**1/2 out of ****
(for action/peril and some thematic elements)
Released: November 22, 2019
Runtime: 103 minutes
Directed by: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck
Starring: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Ciarán Hinds, Martha Plimpton, Sterling K. Brown, Jason Ritter, Alfred Molina, Evan Rachel Wood
There’s plenty of surface-level dazzle in Frozen II, yet this long-awaited sequel lacks the rewarding emotional depth (and catchy tunes) that made its 2013 predecessor a cultural phenomenon.
With its inspired spin on a classic fairy tale, Frozen simultaneously embraced and subverted classic Disney Princess conventions, enriching the genre’s traditions while also propelling them forward with new possibilities. Through the unified efforts of its collaborators – led by writer/co-director Jennifer Lee and her helming partner Chris Buck – Frozen was told with the voice of a storyteller.
Frozen II, by contrast, feels like the product of a writer’s room.
Playing more like an episode in a series rather than another chapter in an ongoing saga, this sequel feels engineered at virtually every turn, right down to the cute new fire gecko designed simply for its value in toy sales.
Whether spinning a new mythology involving the magical synergy of Wind, Water, Fire, and Earth (a legend that provides spectacle yet lacks awe or wonder) or padding time with a sitcomy B-story of Kristoph’s awkward attempts at proposing to Anna, this feels like a story by committee.
Contrived at its very premise (rather than born from a seed in the original), the plot follows Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and the reindeer Sven as they join Elsa on her journey to discover the source of a melodic voice that only she can hear, one that may have the answer to a mystical danger that threatens the kingdom of Arendelle.
It leads them to a forest that has been shut off from the world by an enchanted fog for an entire generation, surrounded by its dense cloud. Since its appearance, those in the forest have been locked inside while those outsiders have been blocked from entering. The fate of Arendelle is intertwined with the mist, as are secrets about Elsa and Anna’s family history.
Directors Lee and Buck come up with some imaginative visuals and thrilling set pieces, but ultimately they’re all merely in service to the plot rather than working as platforms for character arcs. No one really grows or changes here, nor are they challenged morally as individuals. They simply have a formidable mystery to unravel, showing resolve in the face of danger, and hoping they don’t get killed while doing it (spoiler alert: they live).
The lackluster songs also pale in comparison to the original’s Broadway-worthy tunes. Even “Into the Unknown” — the requisite “Let It Go” follow-up for Elsa to belt — matches its predecessor’s power only in the chorus. The verses, however, are merely ambient connective tissue.
The other tracks lean more heavily into standard pop song writing and less so into musical theater tenets — with Kristoff’s number going full 80’s era, complete with Chicago-styled background harmonies. Cute, sure, even fun, but also instantly disposable.
The sheer power of Idina Menzel’s voice as Elsa comes closest to elevating Frozen II to something stronger, but those moments are fleeting. The rest of the returning voice cast gives it everything they’ve got, too, but it’s the material that’s lacking. Olaf is the exception, thankfully, as Josh Gad provides even more laughs this time around than he did before.
The stakes increase as they should, including even a particularly dire one, but the outcome always feels inevitable. Twists and turns are utilitarian, serving functions that each moment requires, but sacrificial acts feel perfunctory, as do emotional tensions. They carry risks yet still lack any sense of legitimate suspense or uncertainty.
Frozen II fits the bill as a satisfying family diversion, especially as an excuse to get out of the house during the holidays (or to eventually play in the background as a babysitter), but if you’re hoping it’ll stand as an enduring new classic in its own right — like, say, the Toy Story sequels have — well, you’re just going to have to let it go.