Nov 23, 2019

Frozen II [U]

Dir: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Frozen was a genuine cultural phenomenon and the highest grossing animated film of all time. Finding a way to make a sequel to it is in many ways a nice problem to have, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you’re too radical you risk alienating the fans of the original film (and after six years that’s a lot of little kids who have been watching the first film at home their whole lives, plus their older siblings who saw it at the cinema first time round) but making a carbon copy of your previous work risks making both entries look stale. I wish I could say that with Frozen II, writer and co-director Jennifer Lee and her team had managed to find a middle way through this conundrum.

Three years have passed since the end of the first film and all seems fine in Arendelle. Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) have kept the city gates open, Olaf (Josh Gad) is enjoying his new magical permafrost and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is preparing to propose to Anna. This happy stability is rocked when Elsa begins hearing a beautiful voice singing in the distance (vocals provided by the Norwegian singer Aurora Aksnes). Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf follow that voice to a magical forest, which became cut off years before, after a conflict between Arendelle and the Northuldra people who live in the forest. Called to the forest by the voice, Elsa wants to discover the truth about the past and how it might connect to her powers.

Frozen, while hardly without its flaws, was a good film, but more importantly, it was an interesting one. For years, Disney films had dealt in familiar fairy tale clich├ęs of Princesses saved by and ending up married to Prince Charming. ‘True love’ had only really been seen to mean one thing, and it had often struck in an instant. Frozen transcended and lightly satirised many of these things, and found a narrative that dealt in more complex emotions. It was refreshing, while also delivering the comedic goods and the showtunes, some of them funny, others emotional, one world-conquering.

Of course, Frozen II can’t break the same ground, but what’s most disappointing about the film is that it finds no other new notes to play. The dynamic between Elsa and Anna remains the same and, in terms of how the film deals with romance, Kristoff’s struggle to find the correct words to propose to Anna is notably old-fashioned set against how the idea of true love was dealt with in the first film. Olaf is still largely superfluous comic relief. He has one or two charming moments, but those are the bits that feel most disposable (a song about getting older and a quick recap of the events of the first film). Even the other characters find him grating at times and it’s hard to blame them. 

The songs also suffer from a combination of a lack of inspiration and fear of straying too far from the template. Only Kristoff’s Lost in the Forest—rendered as an 80s hair metal ballad, complete with visual quotes from music videos—is any kind of departure, but it’s such a strange switch away from everything else in both musical and visual style that it has the inverse problem to the rest of the film: it feels like it’s been parachuted in from a completely different movie. 

Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez try not once but twice to recapture the once in a lifetime success of Let It Go, giving Idina Menzel licence to belt out Into The Unknown and Show Yourself. Neither song is up to the task. Into The Unknown is weirdly hollow, perhaps coming too early, only a few minutes after the voice has been established, at which point the stakes feel so much less personal than they were in Let It Go. It also doesn’t help that, even without words for her to sing, it’s Aurora Aksnes’ voice that is the song’s standout element. There’s more drive and a little wit in Show Yourself, but the naked desperation to recapture earlier glories only helps it fall flat. The other songs don’t rate much mention, so aggressively unmemorable are they. The gulf in quality between the songwriting in original and sequel calls to mind that between 2011’s The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted, as with the latter of that pair, there’s little danger of your kids or you walking out of the cinema humming any of these tunes.

With six years between films, a research trip to Norway, having written in character diaries for Elsa and Anna, and with four other people on the story team, you’d have hoped that Jennifer Lee would have come up with a more solid foundation of a screenplay. Unfortunately, it’s all very slippery. Elsa and Anna’s relationship has nowhere to go, while Kristoff and Anna’s is written as a sitcom’s C story. The lack of a defined villain wasn’t a problem for most of Frozen’s runtime, because it was part of the way the film differed from Disney convention, here that and the under explored nature of the enchanted forest mean the film suffers from a lack of focus. The story never coheres, the forest and its creatures and people lack definition (one very cute creature is an almost direct lift from Tangled, even more so than Kristoff’s reindeer Sven, who always felt like a riff on the horse from that underrated film). Even moments that should be poignant echoes, one key one involving Elsa in particular, land awkwardly because the film is so directly echoing its predecessor throughout that they just end up being another lift, rather than something more meaningful.

This is still a Disney movie, which means the animation is breathtaking. A horse made of water is especially jaw-dropping and, closely ‘inspired by’ The Neverending Story as the design is, the Earth Giants are equally impressive technically. Equally, the voice cast give their best. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel have a nice back and forth and everyone hits the laughs and the emotion well. The problem is with the material rather than the execution.

From a story perspective, Frozen never cried out for a sequel. Yes, there were unanswered questions in the backstory, but as many recent prequels have taught us, if backstories are left unexplored in an initial franchise entry, there tends to be a reason for that. The answers found here are, once we have the setup, obvious, and not that interesting. Beyond the fact that, economically, it would be a good idea, Frozen II ultimately never finds an answer to the largest question any sequel has to address: why does it need to exist?
★★

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