Disney’s Frozen has remained an impressive cultural phenomenon since it hit theaters in 2013. We’ve now had six years of little girls dressing like Anna and (mostly) Elsa, and carrying around stuffed versions of Olaf the snowman and Sven the reindeer. Usually there’s some lag time between the first and second films in a franchise — not just calendar-wise, but in the public consciousness. Somehow, even though it’s been more than half a decade between Frozen and this weekend’s Frozen II, when the opening credits roll, it feels like no time has passed at all.
Perhaps that familiarity is responsible for a certain amount of coasting where parts of Frozen II are concerned. The movie has some truly gut-punching emotional moments in it, but it also suffers greatly from sequel-itis. The songs aren’t as instantly catchy as in the first film. There are lots of unnecessary references to Frozen’s plot points and characters, and some odd self-awareness about the nature of sequels that seems out-of-place with the movies’ overall style. Fortunately, Frozen II’s plot still manages to go to some worthwhile dramatic places, and has a surprising dark streak that builds on some of the more interesting aspects of the first film.
Frozen II begins with a flashback in which we see a little more of Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) childhood in Arendelle, and their royal parents, King Runeard and Queen Iduna (Jeremy Sisto and Evan Rachel Wood), before their death. Runeard tells the girls about a nearby magical forest he visited as a boy with his father, and its human inhabitants, who mysteriously vanished after a battle with Arendelle’s royal guard. The mystery of the forest and the people who live there becomes central to Anna and Elsa’s new adventure.
In the present, everything seems to be going wonderfully, with Arendelle under Elsa’s rule and Anna and Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) happily in love. Of course, that doesn’t stay the case for long. Elsa is distracted by a mysterious siren call from the magical forest. Thinking that the source of the mysterious song might have something to do with the source of Elsa’s icy magic, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad) head into the wild. What they find has larger implications about Arendelle’s past, and consequences for its future.
Frozen II retains the female empowerment and family bonds that made Frozen so good, but creatively speaking, it often feels like the second film is riding the coattails of the first. The many visual touchstones meant to remind audiences of the parts we liked from the first film feel like a lazy emotional appeal. The songs, by returning songwriting team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, try to hit the same beats as the first film’s, but are a little too lyrically complex to hit the earworm status of “Let it Go” or “Love is an Open Door.” The plot expands the world of Arendelle and its surroundings, but the central conflict is also harder to grasp, with developments that address issues the first film seemed to deal with pretty cleanly.
However, once Frozen II finally hits its stride, it shows an impressive emotional maturity. The movie hits on very real feelings of grief and depression, with one song in particular that has a hopeful message, but also goes to some dark places and stays there longer than the first Frozen dared to. The movie also contains messages of social justice, reconciliation and trying to do right by others that have the potential to resonate strongly with its young target audience.
On the whole, Frozen II still feels like the market-demanded sequel we know it to be. However, it’s worth noting that despite the parts of it that were more than likely the result of studio notes, there’s still an emotional core worth appreciating. It’s a retread, yes, but it’s not a blind cash-grab. Or at least it’s a blind cash-grab made with a modicum of care for the DNA that made Frozen what it is.