'Frozen 2' Falls Far Short of the Original's Charm

Walt Disney Pictures

When I first saw an early screening of Frozen back in 2013, there was little hype around the film. "Let it Go" hadn't become ubiquitous yet. Elsa and Anna hadn't been transformed into Halloween costumes. The cute snowman Olaf just seemed like a cute snowman and not a creature designed to terrorize parents for decades to come. And from the moment I heard the first strains of the chant that starts before the Disney logo even hits this screen, I felt my heart swell. Frozen was structured like an animated musical in the style of Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid, a form that it seemed like the company had almost totally abandoned save for an outlier like Tangled. As a nerd with a soft spot for ostentatious musicals -- especially ones featuring Idina Menzel singing power ballads about magic and her relationships with other women -- I absolutely adored Frozen, a clever, feminist-y spin on the princess story with some great tunes. 

Frozen quickly went from being a charming movie musical to a massive corporate product, putting a lot of pressure on the sequel to live up to the inevitable hype. I give you this preamble to explain that I went into Frozen 2 eager to be enchanted once again, but too quickly my enthrallment faded. Frozen 2 is not an embarrassing follow-up by any means, but it loses its luster somewhere along the way thanks to overly expositional dialogue, a muddled plot, and one too many subpar songs. 

Writer-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee -- who conceived the story along with animator Marc Smith and songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez -- decide to double down on the mythology of the story's setting as a way to explain the source of Elsa's ability to conjure ice. Whereas in the first movie Arendelle is a generic Nordic kingdom that associates with trolls, here it's a veritable Lord of the Rings-style universe. 

frozen 2
Walt Disney Pictures

Once again, the plot opens with a flashback to Elsa and Anna's childhood. Here, however, their mother Iduna (now voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) and father Agnarr (Alfred Molina) tell them a story about a magical land outside the kingdom occupied by a community of people called the Northuldra who have the ability to commune with the spirits of the elements. When the Agnarr was a boy, he was brought to a meeting between the Northuldra and the leaders of Arendelle to celebrate a dam the latter built for the former. Fighting broke out, but the source of the conflict was never revealed. Agnarr was saved by an unseen force, but the region was plunged into a mist that trapped any creature inside, a serious overreaction from the elemental beings that loom over the space. After the children are told this horrifying tale, their mother sings them a lullaby about a river that holds the answers to life's mysteries. 

If that's a lot to process, well, you've hit on the essential problem with Frozen 2, which bulks up in messy ways that divert from any meaningful character development. Elsa (Menzel), after the adventures of the first film, is now reigning as queen of Arendelle, while Anna (Kristen Bell) is palling around with her boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and, yes, Olaf (Josh Gad). Everything's hunky dory, as evidenced in the production number "Some Things Never Change," a tune about inertia that feels inert itself. The plot really kicks off when Elsa starts hearing a beautiful voice (Norwegian pop star AURORA) calling to her. Drawn in by the sound, she sings "Into the Unknown," this Frozen's attempt to recreate "Let It Go." Menzel's vocals are undeniably stirring as she ramps up to hitting her remarkable E-flat, while Lopez and Anderson-Lopez's melody intensifies in the most thrilling moments the score has to offer. 

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But "Into the Unknown" also feels like a high hit a little too early in the narrative, and that fear bears out once the adventure actually gets going. The whole crew heads out to the forest to support Elsa on her quest, and when they pierce the mist they find a stranded community made up of people from both Northuldra and Arendelle. It's a haunting scene that's quickly interrupted by some Olaf antics and a throwback-style love song for Kristoff (and Sven). Thank goodness Broadway star Groff gets a chance to belt this time around, even if the sequence is decidedly goofy in a way that feels at odds with everything save for Olaf.

Ah, yes, Olaf. One of Frozen's strengths is its restraint in using Olaf, who doesn't show up until halfway through the movie. Here, he's given center stage -- to the delight of children and agony of any adult in a 10-mile radius. At the screening I attended we were told to stick around for a post-credits scene. Guess what? It's more Olaf, recounting the plot of the movie we all had just seen. 

Frozen 2 is quick to veer into sensory overload, touching on various allegories without ever committing to one. There are nods to climate change and the destruction of indigenous people's lands, but ultimately it ends up slightly tweaking the themes of the first film. Elsa, in gleaning her family's history, must come to accept the full extent of her powers; Anna must learn to love Elsa for who she is.  

Every so often, a moment in Frozen 2 cuts through the noise of the stilted dialogue and overwrought backstory. The animation fractures into art deco crystals, and the score hits on a soaring strain. Elsa tames a spirit in the form of a horse made out of water. But too often this sequel just proves that sometimes simplicity is stronger than a whole lot of lore. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.