Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
When FROZEN debuted back in 2013, it broke the mold. The animated feature captured lightning in a bottle, using bold musical numbers, richly layered characters and self-aware humor to dismantle many unhealthy tropes that Disney was infamous for propagating. However, six years later, FROZEN II frequently falters in trying to apply those same ingenious methods.
Returning directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee – working from a script by Lee (and a story by Lee, Buck, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez with additional material by Allison Schroeder) – are far too modest leaning into the storyline of a co-dependent Anna learning to let her sister go so they both can grow. This would have been a natural progression for both characters since the sisters’ roles are somewhat reversed from the first film. Except that’s not where the filmmakers’ focus lies. They’d rather overcomplicate matters than cleverly simplifying them into a potent story.
Princess Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) have settled into their life in Arendelle after the fates finally reunited them. The snow has long since melted away, leaving behind a bustling, colorful Norwegian hamlet gearing up for another seasonal shift – fall. Elsa, too, has been feeling an internal shift, doubting her place in this new life with her sister along with her purpose. Her uncertainty has manifested in a siren song beckoning her towards the unknown, similar to the light that guides Aurora to prick herself on the spindle. Elsa, of course, belts her haunting ballad from a balcony before a mysterious spirit causes her powers to erupt, sending elemental forces into chaos and their village running for safety in the hills.
The gals have a sneaking suspicion that this cataclysmic event has something to do with the bedtime story their father King Agnarr (voiced by Alfred Molina) used to tell them when they were young – a tale about their grandfather, an enchanted forest and a curse. Their mother, Queen Iduna (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood), would follow with a lullaby about a remote, mythical river holding the key to unlocking understanding. Seeking answers, the intrepid Anna and Elsa look to this lore to explain their present troubles. They high-tail it to the magical woods with permanently perky snowman Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad); Anna’s mountain man beau, Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff); and reindeer Sven in tow.
The narrative is a disastrous mess, to a thoroughly disappointing degree, where character and story aren’t appropriately motivated. Though it’s doubtful youngsters in the audience will question how and why the situations unfold, adults certainly will be left wondering what’s driving these characters’ decisions and why things transpire if not for contrived reasons alone. In almost antithetical fashion to the first, there aren’t a lot of emotional stakes. Anna and Elsa’s journeys are left severely lacking with hardly any relatable or heartfelt reasons for what they’re doing. Elsa isn’t really suffering in her new life, and they’re not trying to unlock the mystery of what happened to their parents. Those potential story engines are only weakly glanced at. Nothing viscerally meaningful arises to get the sisters started or keep them going.
Olaf says a self-aware line (one that drops as subtly as an anvil) about how everyone will experience a transformation. Yet by the mid-point, no one has exhibited a modicum of change. Things are essential to the characters until they aren’t. There’s danger until that’s calmed by magic (which is always the case in films featuring magic). There’s a reveal about a character that comes as a surprise, but not for the reasons the filmmakers want us to be surprised – it’s because this minor character was barely set up in the first place.
Olaf recounting their exploits from the first film to the strangers in the mythical forest, who may or may not have been at odds for the past three decades, is akin to Flounder’s talk in THE LITTLE MERMAID and an offshoot of Luis’ rapid-fire storytelling in ANT-MAN. It’s certainly funny, but not original. New sidekicks like playful wind spirit Gale and Bruni the Salamander are fun and cute but don’t add much to the proceedings.
Worse, the music from the original songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez never replicates nor surpasses the magic and poignancy of their first outing. Ideally, in a musical, there’s a creative symbiosis between the narrative and the music, with one motivating the other, fluidly folding into each other. But in this subpar sequel, Buck, Lee and the Lopezes struggle to connect the two. Kristoff’s “I Want” song, a ditty where the character expresses their yearnings, is a spoof of an 80’s era Chicago/Peter Cetera ballad. The “aren’t-we-clever” referential nature of the aptly-titled song “Lost in the Woods” aside, that character has already expressed his wishes three times prior, so it’s rendered redundant when the time comes for him to sing about it.
Aesthetically speaking, this a dazzling beauty. The animators have created powerful imagery that evokes emotions on the macro and micro. While there’s no sequence where everything from the writing to the art, to the songs, sing in harmony like many in the original FROZEN, the animators’ highly detailed work always shines through the fray. They deliver rapturous moments like Elsa riding a water horse named “the Knokk” across the waves, and Anna’s subtle expressive potency during her lowest point trapped in a cave. Plus, the environments these characters play in are gorgeous, harkening back to Eyvind Earle’s backgrounds in SLEEPING BEAUTY.
Don’t get me wrong; the filmmakers have their heartfelt sentiments in the right place. “The Next Right Thing” speaks to the idea that it’s never too late to set past mistakes right. Female empowerment and finding strength through sisterhood assuredly remain sturdy tethers. There’s also a hearty ecological message instilled about working with nature, not against it. Yet with all of these thoughtful ingredients in the mix, they can’t manage to coax out some semblance of a cogent, coherent, compelling fairy tale for the ages.
FROZEN II opens on November 22.