare thing indeed. In fact, this is only the fourth one ever. The other three are last year’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, the aforementioned Fantasia 2000, and 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under. None of those three is as good as its predecessor, and I assumed as much for this film as well.
And it’s true, it’s not as good. But when you’re starting from a point where even an “A” grade is to undersell it, there’s bound to be some regression, and that’s perfectly fine, because Frozen II is still a worthy continuation of the story, expanding on crucial themes while exploring new angles to the characters. There are some things to quibble with, and I will, but on the whole, I was still smiling by the end, and kind of hoping we’ll get the first ever third entry in a Disney franchise.
Picking up some time after the events of the first film (as well as the hopefully soon-to-be forgotten awful holiday special Olaf’s Frozen Adventure from a couple years back), all the main characters are back (except for Hans, obviously, though he’s referenced a few times), and living happy lives in Arendelle. This opening act is where we get a major dose of the one true sin this film has, which is being derivative. The characters re-establish themselves with a song called “Some Things Never Change,” which actually has a verse structure and note progressions eerily similar to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” An opening flashback sequence to Elsa (Menzel) and Anna’s (Kristen Bell) childhood has her parents, the late Queen Iduna and King Agnarr (Evan Rachel Wood and Alfred Molina, respectively, replacing writer/director Jennifer Lee and voice acting veteran Maurice LaMarche from the previous film), telling them the exposition which leads to the main story, about an enchanted forest where colorful spirits control the four classical elements and are worshiped on stone pillars. They also tell and sing about how all the world is connected, like a great circle of… something. And the story includes a spiritual disembodied singing voice that calls out like a siren to help people. Aside from all that, Olaf (Josh Gad) asserts himself as the “mature” one, even though he’s still a bumbling sidekick. And Kristoff (Groff), is preparing to propose to Anna, but he spends most of the film stepping on his own toes to do so.
So, in the opening 10 minutes, the film manages to borrow from (or rip off, depending on your level of cynicism) The Lion King, Brave, Rescuers Down Under, The Little Mermaid, Mulan (probably; I mean, I’m comparing Olaf to Mushu, but take your pick of sidekicks), and itself. This, combined with the half-hour “pre-show” ad bloc in the movie theatre that all tangentially tied back to Frozen merchandise had me admittedly a bit on edge that this might actually suck.
Thankfully, the film rebounds quickly. When Elsa hears the disembodied voice, she responds, which sets off an elemental storm that forces the evacuation of Arendelle. In the caves north of the kingdom, Grand Pabbie (Cirián Hinds) and the rest of the trolls volunteer to watch over the citizens until Elsa and the others return from the magical forest of Northuldra with some answers. Right away the film self-corrects and fixes one of the few problems the last one had, as this is the extent of the rock trolls’ involvement in the story. Yay.
Northuldra is covered in a thick, impenetrable mist. That is, until Elsa shows up, her magic able to cut a path through so they can access the enchanted land. Here, the few Arendelle soldiers left behind are still locked in a decades-long war with the Northuldra people, thanks to a battle that broke out when King Agnarr was a child. His father had built a dam in Northuldra as a means of brokering peace, but violence happened instead. Thankfully, the arrival of the royals and demonstrations of Elsa’s abilities is enough for a truce between the factions, as all sides seek the truth about the past.
Drawn to her magic, the elemental spirits show up one by one, offering video game-esque challenges for Elsa and the others to earn their trust. A wind spirit (which Olaf affectionately names Gale) starts a tornado that Elsa can control. A fire spirit, in the form of an adorable salamander (I see your Baby Yoda, and I raise you THIS CUTENESS!) quickly becomes a pet. Earth giants want to destroy the dam to get their source of water back, even if it would mean flooding Arendelle below. A literal sea horse serves as the water spirit, tamed and ridden by Elsa to Ahtohallen, an isolated frozen palace (not hers, a different one), where a unifying fifth element awaits.
Meanwhile, Kristoff and Anna get separated. As I mentioned, Kristoff wants to propose, but like Bernard the Mouse before him, he just can’t find the right moment. It also doesn’t help that every time he opens his mouth, he promptly inserts his foot, leading Anna to act all “crazy girlfriend” on him, fixating on certain words and spinning them in a paranoid way like he’s about to break up with her. This leads to Anna going off with Olaf to play her solo part in the adventure and step into the leadership role she’s eschewed to this point. It also leads to Jonathan Groff finally getting his own musical number, complete with tone and scene shift. As soon as the high pitched guitar comes in, it’s clear his emotional, lovelorn tune will be a self-parody, as he’s basically singing “Will You Still Love Me” by Chicago when they went ballad-heavy with Peter Cetera in the 80s. It’s lame, but it works, because while it’s played for laughs, the song – called “Lost in the Woods” – is still pretty good, and the moment is earnest. Problem number two from the original solved.
And really, problem three as well. Because while there aren’t that many original songs (seven new songs, one rehash from the previous film, and a couple reprises), they are more properly spread out this time, so that there is music and singing throughout the film. Hell, even the fourth problem gets solved, as during the credits, instead of a Radio Disney pop cover, we actually get THREE covers, all of them by established, not-too-poppy sources, in the forms of Panic! at the Disco, Kasey Musgraves, and Weezer.
While this film does hit some of the same thematic notes as the previous one, there are two big things worth mentioning here. One is that after the first film, Elsa and Anna are steadfastly committed to each other. They spent their childhoods apart, mourned their parents apart, and were nearly separated permanently by Hans and his quest for power. Now, they’re a duo, and won’t do anything without the other, whether it’s this adventure (where they both look out for one another’s safety, Elsa ironically defaulting to pushing Anna away and Anna just not having it), or just family game night at the castle. The sisterly bond is ironclad, and it’s beautiful. The last film hinted at them not needing a prince to save them, that they could save themselves (for the most part, at least), but here it’s solidified. No matter what happens, they will always have each other, and that’s a great lesson.
Secondly, while there’s no true “Let it Go” moment for this film, Elsa does get to grow as a character through her songs and actions, but in an unexpected way. She gets two major numbers this time, “Into the Unknown,” where she expresses her doubts about leaving her kingdom behind now that she’s established peace, and “Show Yourself,” where she begs for enlightenment and truth from the voice at Ahtohallen. Through these two moments, she goes in a direction rarely seen for Disney. “Let it Go” was a declaration of self. Here, Elsa learns that to be her best, she only needs to trust herself, and that sometimes, a little isolation is okay. She doesn’t have to be all things to all people, and can live a perfectly happy life alone if need be. In the previous film, she removed herself from the equation because she feared what she might become. Here, she’s allowed to see her own true value, and know it’s okay if she steps back.
Score one for the introverts! Because while I won’t give anything away, I was very satisfied with how Elsa’s story resolves itself. Ever since this sequel was announced, there was a large push on social media to give Elsa a girlfriend for this movie, which was just misplaced. It would have been pandering at best, and in no way organic to the character. I’m not saying she can’t have a romance at some point, nor that it couldn’t be with another woman (honestly, it would probably be hot – once again, I’m a perv, sue me), but to demand it here wouldn’t have made story sense. Elsa had to truly learn to love herself first and foremost, and that does shine through in the best way possible. “Let it Go” was a declaration of her right to exist. “Into the Unknown”/”Show Yourself” is her finally being okay with herself, and that’s a majorly important step.
That’s part of why this film, while not as great as its predecessor, is still somewhat essential. The original Frozen was the spectacle, while Frozen II is about resolutions. In a rarity for Disney, time is taken to truly answer some lingering questions. We learn why Elsa and Anna’s parents died instead of just letting the girls remain interchangeable members of the Disney Orphan Club. We get to learn how Elsa’s powers work after their seeming randomness last time (including creating life, i.e. Olaf). We get valuable lessons in not growing up too fast, keeping close to your loved ones even if it’s not in the physical sense, and that xenophobic politicians shouldn’t have wall-like structures (who’d’a thunk it?).
And what’s amazing is that the film is able to accomplish all this while still being heartwarming, funny, and have a cogent story, somehow without a real villain (apart from flashbacks and references). The movie even has time for some instantly meme-able moments, like Elsa evolving like a Pokémon for a second time into an almost full-on Lady Gaga form, Olaf basically inserting himself into the “This is fine” comic, and an emotional scene that could easily start with the line, “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good.”
As I said, I fell head over heels in love with the first Frozen. With the sequel, the relationship has had six years to feel lived-in, and the spark is still there. I’m still invested in these characters. I still see a kindred spirit in Elsa. I still sort of crush on Anna’s a-dorkable-ness. I still laugh at Olaf’s gags and root for Kristoff. And what’s more, I want to see a full resolution for everyone involved. This film may be it, and if it is, the stories will end on high notes. But I want to see more. I know there’s more that can be done, and it is very rare for a Disney movie, much less a Disney sequel, to make me feel that way.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Should Disney make more sequels, especially if it leads to fewer remakes? Do you have to keep reminding yourself that Elsa and Anna are cartoons, or is it just me? Let me know!