We have seen it thousands of times in our lives but it has never felt more menacing than it does now.
I am speaking of the digital version of the Disney logo, in which the camera swoops down from Cinderella’s castle, roaming over river and dale like a hungry vulture. It runs before the start of Frozen 2, the forthcoming box office behemoth that will be holding the company’s water until the next one—Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—debuts in a month.
What for much of our lives felt like an invitation to magical wonder, in the days following the Disney+ takeover of our streaming habits, registers more like a declaration of lands conquered as well as something of an implied threat. The House of Mouse has long controlled our childhoods, our imaginations, our imaginations of childhood, and our debit cards. What could possibly be next?
After spending most of its existence convincing young women that someday their prince will come, Disney made an off-brand yet largely successful play for women’s empowerment with 2013‘s Frozen. With that film’s inevitable sequel, the filmmakers—returning directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, working from a script by Lee, who also serves as the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios—seem less interested in the easily meme-able and hummable girl power that made the first film so meaningful for so many.
Instead, they have chosen to commit themselves to a rather complicated if not particularly memorable story that revolves around the sins of the lead characters’ grandparents. The overstuffed tale, structured Tolkien-like as a perilous quest by a party of adventurers, involves a 35-year-old infrastructure project, an enchanted forest sealed off from the rest of the world by an impenetrable fog, and a mysterious voice that keeps the headstrong ice queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) perpetually distracted as if she’s getting texts throughout the whole movie.
Both the songs (once again written by two-time Oscar-winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) and the relationships between the characters—strong points of the original film—register with less energy and originality this time around.
FROZEN 2 ★★
Yes, the most dynamic pairing is the sisters; unfortunately, all the energy flows entirely in one direction. Anna (Kristen Bell) is obsessed with the well-being of Elsa, whose mind is on the more pressing matter of calming the nature spirits threatening to lay waste to Arendelle. The problem is so pronounced that Anna is unable to notice the absolute devotion expressed towards her by Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). Anna’s dedication towards her sister is less admirable than it is an adult manifestation of childhood trauma that is keeping her from moving forward; it requires less a splashy song than some serious time on the therapist’s couch.
The silken-voiced Groff gets a sensitive power ballad in “Lost in the Wood,” a sequence presented in the style of an early ’90s hair band video. This meta joke, more fitting in style with the humor of Dreamworks Animation movies, played gangbusters in the crowded movie theater where I saw the film, though it was hard to tell if at least some of the cheesiness people were laughing at in the cliché-ridden song was unintentional. Mendel, one of the defining Broadway voices of our time, shows the ability to go from throat-lozenge slick to fire hose powerful with barely an upshift, letting it go to great effect with “Into the Great Unknown.”
The problem is that, while the visuals sometimes have stunning beauty and motion, there is little on screen or in the soundtrack that feels truly unknown, or carries any of the freshness of the snow that covers Elsa’s kingdom. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few surprises: Josh Gad’s Olaf is emotionally adroit and full of fast changes and unexpected beats. Gad, who adds comic spark to the otherwise pedestrian “When I Am Older,” has helped give life to a character whose steadfastness and open-hearted vulnerability has made him a worthy comedy successor to Burt Lahr’s Cowardly Lion.
It’s just that the world that surrounds the sentient snowman feels all too familiar, and the ideas expressed in the film are intended to fulfill built-in expectations rather than challenge us or buck long-held princess film conventions the way the first movie did so memorably. As a result, Frozen 2 has no special message to impart beyond the obvious: it’s Disney’s woods—and we’re just lost in them.