There was a time – quite recently, in fact – when sequels were anathematic to the Disney brand, banished to the six-month shelf life of DVD and home video markets. Even as Pixar began collecting riches and accolades from Toy Story sequels, the Mouse House chose to keep its animated brand relegated to originals only.
But as the studio has found more success in the cozy and familiar (most notably in the live-action remake market), and as Pixar continues to generate one hit sequel after another, it’s unsurprising that Disney has chosen to end its embargo and look beyond the world of happily ever after. And it’s first attempt was quite promising – last year, the studio gave us Ralph Breaks the Internet, a charming and clever adventure that satirized modern online culture and engaged in playful self-mockery about corporate branding.
Now, Disney follows with its latest film, perhaps the most inevitable sequel of the decade. Yes, the only surprise about the existence of Frozen 2 is how long it took to arrive in theaters. In the six years since Frozen was released, the film has become a worldwide phenomenon, flooding markets with Elsa dresses, Olaf plushies, and countless “Let It Go” parodies. The film has spawned a holiday special, a short film, a Broadway musical, an ice show, and multiple theme park attractions.
And as many can attest, the film’s appeal goes well beyond its young target audience. Despite its storytelling flaws, Frozen is a fun, sweet, beautifully animated film that features one of the most colorful and memorable soundtracks in the studio’s history. It deftly subverts typical characters archetypes while maintaining the trademark fairy-tale spirit – a treat for both Disney newcomers and longtime acolytes.
I thus went into Frozen 2 with a bit of trepidation, intrigued at the prospect of the Mouse trying to follow up on its biggest juggernaut while also wondering how they could possibly match the expectations set by the original film. And it turns out that, despite surpassing those expectations financially – the film scored a $127 million opening weekend, the third-biggest in animation history – Frozen 2 is not the creative triumph its predecessor was.
Oh, it has its charms. The animation, for one, is spectacular – watching the film on an IMAX screen, I was awestruck by the rendering of each frigid construct, from the commanding ice sculptures to each miniscule snowflake. One would not think ice very difficult to animate (isn’t it just motionless water?), but the filmmakers prove how much effort can go into each blue-white frictionless sheet, with special attention paid to its distorted reflective properties. The characters, too, are more exquisitely rendered than ever – one would only need a pause button to convincingly name the number of freckles on Anna’s face. Staging, too, is magnificent; Frozen 2 is executed on a grander scale than its forerunner, with new locales and characters that show off the diversity of the elements, and rousing directorial cues during the film’s grand musical numbers.
As a visual experience, Frozen 2 is majestic. It’s only when we turn to story that the ice begins to crack.
(Some spoilers follow.)
As with many sequels, Frozen 2 sees fit to expand on the mythos of the original, explaining the origin of Elsa’s powers and the uncovered mystery of her and Anna’s parentage. In doing so, it creates a compelling hook for the story, but at the expense of diminishing the glossy sheen the first film. The story deals with the checkered history between Arendelle and the people of the Enchanted Forest. What was once the most storybook Disney film of the decade is now brought down to earth with a story that, in a surprise twist (for kids, anyway), feels more like Pocahontas than the studio’s traditional fairy tales.
Teaching kids about colonization is commendable, but Frozen 2 takes an even more surface-level approach to the material than Pocahontas did, without so much as a hint of development to the backstory beyond the predictable twist of “It’s Arendelle’s fault.” As a dramatic base for the story, it doesn’t leave the film much to work with in its present-day scenes.
But that becomes a problem with Frozen 2 at large. In following up up on its biggest hit, Disney has carefully curated and homogenized the story to keep it as broadly appealing as possible, with historical themes that interest parents yet without dramatic stakes that could potentially scare off kids. The threatening fire spirit is revealed to be an adorable salamander (hello, Happy Meal toy!); the “water horse” is easily tamed. The film is easygoing in its approach, subdued in its conflicts, and shallow in its messaging.
And the greatest evidence of the film’s crowd-pleasing aspirations is its soundtrack. The songs of the first Frozen have become immortalized in our memory, and nary a winter goes by when I don’t hear a neighborhood kid gigglingly ask a friend if she “wants to build a snowman.” (A family I know arranged for the “Let It Go” theme to play at their daughter’s wedding, though they probably don’t want me publicizing that.) These are show-stopping tunes that remain in our heads long after the movie is over, no matter how much we try to get them out.
It’s very easy to see the DNA of that soundtrack in Frozen 2, straight down to the individual numbers. “For the First Time in Forever” has been replaced with “Some Things Never Change”; “Summer” swapped out with “When I Am Older.” The film’s most widely-pushed song is “Into the Unknown,” a “Let It Go”-inspired number sung by Elsa early in the film that gets a Panic! at the Disco reprise during the end credits. (The exception to the rule is “Lost in the Woods,” a number sung by Kristoff that owes more to ‘80s power ballads than anything in the first movie.)
Tuneful and skillfully orchestrated as these songs may be, they never hit the heights of the original score. Part of the reason is contextual – “Let It Go” is a marvelous number not merely because of the music, the lyrics, and Idina Menzel’s glass-shattering voice, but because of its context in the story. It’s the moment that Elsa, after a life of fearing and suppressing her powers, finally learns to cut loose and enjoy herself, free of rules and boundaries. It’s the emotional crescendo of the film, enriched (rather than propelled) by the music.
Menzel’s voice still packs a terrific wallop as she belts out “Into the Unknown,” and there are fanciful visual cues to spare, but the song lacks the character-defining urgency of “Let It Go,” and could easily be slotted in with any of the generic “young woman wants more” songs that have been a Disney staple for decades. (More character is expressed later in “Show Yourself,” another rhythmic Elsa number that is still too subdued to reach earwork territory.)
None of the songs, thankfully, are bad – they’re adequate, in the same vein that Frozen 2 as a whole is adequate. In trying to please as many audiences as possible for a second time, Disney has created a sequel that deftly toes a line and is all-too-cautious not to overstep it.
This effort is emblematic of the current Disney brand – a brand that now relies just as heavily on generic remakes as it does animated strongholds. And it’s worked to the benefit of the studio, which – by the end of December – will have produced no fewer than seven of the year’s ten biggest movies. (Eight if you count Far From Home, a Sony-distributed production.) Frozen 2, for all it faults, is tailor-made to join the billion-dollar club.
But hey – the film does look magnificent.
Frozen 2 is currently playing in theaters.