The magic of the Disney brand lies in the way that their productions make you feel, whether that’s after walking out of their latest movie or watching fireworks or a show at one of their theme parks. That unmistakable, warm feeling deep inside doesn’t just come from Disney, but I can count on certain Disney entities like their Disney on Ice shows to energize me for at least a day. When I left the screening of Frozen, I knew that it would be a monumental hit. Its success easily put it in the same league as other classics like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. I consider Frozen a perfect animated Disney film from the story to the music, including the song “Let It Go,” which can really never be topped. With such heights achieved, I felt nervous when I went to see Frozen II. As much as I wanted to be entertained, I also didn’t want the filmmakers to tarnish the brand. Frozen II delivers the same magic as the original with sparks of creativity flying off in different directions.
A few years after the events of Frozen, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Olaf (Josh Gad) enjoy prosperous times in Arendelle when Elsa begins to hear a voice calling to her. When the powers of nature rise up against Arendelle, the group leads the citizens away from the kingdom to safety and continues north by themselves to a mysterious forest enshrouded in mist. They discover a soldier named Mattias (Sterling K. Brown) in charge of some Arendelle soldiers trapped in the forest for years and the Northuldra tribe led by Yelana (Martha Plimpton). Elsa goes off to find out what or who has been pulling her north, and secrets from the past change their lives forever.
When you create a film like Frozen, it’s important to keep the same creative forces intact if you plan on a sequel. Fortunately, director Chris Buck and writer/director Jennifer Lee reunited with the cast and also involved brilliant songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez in the story development. Moreover, Bell, Menzel, Groff and Gad each have their own number to highlight their characters. A film that’s so imbued with music — Christophe Beck also returns to deliver a moody score — and song must flow in a dance of drama and comedy to reach all audiences. Brown and Plimpton add to the expanding list of characters, as do Evan Rachel Wood as Anna and Elsa’s mother Iduna (a tribute to Menzel?) and, to a lesser extent, Jason Ritter and Rachel Matthews. Ciarán Hinds once again briefly voices the troll Pabbie, but fans of the trolls shouldn’t expect much from them in this story.
The stunning animation both presents characters in that distinctive Frozen style as well as lots of photorealistic settings blended with the characters. When Elsa runs into the ocean or water cascades over a dam that’s a key to the past, the flowing liquid looks more like something from a nature documentary than an animator’s tools. This extra level of detail fits with the recurring concept that water has memory. Elemental spirits live in the forest, and I was most impressed with the bouncing purple fire elemental and the way that those colors light up each scene. One weakness of the movie’s graphics involves the design of the diamond-shaped emblems for the elements. Although there are different symbols for the elements, the colors and symbols should have been more pronounced for instant recognition. Sven and Olaf fill the cute character slot, and they now have a new friend in the form of a mischievous salamander that appears in the forest and takes to Elsa.
The soundtrack contains a batch of great songs on the same level as those from Frozen and just as ambitious, dramatic and fun. Starting with some familiar chanting against the titles, the songs each move the story forward and vary in styles from power ballad to jaunty pieces. Wood delivers the lullaby “All Is Found” in the first few minutes, and it makes you wish that she had a bigger role. The songs only get better from there, including the humorous “Some Things Never Change” and Olaf’s showcase “When I Am Older.” These two numbers mirror “Love Is an Open Door” and “In Summer” from Frozen in spirit and purpose. No matter what they do, the songwriters could probably never write another once-in-a-lifetime “Let It Go,” and I’m glad that they didn’t try. Instead, Menzel sings two amazing songs that are sisters to “Let It Go” and equally powerful. “Into the Unknown” turns Menzel up to 11, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else trying to sing those challenging notes until the Panic! at the Disco version played over the credits and lead singer Brendon Urie reaches Menzel’s stratospheres. “Show Yourself” feels like Frozen II’s “Let It Go,” complete with Elsa’s animation during the song and the dramatic staging. It’s hard to pick which Menzel song is better, but fans will be making videos of them singing both. Bell gets her own serious song with “The Next Right Thing,” but the real surprise is Groff’s “Lost in the Woods.” I won’t spoil the surprise of this funny song’s presentation. Norwegian singer Aurora vocalizes the sounds that Elsa hears, and it’s important to point out that it’s not Menzel who supplies them, as I originally thought.
Frozen II may be a bit too heady or serious for the younger children who will see it, especially the bits with the elementals and the past. The film bucks the trend of Disney films by not having a central, iconic villain, and I can’t think of another animated Disney production that doesn’t. Despite the heavy concepts, humor abounds throughout the running time from Kristoff’s interactions with Sven and Olaf to all of the hilarious things that Olaf does. That includes a segment that allows the movie to poke fun at its own legacy. (Sit through the credits for some bonus humor.) I had some hopes and expectations for the characters; they may just have to wait for the inevitable third movie. Just like the strong sisterly bond between Anna and Elsa, Frozen II binds the cast and filmmakers to a sequel that will delight fans and further establish these characters in the Disney family.