The kingdom of Arendelle is at peace. Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is planning a proposal to Anna (Kristen Bell), snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is loving life in the sun, and Elsa (Idina Menzel) is content in her role as queen – until she hears a mysterious song calling her out into the wilderness.
As a rule, animated Disney princess movies don’t get theatrical sequels – they end, by definition, with ‘happily ever after’. But then, 2013’s Frozen went far beyond your average animated Disney princess movie, a $1.2 billion box office behemoth that subverted fairy-tale notions of true love, with an earworm soundtrack that sent frazzled parents loopy on endless repeat listens. So it is that Frozen’s happy ending gives way to a big-screen sequel that — as they tend to — goes bigger, bolder, and more epic.
It begins gloriously, with a lush, confident opening act that establishes the new status quo – Elsa (Menzel), in control of her ice powers, ruling Arendelle and living with love and warmth among sister Anna (Bell), soon-to-be-brother-in-law Kristoff (Groff), and goofy snowman Olaf (Gad). The first film’s frosty palette is swapped for a gorgeous autumnal aesthetic — all golden leaves, hazy sunsets and open fires — bolstered by a string of stirring musical numbers that deal beautifully with ideas of growth and impermanence (“I can’t freeze this moment, but I can seize this day,” sings Elsa). Frozen II isn’t just set in a season of change — it’s about the inevitability of it.
It’s also a more mature film that deals with notions of maturity, for an audience that has itself grown up in the six years since the previous outing. That means an expansive, mythical tone as the gang sets off on a quest tied into a mystery around Elsa and Anna’s family history, incorporating epic fantasy elements from Middle-earthian stone giants, to elemental spirits and indigenous tribal communities. Like Moana before it, Frozen II takes Disney further into Studio Ghibli territory, dropping binary good-and-evil storytelling for more nuanced depictions of the balance between humanity and nature.
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The monolithic spectre of ‘Let It Go’ is not only winked at in a sharp gag, but is followed up with a double whammy of Elsa-bangers.
That the plot largely exists in service of world-building leads to a meandering middle act, driven by a mystery that remains narratively vague for too long and is largely obvious in hindsight. If the wider scope is admirable, the mythology-extending doesn’t always succeed, delivering backstory and familial revelations in hazy, hasty exposition that leaves big questions still unclear come the credits.
But just as Frozen transcended a tangled narrative thanks to its engaging characters and show-stopping music, Frozen II’s plot missteps are more than compensated for by another suite of hits by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Olaf — who delivers a hasty recap of the previous adventure in the film’s funniest sequence — gets a particularly witty number in ‘When I Am Older’, repressing his trauma as he’s menaced by forest spirits. Kristoff gets the only notable misfire — a half-hearted parody of mopey soft-rock ballads. As for the musical elephant in the room, the monolithic spectre of ‘Let It Go’ is not only winked at in a sharp gag, but is followed up with a double whammy of Elsa-bangers, two fresh songs of spine-tingling self-discovery — the propulsive ‘Into The Unknown’ and mystical ‘Show Yourself’. If neither quite matches the last film’s breakout hit, that they both come close is impressive enough.
Where Frozen II does surpass its predecessor is in the jaw-dropping animation – one moment involving water drawn from a plank of wood is near-photoreal. Elsewhere, the film is far more stylish and playful than the prosaic original, with metaphysical character-driven sequences that make full use of the medium’s blank canvas, their imagery more emotionally intuitive than any expository dialogue. A scene of Elsa taming a spectral water-horse in the heart of a raging sea is simultaneously frightening, beautiful and enigmatic, drawing to mind Rey’s finger-clicking journey to self-discovery in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
If the final act underwhelms in the action stakes, Frozen II still delivers where it really counts — the emotional beats and relationship between Elsa and Anna, who continually strengthen and uplift each other across the runtime. Among the not inconsiderable flaws, there’s enough greatness to make Frozen II worth Disney breaking its big rule for. And that in itself is a happy ending.
The best things about the first film — the characters and music — once again sing in a frequently dazzling if narratively flawed sequel that’s better at being sensory than sense-making.