Being overwhelmed by its status as a pop culture phenomenon, it's easy to forget how terrific a film 'Frozen' actually is. Released in 2013 after almost a decade of lacklustre Disney animated films, it came like a bolt from the blue - a classical combination of grand storytelling, strong characters, charming music and a strong cinematic sense of visual and emotional scale. Even now, there's something undeniably thrilling about it; a film that connects with the legacy of the art form while embracing the future, both through the kind of stories we tell and the way in which we tell them. Rather than rushing straight into a sequel, 'Frozen 2' has been in careful development, and now directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have returned to Arendelle to continue the story.
Elsa (Idina Menzel) is now comfortable as the Queen of Arendelle, and Anna (Kristen Bell, TV's 'The Good Place') has settled into her life with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, 'Mindhunter'), his reindeer Sven and newly permafrosted snowman Olaf (Josh Gad, 'Murder on the Orient Express'). Their stability is threatened when Elsa begins to hear a voice carried on the winds from the North, one that could be connected to both Elsa's past and the sudden attacks of nature against Arendelle itself. Together, they set off to find the source of the voice through the dangerous and mythical enchanted forest, hoping to find not just the truth about their past but the past of their people.
'Frozen 2' continues to hold the relationship between Elsa and Anna at its heart, in this case exploring the responsibilities siblings have to one another, and while this relationship had such a clear focus in the first film, the machinations of the plot Lee and Buck have constructed here threatens to overwhelm what's going on at the heart of the film. The narrative doesn't begin from a strong foundation, and while 'Frozen 2' is as remarkable a technical achievement as its predecessor (in many ways even more so), the story isn't as robust as it could have been. The film is too full of plot, proposing interesting threads that eventually just petter out. Much of it connects back to Elsa, but as exposition rather than character, so her transformation within the film feels imposed instead of organic. It's also convoluted at times, trying to cram in large amounts of new information without enough space for any of it to land properly. This ends up becoming the main fault of the film - trying to do too much and ultimately not achieving much at all.
SWITCH: 'FROZEN 2' TRAILER
That said, the film still ostensibly works. At the very least, it doesn't attempt to replicate the original (apart from a few songs that feel a touch derivative), and the universe they've constructed within these two films is a really strong one. The narrative might not feel sturdy but the canvas certainly does, the creative team expanding on who and what can exist within this world and how those elements can complement one another. It's certainly far more considered and carefully crafted than the nightmare sensory assault of the ghastly 'Ralph Breaks the Internet', and though the story feels lacking, there's a strong sense that this is a world and characters still worth exploring.
It's also tremendously entertaining, handling comedy far better than the first film does (none of that stupid and over-gesticulated Weaseltown business). Olaf becomes the unexpected MVP of the film, responsible for some of the funnier and more unexpected moments of the film. He is still getting his grip on what being alive means and how the world works, not dissimilar to Forky in 'Toy Story 4', and he approaches everything with an optimistic honesty that's endearing and hilarious. The pressures of creating a sequel to a beloved modern classic don't prevent the film from having fun when it can, and there's plenty of wit and slapstick comedy to connect with both kids and adults. The music is also mostly pretty strong, though while it was clear from the start that the music from the first film was destined to be iconic, nothing here suggests the same fate. Jonathan Groff does get a chance to sing this time though, with his 80s-inspired power ballad becoming one of the highlight sequences of the film.
The narrative doesn't begin from a strong foundation, and while 'Frozen 2' is as remarkable a technical achievement as its predecessor... the story isn't as robust as it could have been.
The voice work is also pretty strong, though as with the original, it is Kristen Bell and Josh Gad that stand out. Elsa might get the grander arc and the bigger songs, but Anna is the heart of these films, much of that coming from the inherent warmth, wit and humanity of Bell. Her vocal performance gives the film an emotional depth lacking in the dialogue and the narrative, and in the end, the film feels far more about Anna than Elsa. It's just further proof that there's something undeniably magical about Kristen Bell, her sense of wonder and optimism and passion for her craft. Josh Gad though almost steals the film as Olaf, giving a far wittier and knowing performance than last time but without any sense of ego or dangerous self-awareness. He's having so much fun with this character, and that fun is infectious to watch. He even manages to make gags work that in any other circumstance should have fallen flat on their face. Gad hasn't had much luck finding his place in any other film projects, but he excels here.
While 'Frozen 2' isn't as strong a film as I had hoped it would be, I wouldn't go so far as to call it a disappointment. It's still incredibly entertaining and I found myself engaged throughout. These films do have an undeniable charm, and outside of the now-completed 'How to Train Your Dragon' trilogy, 'Moana' and Laika's 'Missing Link', these are the only major American animated films attempting the use the form to create a cinematic experience. It is a pity that the story never finds its feet; a combination of this level of craft and a real ripper of a yarn would have made this a slam-dunk. As it stands though, the magic of the 'Frozen' franchise is still there - dimmed, but there nonetheless.