You have to applaud the bravery of directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (the latter also wrote the screenplay) who took on the challenge of crafting a sequel to arguably the biggest animated hit of the last decade, Frozen.
Bestriding the cultural landscape in late 2014 and well into 2015 like a musically-inclined T-Rex stomping all in its path, Frozen was damn near ubiquitous, with merchandise seemingly on every aisle of every store, “Let It Go” blasting out of every speaker, and parents everywhere wondering when their dear little poppets would tire of Elsa’s icy existential angst, Anna’s sisterly concern and Olaf’s wisecracking adorableness.
The answer was of course “NEVER” which is why Disney, in its infinite bottom line-considering wisdom, commissioned a sequel, a slam dunk from a commercial perspective but rife with all kinds of risks from a creative standpoint.
After all, how do you top a storyline that had everything from emotional resonance, beguiling characters and songs so good that their writers, husband and wife team, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, won an Academy Award for their efforts.
The answer it appears is to go bigger and darker, to take the original adventure and make them more epic, more impacting, with far more consequence.
Is that a big risk for a feature film aimed squarely at young kids (and adults who refuse to let their inner child scarper off to that long-forgotten playground deep in their soul), and granted there are likely kids who will find it all a bit too intense and scary, but by and large Frozen 2 triumphantly builds on an exquisitely well-executed base to deliver a sequel that may not match the original but which is an impressive effort as sequels go.
For a start, it doesn’t just simply repeat ad nauseum what came before.
After all, our characters are well established so any kind of riffing on a basic origin tale would not have worked; what they do instead is expand the palate considerably, take the adventure into the misty realms of the sealed-off Enchanted Forest, a place inhabited by the Northuldra tribe, and overseen and protected by the elemental spirits of earth, fire, water, and air, and then to the far off land of Ahtohallan wherein lies a river in which all the answers of the past are available.
With that as the film’s premise, the narrative was never going to be as simple as Frozen‘s trip up a snowy mountain and down again.
As an origin story it worked a treat – simple enough to be accessible and yet emotionally rich enough to make an unsealable bond with audiences, one it executed so effectively that people didn’t just like the characters in Frozen, they came to see them as friends and family, ones with perfect pitch and the ability to summon immensely catchy songs from the ether.
Frozen 2 takes all that connection and runs mightily with it, taking Elsa (Idina Menzel), Anna (Kristen Bell), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad) and Sven into the depths of the Enchanted Forest and onto Ahtohallan hoping we’ll be happy to come along with the characters come what may.
And, of course, we do, not simply because we are sitting in the cinema and have paid good money to be there but because the bond between Anna and Elsa, and their made family of Kristoff, Olaf and Sven is so strong, both within and without (with us) that you’ll happily follow them wherever they may lead.
Helping make what is in many respects a very serious journey a little more fun to be on are the oneliners of Olaf whose presence leavens many a densely-emotional scene with some much-needed levity and goofy silliness.
The genius is that while Olaf quips and humourously observes away, not one ounce of emotional impact is lost, putting Frozen 2 in the wonderful position of taking your heart for a damn good ride in stomp-on-your-emotions-and-tissues land while making you laugh in the midst of some pretty emotional revelations and existential wrangling.
Olaf is perfectly pitched every step of the way.
So wondrously well does he slot into some pretty dark and complex storytelling that he feels like an entirely natural fit, the standout scene being when he recalls the events of the first film so hilariously that he really should be given his own one-snowman comedy show.
But, of course, what we’re here to take in, as much as the visually rich animation and the familial closeness and love of Anna and Elsa (and those in their orbit), are the songs of a film that is essentially a big snowy heartfelt musical.
The bad news is that the songs this time around are nowhere near as ear candy-ready, with only the Kristoff-sung number “Lost in the Woods” really making its presence felt, thanks largely to its totally self-aware parodying of ’80s and ’90s emo ballads, complete with overly emotionally intense facial shots and backgrounding.
Other songs do rise about the parapet of consciousness such as the Elsa-delivered “Into the Unknown” and Anna’s “The Next Right Thing” which comes at a point when everyone’s favourite animated younger sister has her back well and truly up against all kinds of icy walls (and a dam, but that’s whole other part of the story, of which many spoilers are made).
The songs are highly-listenable and definitely work as soundtracking for their respective scenes and as a way of adding extra emotional oomph to the narrative but none of them really seem to go anywhere truly memorable, seeming to pull back just when you think they are really going to let loose.
Still, a less than stellar set of Lopez and Anderson-Lopez is still leaps and reindeer bounds ahead of most other efforts in animated films and you will find yourself humming snatches of the songs when you least expect it.
Returning to the theme of the opening of this review though – is Frozen 2 the gamble that worked or is it destined to fade into snowy nothingness?
The answer is that while Frozen 2 may not possess as much of its predecessor’s sheer happy, giddy and novelty-rich exuberance, it still has a huge amount of appeal, bolstered by beautifully-written characters, a storyline that builds on rather than repeats that of the original, some wisecracking par excellence and a heart as big as Arendell’s interior, bolstered by songs that together give the complex and oft-dark storyline a huge amount of emotional poignancy which should ensure it takes its place for the duration next to the juggernaut that started it all.