Six years ago, Disney released what would become not just the biggest hit in its long history of theatrical cartoons but also, globally speaking, the biggest animated movie ever, period. What, a bean counter might desperately wonder, was the key to the film’s unprecedented success? Here’s one wild theory: Frozen, that runaway winter-wonderland smash, appealed nearly as much to the young parents in the audience as to the kids they were chaperoning. Working from the template of the Hans Christian Anderson classic The Snow Queen, the tireless Mouse House team offered a savvy tweak of storybook lore, making the white-knight characters into, respectively, a villain and a supportive boyfriend, while resting the emotional stakes on the platonic love between sisters. Yet these revisionist and mildly progressive touches were mostly accents on a throwback princess adventure, the kind plenty of moms and dads grew up watching during the so-called Disney Renaissance. For guardians of a certain age, it was a real have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation: a hearteningly “modern” fairy tale that wasn’t so modern that it couldn’t deliver a nostalgia rush of twinkly, familiar Disney magic. It was new but also old, quite profitably.
“New but also old” is a time-honored recipe for sequels, too. Naturally, it’s the one they’ve opted to follow for Frozen II, an inevitable return to the udder of a reliable cash cow (or reindeer, if you prefer). But since the original was already a play on formula, subverting some conventions while adhering to others, that compounds the redundancy of this lavish but unadventurous follow-up. Though it technically lays out a different narrative for the royal sisters and their posse of friends, Frozen II takes the very Disney route of offering more of the same, just with a fresh coat of paint. Creatively, it’s not too far removed from those high-tech cover versions of old animated hits the company has been churning out these past few years. At least here there’s another story to tell, though even that’s been designed to address lingering questions and unresolved backstory from the last one, rather than pave a truly new path.
Of course, maybe that’s the smart route to take with a sequel to a movie the target audience has likely committed to memory. For plenty of viewers (especially the ones that have loved Frozen their whole lives), just seeing these already immortal characters again will be enough. After an opening flashback to the childhood of its heroines—a load-bearing sequence that sets up some of the conflicts and mythology that will come into play—Frozen II launches into the new status quo, circa three years after the events of its six-year-old predecessor. Life in the kingdom of Arendelle is stable and peaceful, perhaps too much so for comfort. Nattering, ambling Olaf (Josh Gad, scoring some laughs, at least for those amenable to his naïf shtick) worries aloud about the impermanence of things—a reasonable anxiety for sentient snowmen and growing children alike. His concerns are confirmed when ice-powered Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) is drawn to a lilting voice coming from the horizon—a clarion call she responds to in song, accidentally awakening the magical forest her parents told her (and us) about in the prologue. She heads off to investigate and stop the snowstorms threatening her town, reluctantly agreeing to the backup company of sister Anna (Kristen Bell) and the sidekick squad.
Once upon a time, Frozen II would have gone straight to the shelves of your local Blockbuster, cheaply and hastily fulfilling its purpose of squeezing some extra money out of parents searching for an alternative, any alternative, to watching the exact same movie even one more time. But in 2019, a hit of Frozen’s proportions earns the full blue-chip franchise-extending treatment. The money and time invested certainly made it up on screen: Frozen II is a marvel of color and texture, especially once the group arrives at their destination, a cursed woodland imprisoning two once-adversarial people and ruled by the four elements, each granted a mind of its own. (Water is the star of this abstract supergroup, at least visually speaking; you hope the animators got a fat Christmas bonus for the way they’ve made it move and shimmer and crash against the surf during one dynamically staged action sequence.)
As usual, though, the astronomical resources poured into an animated blockbuster haven’t necessarily spurred the writing team—made up here of Jennifer Lee, who again directed with Chris Buck, and Hidden Figures cowriter Allison Schroeder—to rise to the occasion. Frozen II cleanly lays out solvable conflicts for each of its returning principles. Will Anna earn her magically endowed sister’s confidence and prove herself as valuable to the kingdom? Will iceman love interest Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) find the perfect way to pop the question? Will Olaf stop fretting about how everything will make more sense when he’s older? Speaking of Gad’s comic-relief character, the film deploys him as a lampshade, too—a way to poke fun at the endless exposition while still, you know, helping deliver it. Frozen II is definitely a movie for anyone who’s spent the last few years agonizing about how Elsa got her powers. Those fans hoping, however, that she’ll use them to dazzle a suitress will be disappointed to learn that her love life remains entirely theoretical; they’ll have to make do with a scene where she briefly talks to another woman.
The voice work remains exemplary. Bell, especially, sells the heightened emotional beats of this streamlined adventure, even when they feel a little canned. And everyone exerts themselves commendably during the musical-theater portions of the evening. The songs, written again by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, follow the play-it-again imperative, serviceably replicating the inspirational swell and warm wisecrackery of the enormously popular soundtrack they contributed last time around. Best of the bunch is an early showstopper for Menzel, who gets to duet with the distant, haunting vocal refrain that calls to her, showing off her powerhouse, Broadway-honed pipes in the aim-for-the-cheap-seats chorus. Still, nothing else here—not the small-town group number, not Gad’s dopey slapstick solo, not the power ballad composed for Kristoff (complete with amusing hair-metal guitar licks)—is likely to earn a permanent place alongside “Let It Go” or “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” on the office-karaoke or ride-to-school playlist.
Lightly extending the progressive spin of the original, Frozen II comes to revolve around the question of accountability, and how we make up for the sins of the past and our ancestors. It’s almost a reparations story, really, which would be more touching—and interesting—if the sacrifices stuck. In the same year as Endgame, you have to wonder what kids are learning about consequences from movies more than happy to roll them back in search of a happier ending. You also gain renewed respect for the sister-company artists at Pixar, who remain willing—even as their output has met Disney proper’s in the middle, quality-wise, over much of this decade—to commit to their moments of tearjerking loss. Frozen wasn’t exactly a game-changer; superficially subversive, it appealingly bent without breaking family-film rules. But the tune the film belted was its own, however indebted it was to tradition. Frozen II is just an echo, drawing prospective fans in without finding many new notes to hit.