When the original Frozen blasted into theaters in 2013, it wasn’t just a surprise; it was a gift. For more than a decade, the fairy tale and Broadway magic which powered the entire Disney Renaissance millions grew up on, including myself, had vanished beneath a snowfall of disappointment at Walt Disney Animation Studios. By the beginning of this decade, there’d been a few hopeful signs of revival, but Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s vision for Frozen flew past a step in the right direction and became a full-throated reclamation of Disney’s grandest legacy. And what a powerful throat it was, too, when Idina Menzel first belted “Let It Go.”
The shock of getting a perfect Disney movie again is hard to replicate, impossibly so in the case of a sequel. But that doesn’t mean ambition cannot be raised or even exceeded, and if nothing else, Frozen II has ambition to burn. And burn it often does even with all the dazzlingly icy animation.
A sequel intent on growing with its core audience who’ve been singing along with Elsa and Anna since 2013, Frozen II is a bigger movie and, theoretically, a more sophisticated one. Very much pulling from the George Lucas philosophy that sequels should be darker reexaminations of the first instalment’s joyfulness, this is (by Disney standards) a more somber affair, occasionally even erring toward a type of high fantasy Tolkien enthusiasts should recognize. But it’s also a top-heavy endeavor when those elements are placed beside traditional Disney formulae, such as adorable sidekicks like a talking snowman. Even in it attempts to be a sincerer example of the Broadway tradition than the first film, it does so in a way that recalls Stephen Sondheim following up the earth-shattering Sweeney Todd with Merrily We Roll Along. Sure, Frozen II is a lovely collection of songs that are brilliantly realized by the production around them, but what’s missing is the tangible genius at its core that made ice castles out of pixels.
The story, when it makes sense, is simple enough. Picking up several years after the happily ever after of the last movie, Frozen II finds Elsa (Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell), plus their friends Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad), and reindeer Sven settled into a pleasant domesticity. They sing songs, play charades, and treat Gad’s incorrigible snowman like a child with Sven being the family pet. Yet even as they promise Olaf that change is not a bad thing, their lives are all about to irrevocably transform.
On the sunnier side, Kristoff is trying to gin up the courage to propose marriage to Anna, but his ambitions are thwarted, again, by Elsa’s supernatural burdens. For the Snow Queen is hearing the ghost of a voice singing in her head. And once she lets it in, the kingdom of Arendelle is threatened once more by the elements, this time wind, while the voice beckons Elsa to the far north and an enchanted forest no one has entered in 30 years. In that great unknown lies the secret to Arendelle’s current predicament and Elsa and Anna’s past: beyond the mist, they’re promised, is the source of Elsa’s ice powers and the answer to what happened to their parents.
What Frozen II does well, it does spectacularly. A project six years in the making by Disney Animation, the storied studio crafts the finest example of computer-generated animation I have ever seen. Surpassing what they did for ice magic, Lee and Buck’s team imagines an autumnal fantasia of reds and yellows, oranges and browns. This harvest for the eyes also colors in new textures on its lead sisters, with Princess Anna’s purple cloak, auburn hair, and white water adventures suggesting she’s ready to cross over into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at a moment’s notice.
Yet its core characters and performances remain affectionately familiar. Bell and Menzel still provide endearing work as a pair of young sisters who are haunted by the past—but blessed with the ability to carry a tune or two. In fact, there is almost a full symphony of songs between them, with Elsa getting not one but two showstoppers. You’ve likely already heard snippets of the rip-roaring “Into the Unknown” in Frozen II’s marketing, but the real intended heir to “Let It Go” is another song of empowerment that comes late in the picture. Letting Elsa’s hair down even further, “Show Yourself’ is delivered with the animated majesty of that 2013 ditty that continues to ring in parents’ ears.
… But it’s still no “Let It Go.” Despite brilliant songwriting team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez reprising their duties, none of the eight songs here has the breathtaking quality of that Oscar winner. Nor is there anything as instantly infectious as “For the First Time in Forever” or “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.” The songs are all good, and written with the same witty theatricality as Frozen, but they lack that extra level of inspiration.
This absence can be applied to much of a film that attempts to deal with richer themes about growing older and growing apart—and even a subplot involving the menace of national past sins—but these threads more easily get knotted into themselves than seamlessly weave together. And they jar when juxtaposed with Olaf’s comic relief, which is less ingratiating this time around, or Groff finally getting a goofy solo that attempts to sound like a hair metal ballad from the ‘80s.
There are a lot of intriguing elements, but they feel muddled by a narrative that even with a half-decade to develop cannot fully justify continuing an already perfectly ended story. This finale is more bombastic now, but not as powerful as the magic cast by two sisters’ love being torn asunder back then. Still, Frozen II is a technical triumph, and for whatever its narrative missteps, it finds that earlier heart every time it returns to the bond of love, and the bond of sorrow, that connects its dual protagonists.
That bond endures here. It is even in some ways strengthened by its crucible, as Elsa and especially Anna come of wisened age by movie’s end. That unshakable kinship, and the affinity it evokes, keeps the visually sumptuous film afloat over a turbulent sea.