The massive success of Frozen pretty much guaranteed a sequel (Disney is not the kind of company to let it go when it comes to exploiting intellectual property), but it’s taken six years for the movie’s original creators to put together a follow-up that has the potential to stand alongside the original. It’s clear that a lot of effort went into crafting Frozen II, which is once again directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, with a screenplay by Lee and songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. Possibly too much effort was put into this overstuffed movie, which attempts to recapture the successful elements of the first installment while adding on a ton of back story and delving into more mature themes.
Three years after reuniting at the end of Frozen, sisters Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are living happily in the kingdom of Arendelle, which Elsa rules as queen. Anna is still in love with goofy, reindeer-obsessed outdoorsman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and naive, upbeat sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is still hanging around. Elsa has control of her ice powers, but she starts hearing a mysterious voice calling her, drawing her to an enchanted forest that Elsa and Anna’s parents told them about when they were kids.
So Elsa sets out on a quest to the mystical hidden land of Northuldra, where decades ago the forces of Arendelle fought a battle that left the king (Elsa and Anna’s grandfather) dead. The filmmakers add a lot of new mythology to the franchise here, even retroactively changing the circumstances surrounding the death of Elsa and Anna’s parents, the previous king and queen. The secrets of Northuldra, both what happened there in the past and how that connects to Elsa’s powers in the present, are a bit convoluted, and parts of the plot may be tough for younger kids to grasp.
There’s also a surprisingly reflective (and even bleak at times) tone to the dialogue. The movie’s opening song is all about the characters being in denial over the progression of time, and Olaf spends much of the movie interrogating his own childlike wonder, speculating on how things will be when he’s older and wiser. This is certainly the only Disney animated musical with a song featuring the line “Hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb.” The darkness, of course, is just a step on the path toward triumph, but it’s still unexpected to hear a character openly contemplate such despair. Anna’s entire “The Next Right Thing” song could be interpreted as a response to dealing with chronic anxiety.
This is still a grand adventure story, though, with gorgeous animation and scenes of peril as Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf face the dangerous magic in Northuldra and reckon with the potentially destructive actions of their predecessors as rulers of Arendelle. The songwriters make two obvious attempts to recreate the show-stopping mission statement of the first movie’s Oscar-winning “Let It Go,” first with the somewhat halting “Into the Unknown,” and later with the more majestic, soaring “Show Yourself,” both of which give Menzel the chance to show off her still-amazing singing voice.
The staging of “Show Yourself,” in particular, is dazzling and creative, making a strong case for the primacy of Disney animation even as the company is busy turning all its animated classics into prosaic live-action movies. Nothing in the sequel is quite as transportive as the original, though, and while the sisterly bond between Elsa and Anna is still central, the emotional impact is not as strong when the plot is simultaneously being pulled in so many different directions. Still, given the demands of the corporate machine, Frozen II holds on to its artistic vision carefully, honoring its characters and its world while fumbling its way toward their next destination.