There is so much to unpack with Frozen 2, and most of it has nothing to do with the actual movie. This isn’t any ole sequel – it’s a new stage in an entire generation’s childhood. Beyond that, it’s a brand extension for Disney, a much-needed win for Hollywood’s ongoing box office woes, and a toy sale bonanza for long-suffering retailers. The film itself is almost secondary to all of that. There’s the thing, and then there’s all the noise and cultural activity that builds up around the thing. It can be a struggle to differentiate between the two, and at a certain point, the film at the center of it all ceases to really matter. What you’ll remember most is living through that cultural moment when everything seemed to bend around Frozen 2. Personally, I can’t wait to see the look on my niece’s face when she opens all of her Frozen 2 toys this Christmas.
Such a shame, then, that as an actual movie Frozen 2 is surprisingly average. The songs are fine but rarely memorable, the animated choreography around the songs often feels more Broadway-ready than boldly cinematic (it’s no mistake that Elsa ends her solo numbers standing on the equivalent of a sparsely-decorated stage floor), the storyline feels astonishingly undercooked, and everyone involved seems overly aware of what came before. That is to say, Frozen 2 has the unenviable task of following one of the most seminal animated musicals of all time. Returning directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee appear so daunted by the challenge that they repeatedly recreate scenes from the first film, shoving in as many callbacks as possible.
For example, while Kristoff sings (“Lost in the Woods,” a confounding 80s hair metal ballad) about his struggles to properly propose to Anna there’s a montage of their most romantic moments from Frozen. Later, Elsa walks through snowy recreations of big moments from the first film and appears to wince at the sound of “Let It Go,” as if even she has had enough of that song already. (That’s not the only Frozen song referenced; Kristoff also sings a bar from “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People.”) At a different point, Olaf greets a party of newcomers and happily re-enacts the entire plot of Frozen as his way of catching them up.
It’s one of Frozen 2’s funniest sequences. Olaf’s cheery summation of events is rife with little jokes (“Yay, our parents are alive!/[Suddenly standing in a corner, looking down at his feet, adopting his best emo voice] Our parents are dead.”) However, it speaks to Frozen 2’s larger struggle: how, really, do you follow a movie that has been watched on repeat by kids for the past 6 years? The most obvious answer is you remind them of everything they liked about that movie, but once you do that what do you have left?
What Buck and Lee – and their co-writers Marc E. Smith, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and Robert Lopez – have come up with is an exploration of Arandell’s dark origins and a search for the source of Elsa’s magic. This takes the form of a quest narrative sending our heroes – Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven – on a wild goose chase in pursuit of a magical voice that only Elsa can hear. This voice might just lead them to the truth about what happened to Elsa and Anna’s parents, but will they like what they discover?
It’s a relatively simple narrative, used here mostly to prop up a group of songs that play around with some slightly more mature themes. The creative team behind this film seem to have felt a real responsibility to speak to the children who have grown up on Frozen and are now on the cusp of entering a new stage of their emotional development. That’s why Frozen 2 is entirely preoccupied with transitions, opening with a song (“Some Things Never Change”) that preaches a positive way of thinking about the inevitable march of time. Olaf’s inevitable joke song (“When I Am Older”) is a child’s idea of what being a grownup means. Kristoff, of course, has “Lost in the Woods.” Anna’s only solo (“The Next Right Thing”) is about coping with loss and learning to move on. Heck, the obvious showcase song of the whole film, one of Elsa’s two solos, is called “Into the Unknown”!
That’s why if you just listen to the Frozen 2 soundtrack you’d come away thinking they went super dark this time around. In the context of the actual film, though, there’s an inescapable “it’s always darkest before the dawn” feel to everything. Yes, the story goes dark and characters we love end up in real mortal jeopardy, but it’s a little hard to buy into the emotions of the moment since it never truly feels like any of it is going to stick. There’s a reason we have the phrase “Disney ending.”
But I say all of that as an adult. When this movie went emotional, the kids around me in the sold-out theater were quiet and often crying. Whenever Olaf cracked a joke, they laughed, and when the sisters hugged they applauded. This is a movie that plays well with its target audience, and it is to be commended for trying so very hard to speak to them about growing up, moving on, and bravely walking their own adult path, not that every kid is going to pick up on such themes.
Frozen 2 tells its audience there’s nothing to fear about the future as long as you remember the people that matter the most in your life, and part of that process means childhood stories like Frozen eventually have to end. So, near the end, when Olaf asks if more life-threatening adventures await Elsa laughs and says, “No, we’re done.” The Disney marketeers might beg to differ, but this ending reads like a mic-drop, a confirmation that they don’t intend to do this again. Admirable, but also probably necessary since for as hard as Frozen 2 tries to advance the narrative the magic does seem to be dwindling.
Now watch as my niece probably spends the next three years binging this over and over again on Disney+.
Random Parting Thoughts
- Anyone hoping for Elsa to get a girlfriend will walk away maybe seen – OMG, she has a brief, pleasant conversation with a female character who isn’t Anna! – but ultimately disappointed. The songs reaffirm Elsa’s status as an outsider icon, but any lesbian subtext stays under the surface. The love her life remains her sister Anna.
- Post-Credits Alert: Panic! At the Disco performs a rock version of “Into the Unknown” over the closing credits. Individual tastes vary. Obviously. But I was desperate to run for the exits. If you do that, however, you’ll miss the post-credits scene, which…is, well, cute but skippable. There’s no sequel set-up going on here. So, run if you feel like it.
- I wouldn’t be surprised to see Anna and Elsa eventually come back in more short specials like Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
What’s your take on Frozen 2? Let me know in the comments.