By Jeffrey Sanzel
In 2013, Disney released Frozen, a computer-animated musical fantasy. Loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, it was the story of two sisters, Elsa and Anna, and a journey of deep discovery. Visually stunning, with a powerful message of “true love” not being connected to marrying a prince, the film was an international sensation.
The voice talents of Idina Menzel as Elsa, the princess with the power, and Kristen Bell as Anna, the sibling on a quest, were perfectly supported by Santino Fontana as the seemingly ideal prince, Jonathan Groff as a self-deprecating ice harvester, and a hilarious Josh Gad as the slightly manic snowman obsessed with summer. The delightful score, by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, spawned the anthem “Let It Go.”
Joining the latter-day classics such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, Frozen quickly became an international phenomena, grossing over $1.2 billion. The only surprise is that it took six years for a sequel. Frozen II reunites Menzel, Bell, Groff and Gad, along with a host of additional voice artists.
The film opens hopefully with King Agnarr of Arendelle (Alfred Molina) relating the story of the Enchanted Forest to his young daughters, Elsa (voiced by Mattea Conforti) and Anna (an adorable Hadley Gannaway). It sets up the plot of Agnarr’s grandfather, King Runeard (Jeremy Sisto), and a treaty-gone-wrong with the tribe of Northuldra, a clan that posses a deep magic of which the Arendelle are suspicious.
The film then goes forward to pick up three years after the previous film. Elsa (Menzel) is queen and keeping her wintry powers in check. Anna (Bell) is a free-spirited princess, now courted by the smitten Kristoff (Groff) who spends most of his screen time attempting to propose, egged on by his reliable reindeer friend, Sven (also voiced by Groff).
What ensues is a complicated mythology involving the elemental spirits of earth, fire, water and air — and a fifth, unnamed element that becomes clear about half-way through. It is a convoluted folklore that is resolved a bit too simply. Ultimately, what is lacking in the plot is true conflict.
Much of Frozen was driven by the friction and misunderstanding of characters in action — all trying desperately to get what they want — building up to several powerful revelations. They were human and flawed and that made them all the more wonderful. The underlying theme was threaded throughout, and the climax was the wholly satisfying result of overcoming challenges and solving problems. Frozen II substitutes genuine tension and depth for a string of incidents and “adventures” that just don’t build to any surprises.
The sequel is now without its entertaining moments, and the score (by Lopez and Lopez-Anderson), while not approaching the first’s innovation and delight, is more than serviceable. Gad shines as the chatterbox Olaf, and a highlight is the snowman’s recapping of the entire first movie. It’s a delightful bit of madcap in a film that is sorely lacking moments of humor. Unlike the first that found a wryness even in the darkest moments, Frozen II feel relentlessly serious.
The additional voice artists are not as well-served as they should be, with some very talented performers given what amounts to glorified cameos: Molina, Sisto, Evan Rachel Wood, Martha Plimpton and Jason Ritter barely register. It is not so much the length of their screen time but the quality. Sterling K. Brown’s lieutenant shows great promise but is unfortunately not developed nearly enough.
There are several pieces that are clearly envisioned toward promotional items. The fire element turns out to be a very cute froglike creature that will no doubt be making its debut in Happy Meals across the country. Rock monsters and water horses are ideal of stickers and folders and whatever else the marketing department can dream up. And what is cuter than a reindeer? Lots of reindeers.
Pictorially, it is breathtaking. The images are beautiful, and there is never a false or inconsistent moment in its landscape. The characters are animated with honesty and project genuine emotion. The fantastic elements are gloriously realized in a true rainbow of variety. But it is this triumph of style over substance that makes the movie fall short on its ability to engage. The film feels not just long but stretched. The scenes meander and then seem to be repeated again 10 minutes later. There is a great deal of padding in the 100+ minutes.
Conceptually, Frozen II probably seemed to be a great idea on paper and, certainly, in its artists’ eyes, it is. One could just wish for a little more fire under the snow.