The fervor with which 2013’s Frozen caught fire (froze over? I’m sorry) can be attributed to its songs and proves that there is a much bigger audience for musicals than people think. I’m not sure why making these musicals animated becomes so much more palatable to studios and audiences alike, but Frozen, and its spiritual successors Moana and Coco, are the best musicals that Hollywood has produced in some time – with all apologies to La La Land, which was more a feat of filmmaking than songwriting. Frozen‘s story of sisterhood was moving in ways both expected and not, but flanked by its songs (from Broadway power couple Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez), it became an instant classic. So it’s nice to see its sequel, Frozen II, double down on that aspect.
Frozen II‘s script (written by Jennifer Lee, who once again directs with Chris Buck) is complicated. A lengthy prologue at the beginning brings us back to the childhood of our esteemed sisters, Anna and Elsa. Their father, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina), tells them a story of an enchanted forest, imbued with magical spirits and looked after by the provincial Northuldra tribe. The forest has been trapped behind a forceful wall of mist after an attempt at peace between the Northuldra and Arendelle falls into a scene of violence that Agnarr barely survives. The forest, sitting precariously close to the notably affluent Arendelle, remains as a sort of bogeyman to the young sisters, who fear the day when the wall of mist falls.
Cut to Arendelle where the magical Elsa (Idina Menzel) is the Queen, living peacefully with her devoted sister, Anna (Kristen Bell). Anna is still with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the hurlyburly ice harvester with a touchingly close relationship with his reindeer, Sven. Also returning is Olaf (Josh Gad), the sentient snowman who has been given a very convenient permafrost which takes away any issues of melting. On the surface, everything is perfect, but Elsa is beginning to hear voices, and is being stirred by an unknown force. Something tells her that it has to do with the enchanted forest, that there is an unknown truth behind her father’s story that she must discover. As always, she feels she must make this journey by herself, but with Anna’s persistence, she agrees to bring her sister, Kristoff and Olaf.
Their journey through the mist and into the enchanted forest brings many surprises and realizations. The origin of Elsa’s magical powers seems within grasp, as does the true reason why the wall of mist was put up in the first place. The whole thing becomes quite convoluted over the course of the film, but the setting proves rather fruitful, and both the directors and the songwriters take full advantage. Elsa’s exploration, which leads her to the mythical river of Ahtohallan, gives Buck and Lee the chance to devise some rather incredible set pieces. A theme typical of Frozen, Elsa’s wanderings end up being mostly a journey of self-discovery, and the directors make great hay out of visualizing that exploration with stunning constructions that rival the show-stopping “Let It Go” sequence from the first film.
Speaking of “Let It Go”, this seems like as good a time as any to mention Frozen II‘s songs, which further embrace the Frozen films’ reality of a stage show in a feature film’s clothing. Their fit into the overall narrative might remind some of the studio musicals in the 50s where they wrote the songs first and worried about how they worked within the story later. But there is a variety and vitality here that comes with that forcefulness, as the music refuses to conform to the constricting nature of story structure. The are showstoppers like “Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself” which takes advantage of Menzel’s legendary pipes, but also funny oddities like Olaf’s “When I Am Older” and Kristoff’s pungently self-aware “Lost In The Woods” (which is a play on the tacky music videos from 80s power ballads).
Despite many arguments to the contrary, I don’t think any of these new songs will ever truly match the impact of “Let It Go”, which truly tapped into a mass of people who were ready for a different kind of Disney princess. That said, I find it very fitting that in a story about accepting one’s self, Frozen II chose to double down on its enthusiastic-theater-kid personality, and accepting the strange consequences of that decision. The film doesn’t have quite the punch of the first Frozen, where the climax of sisterly love above romantic love felt truly radical for a mainstream film at the time. It does, however, have a more singular identity, and a better understanding of what its fans want. It’s like the complete opposite of The Rise of Skywalker in that regard. It accepts its peculiarities with great flair.
Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee