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Non-Review Review: Frozen II

Frozen II is solid.

In fact, it might even be a little stronger than Frozen, on the whole. Of course, Frozen was the breakout Disney animated hit of the decade, crossing the one billion mark and turning Let It Go into a genuine pop phenomenon. However, Frozen always felt a little rough around the edges when compared to Disney’s other animated princess-centric movies of the decade; The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Moana and maybe even Brave.

Pretty cool.

Frozen II arrives with a lot of the familiar problems of sequels. The original film was populated by characters who filled a story function, whereas sequels often have to create story functions to accommodate characters who are surplus to requirement. Kristof felt largely unnecessary in Frozen, but he feels particularly unnecessary in Frozen II. Similarly, the success of the original film often encourages sequels to dive deep into a conjured mythology, to over-explain something that requires no explanation. Frozen II does this with Elsa herself, trying too hard to explain her.

As a result, Frozen II suffers from some awkward pacing. It stutters and starts. It often gets slowed down checking in on familiar characters, or delivering reams of exposition for unnecessary back story. However, the irony of all this is that Frozen II has much more interesting things to say than Frozen, and is much more confident about saying them. Frozen II retreats from the logical conclusions of its strongest arguments, but it is still a surprisingly bold film for a sequel to one of the most successful children’s films ever made.

Lighten up.

Frozen II has its fair share of issues. For a film that has earned considerable feminist plaudits, Frozen was awkwardly conservative in its gender politics. While the character of Hans existed as a criticism of certain gender tropes, the character of Kristof existed primarily to avoid making the audience too uncomfortable. It was fair to point out how crazy it was for Anna to fall in love with somebody after a whirlwind romance, but the movie also made sure that Anna could fall in love with somebody else after another slightly longer whirlwind romance.

Kristof felt out of place in the original Frozen, and he feels particularly out of place here. The bulk of Frozen II is given over to the adventures of Elsa and Anna, investigating a mysterious attack upon their kingdom. Kristof tags along on the adventure, but the most interesting thing that Frozen II can think of for Kristof to do is to spend most of the runtime trying (and failing) to propose to Anna. There’s possibly something interesting on traditional gender roles in all of that, but it plays like a clumsy comedy of manners that slows down the film whenever it comes up.

Kristof clear.

Indeed, it’s revealing that Frozen II only manages to get properly started once it decides to just let Kristof get lost in some enchanted woods. He gets his big musical number, winds up completely disoriented, and then drifts out of the narrative until it’s convenient for him to resurface at the climax. It’s an inelegant storytelling choice, but a pragmatic one. The film becomes a bit less streamlined once it no longer has to actively balance his arc. However, this does cause some pacing issues in the first half.

Again, Frozen II doesn’t spectacularly misfire. Olaf is arguably just as much of a problem character as Kristof, a member of the ensemble who has even less reason to involve himself in this story about Elsa and Anna. Frozen II manages to avoid turning Olaf into a similar pacing issue, largely by understanding that his primary function is comic relief. More than that, the film cleverly ties Olaf’s character arc into the larger themes of the film.

Leading us to rune.

Olaf is a toddler in the form of a snowman, and so Frozen II has him repeatedly ruminate on the impermanence of things. It’s a clever thing to do with the character – after all, toddlers grow up and snowmen melt, so Olaf is probably going to have to confront some existential uncertainty. However, Olaf’s insecurities and doubts are shrewdly tied to the journey undertaken by Elsa and Anna. In their own way, Elsa and Anna also confront the reality that change is inevitable, and that one’s understanding of the world must inevitably shift with time.

Relating to the pacing problems with Kristof, Frozen II is extremely heavy on exposition. Again, like the burden of legacy characters carried over from the original film, this is a common sequel problem. Audiences responded to the character of Elsa in Frozen, and so it makes sense for Frozen II to want to provide those audiences with more Elsa. In terms of plot, this means trying to account for Elsa. Frozen never bothered to explain where Elsa’s powers came from. This was a reasonable choice, allowing the story to instead focus on the dynamic between Elsa and Anna.

It’s the Annihilation crossover you never knew you needed.

However, Frozen II treats this lack of explanation as a problem to be solved. As such, Frozen II goes deep on its own mythology. There are lots of maps and lots of names of places. There are old stories and hidden secrets. There is even a transparent sequel hook that sets up the possibility for another sequel dealing with the fate of Elsa and Anna’s parents. This is unnecessary on its own terms, but it leads to further pacing problems; the decision to try to explain Elsa’s origin and history leads to the decision to repeatedly slow down the plot for exposition dumps.

To give Frozen II some credit, the film is aware of this problem. Frozen II isn’t exactly brimming with winking self-awareness. It also isn’t as emotionally or narratively sophisticated as a Pixar film. However, there is a sense that the writers understand the challenges that they have set for themselves in opting to tell a story that leans on these elements of Frozen. One of the better gags in Frozen II riffs on the movie’s relentless exposition, as Olaf delivers an exposition dump of the plot of the first movie to a character who missed it, to great emotional effect.

Season of mists.

Even with these problems, there’s a lot to like in Frozen II. Just as a lot of Frozen II‘s weaknesses come from its existence as a sequel, a lot of its strengths are also rooted in that fact. Visually, the film looks impressive. Not only has rendering technology come a long way in the past six years, the original’s success granted the sequel has the luxury of a less crunched production. The animation is more detailed and more expressive, the effects more ambitious, the lighting more dramatic.

As with Frozen, the sequel benefits from a strong cast. The only major addition to the ensemble is Sterling K. Brown in an admittedly minor role, but even that demonstrates how much an actor of Brown’s caliber can add to a production. However, Kristen Bell remains the cast stand-out. Frozen II cannily entrusts the dramatic heavy-lifting to Bell, recognising she’s probably the dramatic all-star of the featured players.

A Sterling voice cast.

In a broader sense though, as with the original, the casting of Broadway performers lends the soundtrack an infectiously old-fashioned aesthetic. Idina Menzel is entrusted with another emotional power ballad, while Josh Gad gets an infectious vaudevillian riff. The songs themselves are charming, arguably stronger than in the original film; Menzel’s Into the Unknown is the first showstopper, while Bell’s The Next Right Thing is a surprisingly emotive parable for children about the challenges of trying to navigate increasingly morally chaotic times.

It helps that Frozen II has big ideas that venture significantly further than the “feminist, but not too feminist” politics of the original film. Which makes sense; it isn’t just animation techniques that have changed in the past six years, after all. The world is a different place than it was in 2013, and films should reflect that. Frozen was arguably of a piece with the loose Wicked-inspired “feminist, but not provocatively so” releases around the same time; Oz: The Great and Powerful and Maleficent. After all, Let It Go owes a lot to Defying Gravity, even beyond Menzel’s vocals.

Mother knows best.

The moral perspective of Frozen II falls somewhere between Frozen and Thor: Ragnarok. While it stops shy of committing to its boldest plot beats, Frozen II dares to broach the question of what it means to live with a legacy of exploitation and imperialism towards indigenous people. What does it mean to live in a world where current prosperity is the result of historical injustice? How does somebody reckon with that, particularly if they weren’t personally complicit in the original injustice?

This is a profound question that needs to be openly discussed, particularly at this moment in time. It’s great to see it simmering through pop culture as diverse as Ragnarok, Watchmen and Frozen II. Of course, FrozenII doesn’t go as far as either example. It (very literally) stops short of the boldest conclusions of Thor: Ragnarok, despite a similar third act, and perhaps offers an unearned happy ending for all of its characters. “I love happy endings!” Olaf declares, and the movie concurs. This reluctance to commit does hinder the movie in some ways.

I came, I thaw, I conquered.

At the same time, even allowing for those qualifications, there’s something surprising emotive in the film’s willingness to grapple with the challenges of living in turbulent times. Progressiveness is a recurring preoccupation of Frozen II, the idea that time marches onwards and that part of this movement forward is coming to terms with the legacy of past events. The snowman toddler Olaf spends the movie wrestling with questions of impermanence, while Elsa and Anna confront their family’s complicated history.

Growing up means adapting,” Olaf sings in When I’m Older, a song as laced with irony as In Summer from the first film. The film seems to genuinely believe this. The similarly irony-laced opening number finds Anna assuring Olaf that Some Things Never Change, with Olaf himself even breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge that those kids who fell in love with Frozen “all look a little bit older.” To its credit, Frozen II understands that “some things never change” is a promise no person could – or should – keep.

Refusal of the call.

Venturing into the enchanted woods, Elsa and Anna discover that the same conflict has been waging for decades, since their parents first met. The unending nature of this conflict between the visitors and the indigenous population is presented as an eternal nightmare. At one point, one of the soldiers takes a moment to inquire about life back home. He asks whether his sweatheart ever moved and married someone else. Anna confirms that she didn’t. “Why doesn’t that make me feel any better?” the soldier asks. The film suggests that it is because he knows the horror of stasis.

The thematic dynamics here are compelling and engaging. It makes sense for a film called Frozen II to explore the idea of stasis and progress. Elsa’s power is to literally freeze things, to trap moments in time. The power of ice to seal a moment is contrasted with the fluidity of water. “Water has memory,” Olaf repeatedly asserts, pointing out that water flows. Across time, it even flows through people and places and spaces. To keep water from flowing is to stem the tide of history, with monstrous consequences.

She has the matter well in hand.

Frozen II repeatedly stresses that trapping water is horrific. As Elsa embraces her powers and journeys back through her family’s past, she finds herself almost swallowed by the ice that she has tried to control. The plot of Frozen II hinges on the building of dam to form a bridge between the inhabitants of Arendelle and the indigenous inhabitants of the enchanted forest. This seems like civilisation, this seems like advancement. However, it is revealed to be something far more sinister.

Frozen II tries to have its cake and eat it. For all that Olaf talks about how “to visit an enchanted forest is to be transformed”, the audience understands that any truly profound change visited upon the characters cannot last. Frozen was too successful to allow the production team to take any gambits with Elsa or Anna, to permanently upend the status quo. The structural conservatism of sequels holds Frozen II back from the conclusion of its arguments. But there’s something to be said for the earnestness with which Frozen II makes those arguments in the first place.

Frozen II is a fitting sequel, for better or worse. It is more ambitious than the original, but also more cluttered. It is bolder than the original, but also more constrained by expectation. It is more epic in scope than the original, but more bloated in content. There’s a lot to like here, even if the end result is perhaps messier than it should be.

3 Responses

  1. “Frozen II is solid.”

    Please tell me that was a pun. (An intentional one, I mean).

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