After the colossal success of Frozen, Disney’s 2013 princess blockbuster to end all blockbusters, audiences should be well aware of the mythic kingdom of Arendelle. In this haven among the icy fjords, Queen Elsa (played by Idina Menzel) and her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), have lived in peace since completing their last adventure, which revolved around Elsa’s magical powers and Anna’s poor taste in visiting princes. But hark! As Frozen II begins, Elsa starts hearing a strange noise from the north, echoing out of an enchanted forest enveloped in fog. What could lie beyond those mists? Why, it’s the siren song of sequel money!
Though Disney has never been averse to revisiting a story for profit, continuations of its cartoon features used to be direct-to-video. Frozen II is, in fact, the company’s first-ever theatrical sequel to an animated princess film, so it has a high bar to clear simply to justify its existence. Previous follow-ups were capers like The Rescuers Down Under and Ralph Breaks the Internet; as another Disney project recently proved, it’s difficult to write new chapters for fairy tales with definitive endings. But Frozen was such an unprecedented smash that these omens were ignored, sending Elsa and Anna (and the directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck) into the enchanted forest’s mystical haze.
The result is a convoluted, sporadically sensical, occasionally trippy film that can’t quite find a purpose amid all the manic world-building. Frozen II will make plenty of money and surely satisfy the younger audiences it’s mostly aimed at, but even as someone who enjoyed the ’90s-musical throwback of the first Frozen, I found little to relish this time around. Yes, it has the brassy ballads and sparkly one-liners that helped define the “Disney Renaissance” style to which Frozen paid homage. But the sequel doesn’t build on what made the first movie so agreeable.
For one thing, the original film’s central theme—the power of sisterly bonds—is repeated in Frozen II with minimal variation. Elsa, now confident in exploring the outer limits of her ice sorcery, is once again tempted to leave her kingdom and face danger on her own, while Anna, who is less magical but more sensible and social, tries to rein her in. The narrative arc of the sisters’ journey north is buried in whole snowdrifts of backstory about the past colonial sins of Anna and Elsa’s frosty kingdom.
It would be heartening to see this film grapple with the simplistic feudal politics of so many Disney classics, if the script could do so coherently. But Frozen II is too beholden to formula to dig deep. After all, it has to devote a chunk of time to Olaf (Josh Gad), the wisecracking snowman bumbling alongside our heroes, who’s designed to earn laughs from the kids but deserves only eye rolls from anyone else. There are also further efforts to delve into Elsa’s supernatural background, embellishing a story arc that already felt complete.
As in the original, the songs were composed by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who also contributed to the music of Coco. But there’s nothing here on the level of the team’s Oscar winners, “Let It Go” and “Remember Me.” The biggest banger of Frozen II is “Into the Unknown,” a honking solo from Elsa about the lure of the great beyond, which features the requisite number of soaring key changes from Menzel. Still, it doesn’t quite have that magic Disney mix of earworm melody and thematically resonant lyrics; given how early in the film it comes, it almost feels like Elsa is vainly trying to sell the audience on the story’s relevance.
The song I most enjoyed was a rather ridiculous power ballad titled “Lost in the Woods,” sung by Anna’s moose-riding boyfriend, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). Despite his proven Broadway talent, Groff was robbed of a proper song in the first Frozen. The sequel makes up for that by giving him something straight out of the Jim Steinman songbook: a forlorn mountaineer ditty that is presented with every music-video cliché in the book. This campy fun, along with Kristoff’s chummy reliability, helps to lighten up a plot that’s otherwise weighed down by elaborate exposition.
Frozen II sometimes gets impressionistic enough to reach the heights of its forebear, which was at its best when Elsa cut loose and made towering ice sculptures to symbolize her loneliness. A couple of sequences see the queen skiing across a raging ocean, encountering water spirits in the shape of horses, and exploring caverns of crystalline memories. Those standout moments, reliant on music and visuals, hit harder than the bulk of the dialogue. Most of the time, though, this elaborate plot doesn’t yield anything remotely original. Frozen II may be big and expensive-looking, but it has no more reason to exist than the direct-to-DVD offerings Disney used to churn out.