“Warmed-over Frozen” is how I described the first Maleficent five years ago: another revisionist take on a classic fairy tale about the relationship between an innocent princess and a rehabilitated witch-villainess ending in true love’s kiss subverted. (For the many other parallels, see my review of Maleficent.)
Now Frozen II comes out on the heels of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil — and, lo and behold, the tables have turned.
Like last month’s Maleficent sequel, Frozen II offers a complicated tale turning on political intrigue and conflict between the leaders of a European “kingdom” (really just a royal capital city) and the denizens of a nearby magical hinterland inhabited by indigenous tribal folk and nature spirits.
In both sequels, treachery on one side leads to armed conflict, and there’s a plot to ambush or sabotage the other side through advanced technological know-how. (Sorry, I guess that kind of spoils which side the treachery is on.)
So, we have two politically correct Disney fairy tales in as many months about corrupt European powers oppressing noble tribal folk living in harmony with nature. (Despite the closeness of the release dates, Maleficent 2 clearly has a prior claim on this thematic material via the first Maleficent.)
There’s more: Both sequels position the older, magical heroine — here the frosty-fingered snow-queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) — as an all-important key in the volatile relations between the human and magical worlds, sending her on a quest to discover her true nature and the source of her power.
Both films develop the incipient romance between the young princess and her appealing but dramatically sidelined love interest, who is determined to propose to her — in this case, optimistic Anna (Kristen Bell) and rugged Kristoff (Jonathan Groff).
Finally, there’s a climatic death-and-rebirth motif in which one character helps to bring another back, and they may or may not be the corresponding characters in both films. (Look, I am trying here.)
The good news is that, such resonances aside, Frozen II is very far from the punishing slog of Maleficent 2, a grim parable about literal genocide.
In fact, Frozen II is less grim than the original Frozen, which remains the most gut-wrenchingly tragic fairy tale in the Disney canon.
Where Frozen opened by establishing how parents ruin their kids’ lives and isolated the sisters from one another for basically their whole lives so far, Frozen II gratifyingly celebrates family ties, from the tender prologue establishing the close bonds between young Elsa and Anna and their loving parents to the heroines’ relationship throughout the film.
The bad news is that, despite this warmer tone, Frozen II is pretty much a mess — from the mostly unmemorable songs to the jumble of half-baked to outright bad ideas making up the muddled, complicated plot.
I confess I didn’t see this coming. Frozen was at least solidly constructed — and, while Walt Disney Animation doesn’t traditionally do sequels, last year’s Ralph Breaks the Internet set a hopeful precedent, outdoing its predecessor in practically every way. (Jennifer Lee, who wrote and co-directed both Frozen films, was an executive producer on the Wreck-It Ralph sequel.)
While I didn’t love Frozen, I dug a number of things about it, starting with the premise of a Disney fairy tale with sister heroines. I’m happy, then, to spend 100-odd minutes watching Anna and Elsa catch up on the sister time they didn’t have for all those years and the entire arc of the first film.
Right from the prologue, though, Frozen II starts to bog down in its own extended mythology and backstory.
From Anna and Elsa’s parents, Queen Iduna and King Agnarr (Evan Rachel Wood and Alfred Molina), we learn of an Enchanted Forest inhabited by the spirits of the four classical elements as well as a tribal people called the Northuldra.
The Enchanted Forest, we learn, has been in lockdown for decades by the angry spirits ever since a failed ambassadorial visit from the kingdom of Arendelle led by Elsa and Anna’s grandfather, King Runeard (Jeremy Sisto), when Agnarr was just a boy.
It seems the visit was supposed to mark the christening of a dam built by Arendelle as a peace gift for the Northuldra (who are presumably based on the semi-nomadic Sámi people).
But then fighting broke out in the forest between the Northuldra and the soldiers of Arendelle — and young Agnarr barely escaped, having been saved by parties unknown.
That’s before we get to a magic river called Ahtohallan said to be “full of memory” (the conceit that “water has memory” does a lot of work here) but also danger; a mysterious voice that only Elsa hears calling her into the unknown; reports of a “fifth spirit” apparently corresponding to some unknown element; and beings embodying the spirits of the four elements, including a fierce water-horse and an adorable little fire-salamander.
That’s a lot of moving parts — and the movements are often less clear than they should be.
For instance, the climax turns on an artifact that we’re told is meant to have a beneficial effect, but which is later revealed to have a secret harmful purpose. Neither the purported benefit nor its deceptive nature is illuminated, nor are we shown any sign of the harmful outcome, which, despite playing out for decades, apparently escapes nearly everyone’s notice.
Nothing is done about it until Elsa and Anna arrive to save the day, aided by Kristoff and even rank-and-file warriors of Arendelle — but not the Northuldra, who, though highly invested in the outcome, remain passive throughout.
On one level, the honor of Arendelle is at stake, and restoring the balance could come at an immense cost to Arendelle (a theme in which I am not alone in noticing an echo of contemporary debates about slavery reparations).
Ironically, though, this conflicts with the paternalism (or maternalism) and white-savior overtones of the climax. And, like Maleficent 2, Frozen II scapegoats a single villain (one who is not even an active antagonist whose defeat viewers can cheer) with all the sins of oppression and expansionism. Cold bothering you yet?
So. What about the queer stuff?
Five years ago I was raked over the coals in a number of mainstream and religious media outlets for calling out the wholly unremarkable fact that Frozen is not without a subtle gay subtextual vibe.
Ironically, Frozen was quickly embraced as “pro-LGBTQ” in mainstream sources, and the thesis over which I took so much heat is now pretty widely recognized on all sides.
Does Frozen II go further in this direction? Um, not really?
Those horrified at my observation that the first film joked about Kristoff and his reindeer Sven having a relationship “a little outside of nature’s laws” may wince over a few more gags in this direction. (Of course we’re not meant to think that Kristoff and Sven actually have an unnatural relationship; rather, the winks and nods at the very idea are meant to be outrageously amusing to adult viewers.)
Viewers concerned or hopeful regarding the possibility of a girlfriend for Elsa will find, I think, little grist for that mill. (The first film had more in Elsa’s “conceal, don’t feel” angst regarding her natural but socially unacceptable differentness.)
Here there’s not much beyond, like, a single conversation with a Northuldra woman named Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews). I think maybe they briefly hold hands? Honestly, Kristoff bonds more with Honeymaren’s brother Ryder (Jason Ritter) over their shared love of reindeer.
There may be a few asides or sight gags I missed. (My 16-year-old daughter thinks she spotted Oaken, the trader from the first film around whom endless speculation has swirled thanks to a two-second shot of his maybe-partner in a sauna, in a crowd scene hugging a man from behind.) As in the first film, such winks and nods are here for those who want to see them and fairly easy to overlook for those who would rather not.
Less easy to overlook: the forgettableness of the songs this time around.
Besides Let It Go, the first film’s very solid lineup included For the First Time in Forever, Love Is an Open Door and Do You Want to Build a Snowman?
Few if any of the new songs are of that caliber. Elsa’s first big number, Into the Unknown, is meant to correspond to Let It Go; Menzel belts out those power notes as impressively as ever, but the hook-driven chorus lacks Let It Go’s melodic flow and catchy quality.
Both Anna and Kristoff get angsty anthems that bring the movie to a halt rather than advancing it. Kristoff’s ’80s power ballad/music video Lost in the Woods is probably the best song and musical sequence — but it serves to underscore how he spends most of the film either trying to propose to Anna or pining for her when the better move amid the current family crisis would be simply taking as supportive a stance as possible.
Though Josh Gad remains delightful as the magical snowman Olaf, a little goes a long way. His When I Am Older has the same wide-eyed naivete as his hilarious In Summer and some insight into how children see adults.
Thematically, Frozen II leans into the idea of change and transformation (Some Things Never Change is an early song that obviously implies that pretty soon everything will), and there are echoes of Ralph Breaks the Internet in the denouement. Like nearly everything else here, though, it hasn’t been developed in any intellectually or emotionally satisfying way.
Family relations aside, about the only way that Frozen II competes with the original is visually. This is not just down to technological wizardry; some of the magical effects in particular are inspired and lovely.
I can’t help noting, as a dismal mark of reduced artistic aspirations at the Mouse House, that just a few years ago Disney animated features were accompanied in the theater by ambitious animated shorts like Paperman and Feast that sometimes outshone the main film.
When Frozen played in theaters, it was preceded by a formally inspired and playful Mickey Mouse short, Get a Horse! Those days are gone, it seems. Why should Disney try harder? What do they have to prove?
Caveat Spectator: Animated action, brief menace and mildly stressful images. Kids and up.