It’s interesting to think what this era in Disney Animation will be called. Disney’s Golden Age is often what they called the post-WWII years of the 1950’s, when the Disney company enjoyed a string of hits that included Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). Then came the Renaissance, which was heralded by release of The Little Mermaid (1989), and continued on with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). But what all these key eras for Disney have in common is that they all came after years of both creative and economic downturns. That’s been Disney’s key characteristic through the years, which is their resiliency, as they seem to always find a way to put themselves back on top no matter what the storm. Disney Animation during the 2000’s is a period of time that could be described as transitional. After the heyday of the Renaissance, Disney’s traditional animation style was just not carrying it’s weight like it used to, which was mainly due to the rise of computer animation from their soon to be sister company, Pixar. As CGI rose, hand drawn animation fell, and Disney’s in house studio was just able to compete. The box office failure of costly films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002) only hastened the decline, and after the rather mediocre premiere of the last hand drawn film in the pipeline, 2004’s Home on the Range, Disney decided to adjust to the times and end their traditional animation studio for good. One last attempt was made to bring it back with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, despite decent box office, it still wasn’t enough to move the needle back. Disney still struggled at first to meet the challenge of this new CGI animated world, with forgettable films like Chicken Little (2005) and Bolt (2008) doing little to boost their stock, but two back to back successes with Tangled (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) helped to shape things for the better. And then came the movie that changed everything and pushed Disney back on top.
Frozen (2013) was undoubtedly a phenomenon the likes that Disney hadn’t seen since The Lion King nearly 20 years prior. Bolstered no doubt by it’s wintery setting coinciding with a holiday season release, Frozen would continue to remain atop the box office all the way into the new year, even against heavy competition like The Hobbit. In the end, it became the highest grossing animated film of all time worldwide, as well as the first animated film to enter the billion dollar club. But, it wasn’t the seasonal aspect itself that made the movie a hit. Loosely based on the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen, Frozen marked a triumphant return for Disney to the genre that had originally put them on the map. The central characters of Anna and Elsa were immediately catapulted into the pantheon of popular Disney Princesses, and their story of unbroken sisterhood was embraced by audiences of all ages. The same goes for all the characters as well, with the magical snowman Olaf becoming a particular favorite for small children. And then of course there was the songs. Written by the husband and wife duo of Robert and Kristen Lopez of Broadway fame (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon), the songs from Frozen became instant standards, and were sung by nearly everyone and everywhere. Even Ryan Reynolds sang a bit of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” in Deadpool 2 (2018). And of course there was “Let it Go,” which became one of the most omnipresent songs in recent memory. With the success that Disney enjoyed from the release of Frozen, they managed to bring their studio back to dominance, with subsequent hits like Zootopia (2016) and Moana (2016) standing strong on it’s shoulders. So, it makes sense that Disney would fast track a sequel to their biggest hit in decades. Frozen II arrives this week 6 years after the original and the question remains can it recapture the magic that helped to make the original a huge success, or are we starting to see the ice begin to thaw?
Frozen II picks up not long after the events of the first movie. Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) have reestablished their long dormant kingdom into a open society, and prosperity has flourished once again. But, Elsa has been disturbed by a siren call that only she can hear and she wishes to find out where it is coming from. She believes that it has a connection to the lullaby that her mother, Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood), had sung to her and her sister before she was gone. The lullaby spoke of an Enchanted Forest beyond the borders of their kingdom, Arendelle, and a mysterious ancient river in the far North. Accompanied by Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer Sven, and magical snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the sisters head north to find answers. Once at the border, they find the Enchanted Forest blocked off by an impenetrable wall of mist. Elsa’s snow and frost powers enable them entry past the mist wall, but leaves them no way out. Once inside the forest, they are besieged by elemental spirits of wind, fire, earth and water, which Elsa somehow manages to tame. This gets the attention of Northuldra tribe people, who have been stuck within the forest since the they fought against the kingdom of Arendelle, along with soldiers of the Arendellian army, led by Captain Mattias (Sterling K. Brown). Elsa, in an attempt to broker peace between their lands, resolves to find answers and a way to break the curse that has closed of the forest from the world. Meanwhile, Kristoff hopes to find the right time to pop the question to Anna, who is increasingly distracted with having to keep her sister safe. But, eventually, they all end up finding that some separation will ultimately be needed in order to restore order to their kingdom. And as they delve deeper into the mystery of their past, especially with regards to what happened to their parents long ago, they may find that the truth is harsher than fiction.
There is no doubt that Frozen II will become a box office hit right out of the gate. It’s predecessor broke so many records, and the Disney studio has not faltered in the years since, so right out of the gate this movie is going to make a mint no matter what anyone thinks of it. But can it sustain that, and will it deserve what it gets. If you’ve been reading my blog since it’s first year online back in 2013, you’ll know that I reviewed the original Frozen (found here) and had something of a lukewarm response to it. I didn’t dislike the movie by any means, but I also wasn’t as enthusiastic about it either. It may have to do with my very high standard by which I judge Disney movies by, but I still stand by my view of Frozen. It’s serviceable, but nowhere near an all time great. I’ve honestly found the success it enjoyed more fascinating than the movie itself, and I am happy that it propelled this new era of Disney Animation. But, did things improve for the sequel? Well, I’m sad to say that not only did it not improve on the original Frozen, but it even took a step backwards for me. I was not at all satisfied with this second go around with the world of Frozen, finding myself mostly bored and uninterested in what was going on. There’s nothing really offensively bad about it; it’s just that the movie feels unnecessary. I’m always of the belief that a sequel must build upon what had come before it, and that it has to justify it’s existence. The story has to have somewhere to go, and more importantly raise the stakes. Frozen II doesn’t do that; it just changes location and tries to fill in the gaps left by the original. That doesn’t make for an interesting movie. It also makes the movie feel smaller, which is definitely not what you want your sequel to be.
It all boils down to weakness in the story itself. The original Frozen had an engaging story about persevering through isolation of one’s own making. As stated in the film, “love can thaw the coldest heart,” and that was admittedly illustrated well through Elsa’s journey of accepting that she doesn’t have to view her powers as a curse but rather as a gift, which undoes years of heartbreak and fear that she has had to grow up with. Though the movie was unevenly structured, it nevertheless delivered in making Elsa and Anna’s transformations satisfying throughout the course of the story, which in turn drove the narrative along. But sadly, Frozen II moves forward with it’s most important conflict already resolved. The characters have all gone through their major transformations, and sadly don’t grow beyond that. It would help if there was a more fleshed out cast to give more character development to, or more world building beyond what we’ve seen so far, but no. Frozen II decides to keep things close to home and without much in the way of external threats. The movie seems to think that we need to know where Elsa got her powers from and where the sisters’ mother and father were headed originally. I hate to say it, but the mystery isn’t really that interesting and the ultimate conclusion even less so. And this is the bulk of the movie. Also, the subtlety of the original film’s message is muddled here in clunky foreshadowing and on-the-nose symbolism. Oh, do you think that ominous dam might have some symbolic importance for the story? Hmmm? There is so much in the movie that feels like a wasted opportunity. The Northuldra people are extremely underdeveloped, and could have offered an interesting new angle for the story to take. A lack of an antagonistic threat is also disappointing. I know Hans was far from a classic Disney villain, but at least he served a purpose. Instead, little is risked and even less is earned over the course of the movie.
It seems strange that a sub-par effort comes from the exact same team that made the original. Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck may not have reinvented the wheel with the original Frozen, but they do deserve credit for hitting the bulls-eye when it comes to delivering for a mass audience, and for reinvigorating the Disney brand. Jennifer Lee has even ridden the success of Frozen towards earning the top job at Disney Animation, becoming the studio head after the departure of John Lasseter, which she certainly is well qualified for. But, even people with experience under their belt can misfire. I will say that even though the movie is lacking story-wise, it is still beautifully animated. There was nothing within the movie that looked lackluster on the animation side, especially when it comes to the environments. I was really struck by how good the textures looked in this movie, whether it was the foliage within the Enchanted Forest, or the tiny crystals in Elsa’s dress; it all looked beautiful. There was also some really neat animation used on the elemental spirits, especially with a horse made entirely out of water. I’m sure that took some expert programming to do in the software used to animate this movie. The character animation likewise stands on solid ground, with a wide range of emotion put into the faces of Anna, Elsa, and the others. I’m sure that the animators also had a lot of fun finding new ways to contort Olaf’s sectional body into many different shapes. At the same time, a lot of this is also stuff we’ve seen before. Characters are animated with care, but are ultimately the same. I’m not seeing anything groundbreaking in this film, except maybe with the elemental characters. The animation fulfills it’s role here, and little else.
The returning voice cast also doesn’t disappoint, and for the most part are what helps to salvage an otherwise disappointing film. I’m still impressed with Idina Menzel’s vocal range, and I still find Elsa to be the series’ most shining light. Kristen Bell’s Anna still grates on me a little bit, but she is thankfully a bit more mature and subdued this time around. Josh Gad’s Olaf may be the movie’s best asset however, as he gets most of the best lines in this movie, especially with the frankness of some of his observations. There’s a funny bit where he recounts the plot of the first movie in his own way. Sadly, none of the new characters leave an impression. I mentioned earlier the lack of development for the Northuldran people, who could have been a fascinating asset had their culture been explored further. I also am confused why the character of Captain Mattias exists at all, because he adds so little to the plot, and why cast a big star like Sterling K. Brown in the part. He does a fine job, but the character is largely inconsequential. The songs are a mixed bag too. Unfortunately none are as memorable as those in the previous movie, which may be a blessing to some. As much as people got sick of “Let it Go,” it’s still undeniably a great song. Only one song in this movie comes close to rising to that high bar called “Into the Unknown,” and no big surprise, it’s an Elsa song. But even still, it doesn’t carry the same weight, and I think that’s mostly a byproduct of the story itself being so weightless. Some of the songs even feel awkwardly shoehorned in, like they were written before the story itself was fully formed, and the filmmakers had to work around them. There are some cute things about them, like Kristoff getting to do a riff on 80’s rock love ballads, but it’s more a testament to the professionalism of the Lopez’s as songwriters. A more robust story would have maybe turned these songs into classics, as the original did with tunes like “Love is an Open Door” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, but sadly this is a soundtrack that is likely going to fall way short of it’s award-winning predecessor.
Watching how Frozen II falls short of capturing of the mark set by the original Frozen makes me think very much with how they contrast against a similarly themed film series from a rival studio, and not in a good way. Dreamworks Animation managed to create one of their most popular and critically acclaimed films with How to Train Your Dragon, which like Frozen, took inspiration from Norse culture and folklore to tell it’s story. However, what Dragon also did was further expand it’s world in it’s subsequent sequels, with each adding new places, characters, and layers upon which they could further explore. They also raised the stakes significantly, and dare I say, took very creative risks as well; including killing off a character or two, and maybe even showing more character flaws that deepen their characters’ stories as they go along. Frozen II follows it’s enormously successful predecessor by playing it safe, and that’s to it’s detriment. I wanted there to be more to the story of Elsa and Anna than just a journey into the past. These characters don’t need to find clues toward discovering where they came from, because they already know who they are; the original movie did an effective job of showing us that. What Frozen II needed was a more powerful test, both with Elsa’s further expanding powers and also with the family bond that ties them all together. There is no conflict with any of them, and you all know they are going to return safely home by the end, and that’s the problem. I’m sorry to contrast it with How to Train Your Dragon, but that series shows a much better example of how to grow your story over multiple films. Even by Disney sequel standards, Frozen II felt like a whole bunch of unnecessary filler. If there are any further adventures of Anna and Elsa, which is heavily implied that there might by the end, they better have a more interesting story to tell. Maybe a story developed by a different team next time might give the series a push in the right direction next time. In the meanwhile, despite pretty animation and a couple nice songs, Frozen II sadly falls way short and is probably Disney’s weakest film in a long while. Is it going to break Disney’s win streak? Not a chance, but it will never stand among the all time greats, and even though it pains me as a life long Disney fan, it’s best to forget this one and let it go.