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Monday, 2 December 2019

Frozen II - Review

Frozen 2 poster.jpg


Who Made Frozen II?

Frozen II was directed and written by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, who directed the original Frozen. Alison Schroeder assisted in writing the script, along with a large story team. 

What's It About?

Three years after the events of the original film, Queen Elsa (Voiced by idina Menzel) is fully accepted as Queen of Arendelle, with her sister Anna (Voiced by Kristen Bell) by her side. However, she is bothered by a mysterious voice, and when she goes to follow it, she ends up accidentally unleashing a set of magical spirits which wreck havoc in Arendelle. In order to fix it, Anna, Elsa and their sidekicks - Anna's boyfriend Kristoff (voiced by Johnathan Groff), childlike talking Snowman Olaf (Vocied by Josh Gad) and Kristoff's reindeer Sven - head to a magical forest which has been closed off from the rest of the world for decades. When they enter, they find a mysterious tribe (the Northuldra) a group of Arendelle soldiers trapped for decades, several mysterious creatures, and some disturbing secrets about their own family....

Review 


(Note: this review contains spoilers. Most key secrets go unrevealed, but a lot of elements are discussed and hinted at, so tread carefully if you want to avoid surprises....)

The unprecedented success of Disney's 2013 animated smash Frozen set an impossibly high bar for Frozen II. Whilst the original film was full of flaws, its memorable characters, timeless but relevant story, big themes and brilliant songs ensured that it captured the imaginations of millions of viewers all over the globe. Was Frozen II able to replicate the magic of the film whose success was a happy accident? Well, Yes and No. The story is a bit of a mess, but the characters, visuals, songs remain strong and the big important themes ensure that it enjoys a substantial fraction of the original's resonance.

The primary problem of Frozen II is that it tries to do too much and lacks the originals simplicity. When you strip away all the treacherous princes and kooky trolls, the first Frozen had a simple story not far removed from other revisionist fairytale films such as Shrek and The Princess Bride. Anna goes on an epic journey, she goes back, there are obstacles both ways, she egts a happy ending. However, Frozen II tries to tell a far larger and more complex story in approximately the same runtime, and this turns out to be a major fault. Pretty much EVERY character from the original appears at some point, and there is a large cast of new additions when Anna and Elsa reach the enchanted forest. These characters, including Northuldra Cheif Yelena (Voiced by Martha Plimton), teenage tribespeople Ryder (Voiced by Jason Ritter) and Honeymaren (Voiced by Rachel Matthews) and former Arendelle soldier Lt.. Matthias (Voiced by Sterling K. Brown) are likeable and have enough unique features to be memorable, but are absent for long stretches. Elsa and Honeymaren have a couple of lovely interactions, but a few more scenes if them together would have strengthened their bond and satisfied the fans clamouring for Elsa to get a girlfriend (a full-blown same-sex romance would have been too much for this film, but the fan demands could have been acknowledged more). Mathias and Yelena share some good chemistry as they go from enemies to allies and advance the anti-prejudice message, but a lack of screentime prevents their arc from getting the development it deserves. There are numerous similarities to Moana (Our leads have to go on a journey to right a wrong done to nature in order to save their kingdom, and are helped and hindered by various nature spirits along the way) but whilst that film could be pretty messy too, it had a much clearer structure which essentially consisted of two humans and a very dumb chicken on a raft. Frozen II has double the number of protagonists and double the number of nature spirits. This means that it rushes through its story quite a bit, which is a mistake in an age where we expect greater character development and less of the plot holes and unanswered questions which frequently appear in traditional fairy tales. Ultimately, it is hard to deny that trimming the character count would have made the story tighter and more efficient.

However, the focus should not be on the supporting characters, but the "Frozen Family". Fortunately, our leads are generally depicted  effectively. Elsa gets a larger role, and her signature anxiety is mixed with greater level of confidence in her powers. The woman who spent the first film running away from her problems is now running towards them, and this is great to watch. Anna is a more serious character this time, although still prone to the odd silly moment. She and Elsa get to interact far more often than they did in the first film, and their love for each other is front and centre of the film. Of the leads, Kristoff probably fares the worst. The film mostly focuses on his attempts to propose to Anna, and her misunderstanding his awkward attempts at getting to the point. Whilst he gets some amusing lines, this feels a bit one-note, and he vanishes during the third quarter of the film, like most of the supporting cast. However, Olaf cements his status as a star character, and is probably even funnier than he was in the original film. Although the streak of dark humour from the first Frozen has mostly gone (Olaf is no longer at risk of melting), his wacky eccentric person personality generates plenty of laughs. His thirst for knowledge and refusal to shut up are very relatable for parents, and his uniquely over the top summary of the first Frozen is far and away the comedic highlight of the film. Anna and Elsa's parents have an expanded role, with new voice actors. Evan Rachel Wood gets to showcase her singing ability as Queen Iduna, and we learn more about how she ended up Queen of Arendelle. Whilst the casting of Alfred Molina as King Agnarr raises a few eyebrows (was he hired for his considerable talent and experience or his very close friendship with director Jennifer Lee?), he brings warmth and gravitas to his short appearance. People who love the original Frozen for Anna and Elsa's sibling bind will find plenty to enjoy here, and the numerous revelations about their past provide the extra layers to fans to analyse with their usual zeal.

There are plenty of impressive action sequences, but several feel a little rushed. The devastation of Arendelle could have been truly powerful and disturbing with more screentime, and a scene where Elsa battles a magical fire should have been expanded on too. However, the action scenes get stronger as the film progresses . Elsa's full battle with the Nokk is even more impressive than it was in the spectacular trailers, and the climax is full of wonderful imagery as Elsa's powers are showcased in a variety of ways. There are also plenty of creative visuals, with the Autumn scenery of the forest providing a more diverse colour scheme than the original film, and some icy imagery late in which makes the iconic Ice Palace from the first film seem tiny in comparison. There is also some effective camera work, with the camera following autumn leaves and providing some creative shots as the characters undertake their journey. Overall, Frozen II lives up to the epic experience promised by the trailers and promotional material.

For all of Frozen II's flaws, it improves rapidly during the second half, where the gentle and relaxed tone of the early scenes is replaced by something deeper, darker and more impressive. In particular, we are treated to an incredible scene where Elsa discovers the secret of her powers and family history. She ends up in an icy world of memories where she meets a few old friends and enemies, before fans are treated to a moment where her father explains he is reading a book by "some Danish author" (guess who?). However, the scene turns from joyous to horrifying as Elsa learns about the crime which led to the disappearance of the enchanted forest. Frozen II doesn't really have a villain to drive the conflict, but the sins of the past provide a level of drama and urgency which make the second half more focused and engaging. 

The songs are good on their own terms - they may not be as "special" as "Let It Go" was, but they are catchy enough to stick in the memory and are good enough to be listened to again and again after seeing the film. However, one weakness is the fact that many of them don't advance the story in the way that Frozen's best songs did. "Lost In The Woods" is a fun pastiche of cheesy 80s rock ballads (the sort you would associate with Chicago or Meat Loaf) , but it is so focused on emulating their music videos that it doesn't really add to the story. Olaf's "When I'm Older" has the sound and feel of a song from a 60s Disney Film, and is charmingly whimsical. "Some Things Never Change" has a more modern pop sound, and like "For the First Time in Forever", effectively contrasts Anna's happiness with Elsa's more serious view on life.

Whilst these songs are fun, the soundtrack features a greater volume of serious songs, and these are the best ones in the lineup. The opening song is an atmospheric folk ballad called "all is found" which is effectively repeated across the film. Elsa's first big songs, "Into the Unknown" is closest in sound to the songs from the original, with its piano hook and soaring chorus, but her other big power ballad "Show Yourself" is even more impressive. Frozen II's soundtrack concludes with a big eleven o'clock song for Anna called "The Next Right Thing", which starts with heartbreaking depression and grief, but has a powerful and hopeful finish as Anna resolves to set things right by herself. Whilst the more commercially minded "Into the Unknown" is the flagship song, it is the last two songs which are the best of a lineup that is a worthy successor to the Frozen soundtrack. 

One of Frozen II's specific strengths is the more detailed discussion of its environmental themes. The nature spirits are more developed than they were in Moana, actively leading Anna and Elsa to the truth in a variety of ways. The magical creatures in the forest, including the imposing earth Giants, the mysterious water horse the  Nokk and the cute but firey salamander Bruni, all contribute effectively to this journey, and Anna and Elsa's growing connection with nature is as important as the human relarionships showcased throughout the film. In an age where environmental issues are becoming increasingly important, Frozen II's depiction of the value of nature and the consequences of disrespecting it feels powerfully resonant. It's not hard to see contemporary relevance in Olaf reacting to freak weather phenomenons by saying "This Is Fine" and pointing out "advancing technology is our saviour and our doom". Elsewhere, the ecological threats which Arendelle faces strike close to the bone in an age of floods and hurricanes.  However, as dark as things get in the second half, we can expect our two sisters to put things right in spectacular fashion - It is a Disney film, after all. 

Ultimately, Frozen II often represents an example of "what could have been" - there are so many good ideas and interesting premises that a lot of the fun for fans and viewers comes from trying to make a more adult and focused film (or TV series) out of these pieces. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the same is also true of Disney favourites such as The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the original Frozen. However, Frozen II's messier story prevents it from reaching the heights of the best Disney films. If the quality of Frozen II's last half had been spread across the whole film, then it would be one of the all-time Disney greats. In its current form, Frozen II is in the "good but not great" category. It is superior to Ralph Breaks the Internet, their last overstuffed sequel, but demonstrates that Disney Animation need to return to a simpler and smaller approach if they want to reach the heights of their classic output. However, even second-tier Disney is worth watching, and Frozen II has enough merit to ensure that it will gain plenty of fans. 

Conclusion

Like the first Frozen, Frozen II brings new meaning to the term "refrigerator movie" - the story doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, but the visuals, songs and characters are strong enough to paper over the flaws and provide an enjoyable film with plenty for Frozen fans and casual viewers. Frozen II often bites off more than it can chew, but maintains the bold and modern spirit of the original film, and there are plenty of incredible moments which make the film worth sticking with. Frozen II is worthy family viewing, and will stand the test if time reasonably well. 

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