You can count on one hand the amount of feature-length Disney Animation films that received a theatrical sequel. Aladdin, Pocahontas, and other movies from the ’90s “Disney Renaissance” got direct-to-video continuations that represented a distinct drop in quality (and occasionally came with different vocal talent to boot). But then again, Frozen itself remains somewhat unusual. It’s not just a throwback to the heart and wit of the Renaissance films; it has also taken center stage in the imagination of millions of children for the past few years. That’s an intimidating bar for any sequel to live up to, but Frozen 2 tries its best.
When the new movie opens, the kingdom of Arendelle is at peace. Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) reigns, though her magical ice powers still take some getting used to. Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) are a happy couple, though the latter’s social ineptness stands in the way of a successful proposal. Olaf (Josh Gad) is still Olaf, and the movie’s intended audience will surely rejoice at every bit of snowman silliness. But autumn is coming, and change is in the air. Elsa can’t stop hearing a fragment of a song that seems to be calling her, and she’s more than willing to drop her royal duties to pursue this magical mystery — much to the chagrin of Anna, who is desperate to make up for years of isolation by spending as much time with her sister as possible. But Elsa’s quest becomes imperative when angry elemental spirits soon descend on Arendelle, forcing the citizens to evacuate.
It all connects to a story Anna and Elsa heard from their father when they were children, about an enchanted forest that was home to a magical tribe. Their father visited the forest as a young man alongside his father and their royal retinue, ostensibly as part of a Thanksgiving-like peaceful gathering. But something went wrong; violence erupted, and their father barely escaped with his life. Ever since, the forest has been shrouded in an impenetrable barrier of mist. Like Natalie Portman’s team of scientists exploring the Shimmer in Annihilation, Elsa and the others must journey through the misty magical forest to figure out the truth of what really happened all those years ago and how it relates to elemental spirits and the source of Elsa’s powers.
Frozen 2 is a sequel in an age of connected universes, so the movie does its best to mimic that feeling of a larger mythology. But the only thing it has to draw on for reference is the first movie, so Frozen 2 treats viewers to multiple rehashes of the plot of Frozen. As if Olaf reenacting a brief summary like C-3PO with the Ewoks wasn’t enough, Elsa later goes into a memory cave that literally replays dialogue from the first film. That might ease the whole experience for any viewers who missed the first round, but also makes the material seem relatively thin. Interestingly, Frozen 2 doubles down on some of the darker elements of the original. After spending Frozen yearning for his own death-by-sunshine, Olaf now openly wonders if anything in the world is permanent. The horrible off-screen death of Anna and Elsa’s parents, already difficult enough to explain to an inquiring child, now becomes a central focus of the plot. The first Frozen impressed with its willingness to elevate sisterly love over traditional fairy-tale romance, and the second takes aim at an even more central Disney myth: The magical castle where dreams come true. Frozen 2 stops just short of letting old things die, but earns kudos for acknowledging that royal families don’t exactly gain their power because of how kind and generous they are.
Maybe none of that matters to the children in the audience as much as the questions “does Olaf have more goofy antics?” and “are the songs good?” The answer to the first is a resounding yes. It’s impossible to tell if new tunes like “Into the Unknown” will be able to match the world-conquering power of “Let It Go,” but lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice. Menzel’s voice certainly gets put to use with two resounding solo numbers. Summer and winter each got theme songs in the first Frozen, and now autumn joins the party with the sequel’s first big group number. Even Kristoff gets a song, though its absurdity (it’s filmed like a parody of the cheesiest pop videos from a bygone era, albeit with a backing chorus of singing reindeer) mostly underscores how little he has to do in this film. There’s a bit of fun in seeing a male character get fixated on marriage as their singular character motivation for a change, though.
Frozen 2 makes a valiant effort to live up to its predecessor, but can’t escape its shadow. Over the course of the movie, multiple characters openly wonder if they’re done adventuring yet. In our zeitgeist of maximized intellectual property, the answer is “probably not,” but at least this fictional world isn’t afraid of a little change here and there. B