REVIEW – ‘Frozen II’ is an entirely worthy follow-up that offers everything a sequel should

Think back to a time before Disney’s 2013 box office colossus Frozen became so insanely overexposed and we all started to become entirely sick of it. With a neverending flow of merchandise, “Let It Go” relentlessly playing everywhere you turned, a big-budget Broadway musical adaptation, and that misguided 21-minute-long “short” film that played before Pixar’s Coco, it’s no wonder Frozen-mania drove everyone a little nuts.

With the all-consuming chaos that followed the film, it’s easy to forget how sublime Frozen truly was. With a Broadway-style structure which harkened back to the Disney musicals of old, gorgeous animation that lit up the screen, a brilliant cast of characters, and an empowering story of familial love that wisely ignored the usual gooey romance tropes synonymous with Disney animation, Frozen is one of the greatest animated films of all time.

Is it any wonder it’s taken six years for the sequel to arrive? How do you possibly top the highest-grossing animated film of all time (no, I don’t consider The Lion King to now hold this title) and one of the biggest pop culture zeitgeist moments of the 21st century? We all knew they had to. There’s more money to be made from this cash cow. Thankfully, the end result is rather sensational. Yes, Disney have achieved the seemingly impossible.

While Frozen II may not quite reach the grand heights of its predecessor, it still stands as an entirely worthy follow-up that offers everything a sequel should. Frozen II expands on what came before, while still delivering everything that made the original such a success, namely stunning animation, plenty of fun, flashy musical numbers, and a handful of tear-inducing moments. Its narrative plays it all a little too safe, but when the storyline is so utterly entertaining, it’s easily permissible.

We begin our return to Arendelle with a flashback prologue where we find young Elsa (Mattea Conforti) and Anna (Hadley Gannaway) entranced by a magical bedtime story, told by their adoring parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood). When the king was a young lad, there was an enchanted forest to the north of Arendelle, ruled by the four spirits of earth, wind, fire, and water. After a terrible tragedy within the woods, the forest has been shrouded by a powerful and impenetrable mist, hiding a dark secret within.

Jumping forward into the present day, we find Arendelle in a completely blissful state, as the kingdom joyfully celebrates the arrival of autumn. Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), her younger sister Princess Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s doting beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer Sven, and everyone’s favourite snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) are all living in perfect harmony, culminating in a performance of “Some Things Never Change,” which, frankly, is just asking for trouble.

Soon enough, Elsa begins hearing a mysterious ethereal voice (performed by Norwegian singer AURORA) calling to her from the enchanted forest. When Elsa realises no other Arendellian can hear the siren’s call, she desperately attempts to ignore it. But it’s not long before she heads “Into the Unknown” (aka Elsa’s big belter of a number) and unwittingly awakens the forest’s seemingly dangerous spirits, leading to a hasty evacuation of Arendelle.

After consulting with the wise Trolls leader, Grand Pabbie (Ciarán Hinds), Elsa accepts she must journey into the mist to confront what lies beyond the fog and uncover the truth about the Arendelle’s checkered past. While Elsa initially insists on taking the voyage alone, she can’t stop her faithful sister from tagging along for support. And, naturally, that means the rest of the crew are along for the adventure as well.

From here, Frozen II frustratingly falls into a narrative that’s just a touch too predictable and safe, offering up everything you’re likely expecting with a few twists and turns to keep this sequel relatively fresh. Unsurprisingly, our lovable cast become separated, taking detours into a series of separate challenges that place them in harm’s way where the stakes never quite feel all that high.

But it’s a journey so richly entertaining and dazzlingly animated, it’s easy to overlook the minor follies of writer/co-director Jennifer Lee‘s screenplay. By leaving Arendelle behind, Frozen II succeeds as a necessary sequel by expanding on the origins of its tale and filling in the gaps its predecessor left behind. Even if this sequel was initially financially motivated, Lee refuses to fall into the trap of just rehashing everything previously seen, delivering a new chapter that never once feels anything but a natural and earnest evolution and continuation.

Many will still head into Frozen II bemoaning this follow-up as nothing more than a cash-grab, but Lee deftly proves there was more of this tale to unveil, particularly the film’s refreshing deeper thematic tones. In recent years, Disney have made concerted efforts to offer animated films with relevant issues and this is no exception. While some may despise the politicisation of children’s films, it’s impossible to ignore how Frozen II cleverly tackles the pertinent issue of the next generation dealing with the sins and mistakes of previous generations.

Whether it’s climate change, gender and racial inequality or the long-term effects of colonialism, the current generation is inheriting a heavy load of problems from past generations, which is precisely the predicament Elsa and Anna find themselves in. Unlike most animated films, Frozen II does not have a villain per se, but rather, the evil here is history itself and the ongoing effects the past can have on the future.

But if you’re thinking this sounds like Frozen II is some form of sanctimonious ethics lesson, you can relax. The parallels here are subtle enough to never feel too preachy or overtly obvious, but it’s unmistakable this sequel has something important to say, particularly the power of listening and learning. By mixing its message within plenty of thrilling sequences and goofy humour, your children likely won’t even notice they’re unintentionally absorbing some knowledge while they giggle along.

Much like its predecessor, the majority of giddy humour of Frozen II is delivered by scene-stealer Olaf, whose joyous naivety and endless optimism is just as endearing as it was the first time around. In the original, Gad crafted a classic Disney animated sidekick for the next generation, and he continues to be a source of endless entertainment in the sequel. Naturally, Olaf gets up to all sorts of goofy antics, which will delight younger audiences, particularly one hilarious scene where he furiously reenacts the events of the first film in less than 30 seconds.

Yet, surprisingly, even the little snowman is giving a deeper and more introspective storyline, as he suffers an existential crisis where he grapples with the anxiety of the future and growing older, typified by the playful yet strangely powerful song “When I Am Older.” For little ones fearful of what lies ahead (and, frankly, that’s probably most children these days), this song could prove to be a shining light of hope.

As expected, Frozen II is another glorious testament to the power of sisterhood, as it again focuses on the deep connection between our royal sisters, Elsa and Anna. Repeating a similar trope to the first film, Elsa feels rather restless in Arendelle, which feels a little too repetitive for its own good. But it means we get an engaging exploration of the origin of her powers, answering many questions left unanswered in the original.

Thankfully, this time around, Anna is far more of a co-conspirator to the events of the film, playing on her strengths to glorious effect. She may not have the magical powers of her sister, but the sequel highlights how her gutsy determination and unrelenting loyalty are just as powerful as anything Elsa can dish up. Anna’s romance with Kristoff is still incredibly endearing, but it means the charming woodsman is left with little to do but suffer through a tiresome plotline focusing on his numerous failed attempts to propose to his beloved.

The final piece of the Frozen II puzzle are the songs, with Oscar-winning composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez returning to deliver another Broadway-inspired soundtrack that will undoubtedly sell by the truckload this Christmas. While it remains to be seen if any of the numbers will reach the “Let It Go” stratosphere (“Into the Unknown” likely has the best shot and will be the chosen one for awards season consideration), there are a few highlights amongst a lot of disappointingly forgettable filler tracks.

While Kristoff’s plotline may be rather drab, he’s given a sublime 80s-style power balled in “Lost in the Woods,” which directors Lee and Chris Buck stage like a cheesy 80s music video, complete with a chorus of singing reindeers. This moment is purely for the adults, with the visual gag completely sailing over the heads of the youngsters in the crowd. But the real highlight proves to be the “all is lost” type darker number in “The Next Right Thing,” where the ever-optimist Anna begins to lose hope before finding her strength again.

It’s these darker moments that stand as the truest success of Frozen II and where it sharply deviates from its predecessor. It’s not all doom and gloom, but there are plenty of elements here that may challenge younger viewers. Lee and Buck wisely realise children who adored the original film are now six years older, offering a sequel that accepts its audience has matured and can tolerate equally mature content. It leads to several tear-inducing moments that will have just as many adults reaching for the tissues as their children.

While Disney have remained coy on the budget of Frozen II, it’s clear from the utterly sensational animation they’ve invested even more in crafting this sequel. Whether it’s the stunning water rendering or the gorgeous landscapes, the animation reaches new heights for the studio, offering a sumptuous treat that’s visually dazzling and downright beautiful to behold. And whoever crafted Elsa’s spectacular ever-changing costuming and hairstyles deserves a payrise. Our Queen has never looked better.

The discussion over whether Frozen II surpasses its predecessor will no doubt dominate households over the coming weeks and months. It’s a sequel that demands repeat viewings, and that’s not something one often hears these days. The film expands on everything which preceded it and blazes its own original path, while still honouring what made you fall in love with Arendelle and its many delightful inhabitants.

With a cavalcade of spectacular visuals, a wildly entertaining narrative, and all the uplifting moments Disney do so well, Frozen II is a terrific follow-up well worth the six-year wait. For all the anticipation and hype, this could have been a total disaster, so kudos has to be given to Lee and Buck for actually making this work. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll love revisiting the majesty of this unstoppable franchise. And just try to leave the cinema without wanting to belt out, “Into the unknoooooown.”

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Jeremy Sisto, Ciarán Hinds, Alan Tudyk
Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Producer: Peter Del Vecho
Screenplay: Jennifer Lee
Production Design: Michael Giaimo
Music: Christophe Beck

Editing:  Jeff Draheim
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: 28th November 2019 (Australia)