Released in 2013 to a record-scorching $1.29 billion, “Frozen” was such a huge hit for Walt Disney Animation Studios that many of its fans were probably assuming its sequel would play it safe and deliver more of the same: a sparkling 21st-century fairy tale in which a pair of wide-eyed heroines shrug off the need to be rescued by men, demonstrating the power of self-reliance and sisterly love. Certainly, screenwriter Jennifer Lee (who once again co-directs with Chris Buck) would be foolish to stray too far from this formula, but “Frozen II” is anything but a mindless remake.
Ironically, “Frozen” fans may secretly be wishing for a more straightforward rehash, and to them, the best advice comes in the form of three little words: “Let it go” — a mantra they’ve surely internalized since the first movie. As with snowflakes, no two are alike, and this gorgeous, glittering reunion of siblings Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) proudly flaunts its own identity, even while taking care to incorporate so much of what worked about the original — like a steady stream of wisecracks from wonderstruck snowperson Olaf (Josh Gad).
In myriad ways, “Frozen II” feels more like a follow-up to Pixar’s “Brave” than it does an extension of Disney’s earlier (very loose) adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Gone is the need for a conventional villain; gone are any expectations of princes charming or otherwise; gone are the gowns that have shaped young women’s dreams of prom and wedding attire for more than a century. “Frozen II” pushes the girl-power themes even further, rejecting dresses in favor of pants for much of the adventure, as Anna and Elsa set out to find the source of a mysterious song emanating from somewhere far to the north — a mythical place called Ahtohallan that holds the secret of their parents’ disappearance, as well as the key to finding peace with nature and the Northuldra, an indigenous tribe toward whom they’ve been taught to be wary.
“Frozen II” isn’t obnoxious about its revisionist point of view — progressive vis-à-vis the Disney values of past decades — though it’s hardly subtle about its millennial-minded politics either. The film opens with a bedtime-story version of the kingdom’s past — as recounted by the royal sisters’ parents, king Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) of Arendelle — in which their grandfather (Jeremy Sisto) and head general Mattias (Sterling K. Brown) are portrayed as the victims of a magical attack that resulted in an enchanted forest being wrapped in mist for more than 34 years. This prologue ends with the revelation (too obvious to be considered a spoiler) that Granddad was actually a conniving colonialist, and that everything bad that has happened to the family was a direct result of his misguided attempts to manipulate others.
Such themes surely resonate with today’s younger audiences, who, when confronted with issues such as racial inequity and climate change, are being forced to reckon with the sins and shortcomings of previous generations. The words of environmental activist Greta Thunberg’s recent speech echo in Anna and Elsa’s actions: “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.”
Conventional Disney princess movies — in which alabaster beauties from Snow White to Belle passively awaited the liberating effects of true love’s kiss — may have been taken at face value for most of the studio’s history, but today’s kids have gotten savvy. They recognize the often-problematic socializing effects of popular entertainment, and they demand better. They also know when they’re being patronized, and at times, “Frozen II” tiptoes a bit too carefully along that fine line, where escapism stops being fun because the adults responsible have started overthinking the politics of it all.
The first half-hour smacks of calculation, as the movie finds ways to message to audiences where it stands in relation to the original, rather than intuitively picking up where that installment left off, the way the “Toy Story” and “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels so gracefully did. In a way, songwriting couple Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez set this challenge for themselves by creating such a memorable Broadway-style soundtrack for the first movie, and here, the first couple songs (including the forgettable “All Is Found”) feel second best.
It’s not until Menzel sings “Into the Unknown” that “Frozen II” comes anywhere near the goose-bump-inducing, icicles-on-the-nape-of-your-neck thrill audiences experienced with “Let It Go” last time around — although none of this cartoon’s new tunes packs quite that punch. Even so, the characters spend an awful lot of time singing: Groff delivers the amusingly over-earnest pop-idol parody “Lost in the Woods,” and later, Bell belts out goody-goody anthem “The Next Right Thing.” (All three of those songs are repeated in less-interesting Radio Disney-ready cover versions over the marathon end-credits roll, performed by the likes of Panic! at the Disco, Kacey Musgraves and Weezer.)
In a Broadway show, the musical numbers reveal feelings the characters wouldn’t dare speak aloud, although the most effective “I want” song here comes from none other than Olaf, who yearns to understand the world better “When I Am Older.” All four characters alternate articulating where their minds are at the opening via the song “Some Things Never Change,” and though the sequence features stunning animation, its presence stalls the proceedings. Whereas the prologue informs that “the fighting enraged the spirits, and they turned against us” — language clearly engineered to misdirect — it’s not until nearly an hour later, when the trolls explain, “The past is not what it seems. … The truth must be found,” that the story finally finds its proper course.
Reunited by their last adventure, the sisters are now closer than ever. Though Elsa has been named queen, she privately wrestles with the feeling that she doesn’t belong in Arendelle. She’s been gifted with magical abilities — namely, the blessing/curse of blasting snow and ice from her fingertips — and yet, the first movie never explained how or why she came by these talents, while Anna lacks them altogether. “Frozen II” gives Elsa a chance to get to the bottom of the mystery while showing audiences that it’s OK for people to feel restless when their potential is being constrained. Normally, a character in Elsa’s position would wander off on her own in search of answers, but her connection with Anna is too strong for that, and her sister insists on coming along. As Anna tells her at one point, “You don’t want me to follow you into fire? Then don’t run into fire!”
Clearly, familial love still takes precedence over the romantic kind this time around. While Anna focuses on accompanying Elsa to the enchanted forest, her would-be suitor Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is trying to psych himself into proposing marriage, but every time he opens his mouth in Anna’s company, he winds up choking on his own foot instead. The movie isn’t necessarily against matrimony, but it doesn’t want girls to think it’s the secret to living happily ever after either, offering a variation on the way fairy tales and Jane Austen novels have sold the institution to female audiences in the past.
Confiding in his ever-reliable reindeer Sven, Kristoff struggles with showing Anna his true feelings for most of the movie, before at last making himself useful with the words “I’m here. What do you need?” How wonderful it would be to see that simple phrase adopted by the problem-solving men of Western society — it may well be the most welcome lesson the movie has to offer: Anna doesn’t need rescuing in “Frozen II,” but she could use support, and rather than barging in and taking control, Kristoff respects her enough to pitch in with whatever plan she has in motion.
The visuals, imbued with an iridescent lavender-glow color palette throughout, are lovely but never overwhelming. That’s important, since computer-generated movies are capable of appearing so much better than their live-action counterparts that they sometimes fall into the trap of distracting us with the way they look. (“The Lion King,” for instance, exploited a magic-hour-all-the-time aesthetic that makes that elusive sheen seem less special.)
What Disney hasn’t quite solved is its digitally rendered character designs, subtly altered from the earlier movie but still more akin to computer-generated Bratz dolls — with their big eyes, bobble heads and pink plastic skin — than to appealing hand-drawn humans. As a sequel, “Frozen II” is locked into the look of the earlier film, whereas “Moana” took a step in the right direction, finding a three-dimensional equivalent for the studio’s classical animated characters. Maybe that’s a question of generational taste, as younger audiences plainly see themselves in Anna and Elsa, in both style and spirit. How fitting then, that writer-director Lee’s script reflects a more modernized set of values. In a world where old-timers accuse the youth of being oversensitive snowflakes, “Frozen II” shows what it means to have one’s heart in the right place.