There’s not much doubt that Frozen II is a success, in commercial terms, making over $700 million worldwide since its release only a month or so ago. That boils down to the popularity of the first film, of course — audiences were and are hungry to find out what happened to the adorable characters from the original story. It’s also a family-friendly outing with a seasonally-timed release date. What could be wrong with that?
I have to confess to not being a big fan of the original. Whether that has to do with having to watch it well over twenty times as the father of a young daughter, or whether the original had some inherent flaws too, I’m not entirely sure — I recall first seeing it and noting an odd discordance between the opening scene and the rest of the show, amongst other things. Plus I’ve always had a slight problem with people bursting into spontaneous song during narratives, but that’s just the nature of the beast in this case.
The sequel has some issues, which I’ll quickly summarise here:
1. The plot is dispersed.
In the original Frozen, the story is simple: it’s all about two sisters and how one shuts out the other due to being cursed with superhuman powers. What makes it work, apart from the trimmings of animated beauty, some good music and a few entertaining characters, is that the ‘shutting out of one sister by another’ reflects almost universal angst situations among even non-super-powered human beings — so when sisterly love triumphs in the end it actually means something emotionally.
But the sequel’s plot feels forced and complicated. There’s a magical river, Elsa starts hearing voices, an elemental spirit shows up and forces everyone out of the kingdom and there’s a hastily tacked-together back story about an enchanted forest to the north which ends badly. Nothing to do with the Elsa/Anna relationship which drove things forward in the original — and hardly related to anything in the viewer’s world, which means that audiences have to invest in the characters if they want to remain interested. I would argue that great stories require no conscious investment: you’re hooked from the get-go, because what’s happening on the page or screen means something to you personally, like the Elsa/Anna strife in the first film. Not-so-great stories demand some of your emotional cash up front — the risk of disappointment is larger.
The sequel leaves us with a contrived narrative and a rushed conclusion. Part of this is an ill-thought-out ‘betrayal’ which doesn’t make much sense plot-wise, when you think about it. The way it’s managed — i.e. rushed by the viewer very quickly — means that you don’t get to think about it too much: its dramatic impact rests upon the whole trope of ‘white settlers betray natives’. Which leads to the next point.
2. We walk dangerously close to some stereotypes.
It turns out that there’s a back story within the back story to do with Elsa and Anna’s parentage. In one way it works, in the sense that it ‘explains’ Elsa’s powers, but in another way it feels muddled. The portrayal of the Northuldra tribe as ‘noble savages’ is a little twee — they live in harmony with nature, which is spoiled by ‘white settlers’, and they’re victims of a predictable treachery. It’s two-dimensional, and its emotional impact rests almost entirely on the cultural trope mentioned above.
3. Characters act out of character.
A good plot or sub-plot moves forward well when a character does something that then leads to other somethings. That’s pretty standard in most fiction, and it’s what drives the first film: Anna’s desperation to be re-united with her sister makes her do things which drag the whole story along with her. But in the sequel, people are doing stuff all the time which they just wouldn’t normally do, particularly Kristoff and Anna, whose romantic sub-plot rolls along based on them being either dumb or paranoid.
4. The music isn’t as good.
‘Let It Go’ was a hit because a) you can sing along easily and b) it reflects something that makes us human, our almost universal impulse or need at some point in our lives to let something go. You could identify with it if you’d just broken up with someone, or had a hard past, or were struggling with depression — just about anything fits the lyrics.
‘Into The Unknown’, the Big Song in the sequel, strives for the same universality and almost makes it, but not quite. It’s more of a singalong for the writers, given the task of beating the success of the first film and journeying out into the unexplored territory of the story.
Does all that mean that I hated the movie? Far from it. There are still breathtaking moments, even a couple which had me in tears. The sheer beauty of the thing stuns the viewer into acquiescence — I gasped at a few points and put my quibbles to one side willingly. I’d watch it again — just hopefully not again and again, as I was compelled to do with the first one. But something tells me that my daughter won’t be quite as keen on re-viewing this one over and over. That’s the litmus test: will the target audience want to see this one on a continuous loop? The sisterly war, the power of ‘Let It Go’ and the theme of sibling love were powerful magnets for the original film; saving an animated kingdom from a contrived back story?
Not so much.