Frozen II movie review: the thaw sets in

part of my Directed by Women series
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Frozen II yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

There’s magic here, and elemental spirits, but no magic and nothing elemental, metaphorically speaking. Rote and smaller than its predecessor. Even the songs are bland and forgettable.
I’m “biast” (pro): loved the first movie…
I’m “biast” (con): …but the story felt finished
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female codirector, female coscreenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Once upon a time, sequels to animated Disney movies went straight to VHS, to be desultorily rented at Blockbuster when every copy of the latest Arnie actioner was out, or purchased from the checkout-line racks at Walmart to get stuffed into a kid’s Christmas stocking. (This was the 1990s, lovely children.) Then — this is my guess — 1999’s Toy Story 2 changed everything, and proved that people would pay multiplex prices to see more of the same cartoon.

But Disney didn’t buy Pixar till 2006, and then what with the years-long production schedules of animated movies, it took till last year’s Ralph Breaks the Internet — the sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph — for The Mouse to finally take on the theatrical-sequel ethos and start to get down with the big-screen cashing-in.

Frozen II Sven Olaf
Are reindeers (and snowmen) better than people? Inquiring minds want to know…

And then came 2013’s Frozen, one of the money-making-est movies ever. If Disney hadn’t already decided that there was no way in heck it was going to leave multiplex bucks on the table with sequels — and if Disney hadn’t already decided that it was hellbent on big-screen domination — this was the movie that would have done it anyway. There is no alt in the multiverse in which we weren’t going to get a big-screen Frozen 2. Preferably one with 3D and IMAX upsells.

So here it is, Frozen II (available for your viewing pleasure and your wallet’s misery in IMAX and 3D). The Roman numerals might be trying to make it feel more elegant, but this ain’t nothin’ but a straight-to-VHS kind of sequel. This is a movie smaller than its predecessor in every way. We are dragged along on a rote adventure that pokes at expanding the world of royal sisters Anna and Elsa and their kingdom of Arendelle, but all it does is expand its geographical map. They travel to an enchanted forest far to the north in search of an answer to the mystery of Elsa’s arctikinesis. Why does she have supernatural control over ice, and where did this talent come from? And might there be some other mysteries in their past? The answers are ordinary — depressingly so, given the fantastical scope of this story — and totally unsurprising.

Once upon a time, sequels to animated Disney movies went straight to VHS. Then Toy Story 2 changed everything…

There’s magic here, in the form of elemental spirits of air, earth, fire, and water who delight in expressing themselves weather-wise, but there’s no magic. Ironically, there’s nothing elemental, either, in the metaphoric sense. The emotional brawn of Elsa’s (the voice of Idina Menzel: Enchanted) struggle between her paranormal ability and her desire to be “normal” in Frozen was overwhelming, and it’s with very good reason that her showstopping song “Let It Go” — in which she throws away conformity and fully embraces her uniqueness, her capability, and her authority — resonates deeply with so many girls and women and has become a veritable feminist anthem. Nothing in Frozen II hits like that — not even close. The bland, forgettable songs are too literal, too on the nose to wield any symbolic power. And while the physical journey may be long and often arduous here, the psychological journey is almost nonexistent. That goes for Anna (the voice of Kristen Bell: The Good Place, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies), too. Background details are filled in, but those details don’t add much, and in delving into the past, the forward-looking spirit of the first film is undermined. (So much for Elsa’s sung declaration that “I’m never goin’ back / The past is in the past.”)

Frozen II
Imagine if this filling-in-the-backdrop story had been told by the indigenous Northuldra people who populate the backdrop, instead of relegating them to supporting characters? A radical idea, I know…

Trying to force a return of the enormous charm of Frozen means that Kristoff the ice merchant (the voice of Jonathan Groff: American Sniper, The Conspirator) and reindeer sidekick Sven are back, as is Olaf the sentient snowman (the voice of Josh Gad: The Angry Birds Movie 2, A Dog’s Journey). But the most notable thing about their return is Olaf’s bizarre recapping of the events of Frozen, including snippets of song, which only serves to remind us that what we’re watching is nowhere near as entertaining.

The biggest storytelling limb the movie goes out on revolves around the mending of a long-fractured relationship between Arendelle and the Northuldra people of the arctic realm Elsa and Anna visit. This sadly ends up smacking a little of white-savior-ism; telling these events through the eyes of one of the Northuldra tribe, rather than those of Elsa and Anna, would have been a way to bring something truly new here. Frozen II does at least acknowledge that righting a past injustice might require sacrifice on the part of those making amends… even if the movie ultimately pulls back on that, too.

The animation is lovely, of course, and it’s nice to see a strong, devoted, and loving relationship between sisters take center stage. That’s not enough, though. That’s just more of the same of what we’ve already seen, with not enough backing it up this time.

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