The Second Time Around Isn’t Quite So Warm
To my way of reasoning Disney’s 2013 Frozen (like 2010’s Tangled before it) was so successful because it found a way to do something very important, whether viewers were consciously aware of it or not. See, even though Disney’s name has been stamped on CG production from the very beginning (think Toy Story), the truth is the company didn’t quite know what to make of this new medium that came out of seemingly nowhere. In fact, in those early years Disney was convinced the future still lied in 2D hand drawn animation while the computer generated fad would fizzle.
In the years that followed they actually farmed out their CG work to other studios (this is how we got films like The Wild, Valiant and Chicken Little) while focusing their big budgets on traditionally animated pieces. Well hindsight is always 2020 and, we now know that this computer generated imagery is no passing fad. Disney knows this too but for them, making the transition wasn’t quick or easy. They improved with films like Bolt and Meet the Robinsons but it wasn’t until Tangled in 2010 that they really managed to find their rhythm. We finally had a 3D computer generated animated film that actually felt like classic Disney pictures.
That brings us to the original Frozen. It took everything that made Tangled so endearing and built upon it. Once again it followed the old 2D Diz formula to perfection – A classic fairy tale given the modern treatment, musical numbers, well integrated humor, great sidekicks etc. All of this leads to an inevitable question and observation: Did we really need a sequel to so well constructed a stand-alone film? And why have Disney’s 2D animated sequels never managed to be a fraction as successful as the originals?
Whether we needed it or not, we got the sequel to Frozen in 2019’s Frozen II, the 58th animated film produced by the studio, and represents the return of directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, producer Peter Del Vecho, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and composer Christophe Beck.
It cost $150-million to make and returned a staggering $1.45-billion at the global box office (compared to the first’s $150-million budget and $1.28-billion return). Whether the world needed a sequel was answered affirmatively and clearly the new generation is not concerned about Disney’s shaky record with 2D sequels.
The story this time finds a slightly more mature Anna and Queen Elsa, amid the mundane reality of governing a kingdom, when a strange voice begins appearing to Elsa. The voice seems to be luring her north to a magical land their father told them about when they were little. This land, they are told through a flashback, is where their grandfather went years before to make peace with the native people there (even going so far as to build them a dam). Only rather than gratitude, he was met with betrayal. The resulting battle between the inhabitants of the two lands was such that the elementals had to intervene and shrouded the entire area in an impenetrable dome of mist.
While this all sounds quite dramatic in summary, the truth of the matter is the film takes an abnormally long while to get underway. In fact the first quarter of the piece could best be described as “meandering”, with expository scenarios coupled to a slow paced sequence of the lead characters playing charades, with a total of four songs ungracefully dumped upon viewer, in one instance two literally back to back.
Once the grand adventure does finally begin, the stakes feel abnormally low at best and vague at worst. I kept waiting for some clever plot twist, for the arrival of some treacherous villain to raise the sense of peril, for, well anything that solidified the need for these characters to resurface on the big screen. Sadly, none manifested. In fact, the tale largely plays it very safe, relying upon odd characterizations to make up for the lack of plotting. Olaf gets a lot more screen time here and, though a personal favorite character of mine, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. His newborn innocence in the first film is really milked for all its worth here; his curiosity having at some point evolved into a literal existential quest for the meaning of life in relation to age and wisdom.
Then there’s Anna – what in the world happened to her? Perhaps the film’s creators were looking to tap into the very real threat of human hormonal fluctuations affecting emotions but it manifests itself here as little more than moody and snappy. I am all for further developing beloved characters but it works against Anna in this case by knowing she would end up so bratty in the years to follow, some of the charm of her character in the first film falters.
Once we can overcome these objections, we can get back into the meat of the tale itself, though in all honesty, this one is more bone than it is tender steak. The colorful, sometimes trippy journey introduces a bunch of mythical and mystical concepts: standing stones, elemental forces, time-warping glaciers, natives and outsiders, a supernatural dome of fog… But ultimately comes off as feeling obstacles were created merely to be overcome. Betrayals occur just to be pardoned. Contrivances appear to keep the plot meandering forward. Couple all of these things to a rather rushed and cliche climax and it makes the aimless beginning of the film even more curious.
Production qualities, like any big budget Disney film, are outstanding. The visuals have actually improved over the first (the water in some segments is so lifelike as to be photo-realistic) and the lighting work is superb. Voice cast and direction are impeccable as is the whimsical score. The original soundtrack, however, is nowhere near as memorable as the first film’s.
All in all, Frozen II manages to fall into the pitfalls Disney always seems to suffer in its sequel attempts- most notable of these, ample justification for a return to form in the first place. I may be in the minority here but I think what they need to do is follow the traditional three-act play structure whereby the first film serves as the introduction to the characters and their world with enough resolution to be considered a stand-alone. The second film should raise the stakes, end on a down note in fact. Then the third should be the big pay-off. That, at least, would justify sequels that build upon the original rather than these that feel like made-for-tv side quests with full ticket prices.
Like always, in these instances, I do have to look at this piece aware of the fact that I am by no means Disney’s target demographic with Frozen II. As such, the youngsters who loved the first and represented all of the licensed merchandise will likely just be thrilled to be reunited with the characters they love. Parents, too, will surely be relieved simply to hear new songs over and over again. I find much of the charm of the original to be lacking here and regret, in the desire to return to this gang and their unique world, not simply having watched the first one twice.