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How is it that Queen Elsa of Arendelle has magical powers? That question is at the core of the new Walt Disney Animation Studios film Frozen 2, the follow-up to the studio’s massively successful 2013 film Frozen. The original story dealt with how Elsa inadvertently revealed her powers to the country she was meant to rule, and how her sister Anna and some friends convinced her that love would win the day, with her proper place indeed being as the country’s leader. Frozen 2, while not repeating the storytelling beats of its predecessor, is ostensibly focused on building out the mythology that was teased at previously. But the cursory attempts to do so wind up making things vaguer and less clear.
When Frozen 2 begins, everything seems perfectly happy for Elsa (Idina Menzel), her ever-ebullient sister Anna (Kristen Bell), their sentient snowman pal Olaf (Josh Gad) and more. But Elsa is internally struggling again, because despite having ruled Arendelle for a little while, she doesn’t feel truly at home there. That sense is doubled when she starts hearing a mysterious voice, one that only she can hear, calling her to the north, to an enchanted forest that holds secrets related to Arendelle’s past. The ensuing adventure is mostly exciting and intriguing, even though it barely clarifies anything in great detail.
Upon arriving in the enchanted forest, Elsa, Anna, and their friends encounter two groups who have been trapped there for decades: one is a cadre of Arendellian soldiers led by Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown), and the other is a tribe known as the Northuldra who have been in tune with magical forces of air, earth, water and fire that reside in the forest. The story goes that, when Elsa and Anna’s father was a boy, he encountered the Arendelle force and the Northuldra fighting in a fierce, bloody battle that left his own father killed. As Frozen 2 progresses, it becomes clear that neither the soldiers nor the Northuldra tribe are out for blood, and are instead more focused on keeping themselves safe and sound.
Eventually, in a visually impressive centerpiece sequence, Elsa travels on her own to a far-off glacier and learns the truth about the past: the previous king of Arendelle (Elsa and Anna’s grandfather) wasn’t a peaceful ruler, but had engineered a fake get-together with his own troops and the Northuldra in an attempt to kill the tribe, due to their connection with the world of magic. In the ensuing battle, Elsa and Anna’s father was saved, by a young Northuldra girl who would eventually become their mother (voiced as an adult by Evan Rachel Wood). That specific twist — and how the prior king of Arendelle essentially greenlights a brutal slaughter because of his fear of what he doesn’t understand — is both intriguing and not very well clarified.
Specifically, where Frozen 2 struggles with this mythology is in truly connecting it to Anna and Elsa’s journey into the unknown. Anna is present, along with Olaf, her boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer friend Sven, primarily because she doesn’t want to lose her sister again. But the film’s best sequence is all about Elsa, and yet not enough about Elsa. The implication, and it’s only ever just that, is that Elsa and Anna’s mother is herself somehow attuned to the magical forces such that Elsa was given the gift of superpowers. (Why Anna never received such powers is equally vaguely defined: just as Elsa and Anna’s father had no powers, so too would she be power-free. Though at the end, she becomes the new queen of Arendelle, with Elsa living in the forest as its leader.)
Elsa’s own powers are, as we learn by the end of the film, even greater than she realized. While she’s still primarily able to harness icy powers to do everything from fend off the magical wind forces of the forest to ride a frozen horse spirit across a pitch-black sea, Elsa comes to accept that she’s a bridging force of sorts between the other four spirits. She is, in essence, the fifth spirit (or, if you like, the fifth element just like the heroine in the 1997 Luc Besson film, a reference this movie likely was not intending to make). On the surface, it’s all quite compelling, in part because Elsa is a much more captivating lead character than her goofy sister Anna.
But the mythological elements here are much less specific than in other recent Disney and Pixar animated efforts, such as the wonderful Moana and the underrated Brave. (Elsa’s pursuit of the mysterious voice mimics the journeys of both of those films’ heroines.) Both Moana and Brave benefitted not just from having strong female leads, but an equally strong sense of location, with the former film taking place in the Pacific Islands and the latter in the highlands of Scotland. While Frozen 2, like its predecessor, ostensibly takes place in Europe, in a location meant to recall countries like Norway or Finland, its sense of place is almost intentionally vague and nondescript. Thus, while the notion of magical, elemental spirits imbuing the land with life is an intriguing idea, the backbone of this mythology is almost nonexistent from the start.
Frozen 2 tries to tell a different story from its predecessor, and succeeds enough so it represents a mild improvement on that film (for those of us who found the 2013 picture only somewhat engaging, and vastly less creatively successful than the ensuing worldwide phenomenon made it out to be). By engaging in an exploration of the lead characters’ pasts, co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (the latter of whom wrote the script) are attempting to build out a good reason for this movie to exist. But just like the original Frozen, this sequel skims the surface of a character and a world that could have much richer details built out were it more willing to be more distinctive.
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