Frozen 2 has everything you would expect — catchy new songs, more time with easy-to-like characters, striking backdrops, cute little jokes, a voyage of discovery plot and female empowerment galore — except the unexpected.
When you’ve made an original film that became the biggest-grossing animated movie of all time with a $1.27 billion worldwide haul, with income from an ongoing stage version and myriad merchandising sources as gravy, any temptation to mess with success would be deep-sixed in an instant. So, yes, Disney has been careful, cautious, conscientious and committed to continuing the franchise with the utmost fidelity to the original, resulting in a sequel that can’t miss with its massive constituency and will make another mint, but at the same time can’t help but feel predictable, safe and beholden to formulaic rules.
As in the first outing six years ago (but just three years later in terms of the narrative), Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) remains an intriguing and rather more serious young woman than has been the norm for young female Disney royalty through the years, one who seems intent upon understanding her abilities and heritage. It’s her present preoccupation to explore and master them, to harness the power of nature — hers and that which remains to be discovered.
Domestic jibber-jabber among the royal family of Arendelle dominates the early-going in a rather let’s-get-reacquainted manner, and this is something at which Elsa’s chatty younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell) particularly excels. During this domestic first act set at the castle, a new song is introduced every few minutes, and there’s nothing wrong with that; as before, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have turned out a host of snappy, catchy tunes, at least two or three of which seem very likely to become favorites. The songwriting team’s contribution to the franchise’s success can scarcely be overestimated.
Before long, however, a devastating storm serves to get everyone out of the house and a select few into an enchanted forest, from which Elsa feels like she’s "being called." But while the troops gather to figure out what to do, some of the same crew from the previous film are given a few moments apiece to reintroduce themselves with their basic shtick, most notably including comic relief snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), who can be amusing in small doses, and Anna’s oafish beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who, sadly, has become no brighter in the intervening years.
Although the pic to this point can hardly be called dynamic, Elsa’s almost mystical belief in a strange and unknown destiny begins refocusing the narrative once she sets out on her quest of self-discovery; she becomes, increasingly, an often brooding woman of “dark powers” convinced that “the truth must be found,” whatever it may be. She’s no innocent Dorothy looking for a way back home through a scary forest, although the journey has its emphatic perils. Rather, Elsa is a seeker and seer of a potentially high order, a woman determined to learn the truth about the world she inhabits and rules, whatever the risks and cost. This (along with some quite exceptional shape-shifting) is what makes Elsa stand out among the crowd of commoners and sets her increasingly apart from the more motley crowd accompanying her on her journey to hitherto unimagined places.
Without missing a beat, Frozen 2 at this point could have easily become a tale of a dead-serious journey, a kind of cartoon The Revenant with awful weather and dangerous creatures (here, notably, some enormous rocks that become hulking giants that shake the Earth when they walk). Visually, too, some of the effects point in the direction of a head trip. But, indeed and alas, that’s a different movie. The journey we get is an equivocation, one that seems momentarily tempted by destinations perhaps not on the map but understandably travels on another, much safer road.
So while it flirts with the dark side, where the movie actually goes are the destinations of colorful and undisturbing sensation (Elsa’s underwater exploits are particularly striking) and constantly reassuring humor. There’s nothing wrong with that in terms of the massive, all-inclusive audience Disney is aiming for and will most certainly reach, and no one wants to scare the 4-year-olds too much (there are moments in Bambi and Sleeping Beauty, at the very least, that supplied children of earlier generations with nightmares for years).
Certainly the overriding intent of Jennifer Lee’s script (she also solely wrote the first installment and co-directed both with Chris Buck) is to position Elsa as a serious role model/inspiration for girls and young women, a resilient, can-do, nothing-can-stop-me character able to overcome any challenge in her path. This she most certainly does, and a raft of co-story writers has joined in to try to stir the ingredients to the desired balance among drama, excitement, comedy, suspense, action and inspiration.
Unfortunately, if you stop to notice you can readily sense the efforts of the many cooks in the kitchen, recommending a bit more sugar here, a pinch of spice over there, bake this a little longer, put some extra frosting on just for good measure. The recipe is a good one, but you can feel all the fuss that went into it.
Production company: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Voice cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Jeremy Sisto, Ciaran Hinds, Alan Tudyk, Hadley Gannaway, Mattea Conforti, Aurora, Alan Tudyk, Santino Fontana, Libby Stubenrauch, Eva Bella
Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Screenwriter: Jennifer Lee; story by Chris Buck, Marc E. Smith, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
Producer: Peter Del Vecho
Executive producer: Byron Howard
Production designer: Michael Giaimo
Editor: Jeff Draheim
Music: Christophe Beck
Original songs: Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
Visual effects supervisor: Steve Goldberg
Casting: Jamie Sparer Robert
Rated PG, 104 minutes