"Frozen 2" Travels "Into the Unknown": But is it Worth the Journey?
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Disney’s Frozen 2 had a monster opening weekend at the box office. And if the pop culture and commercial avalanche that was the original Frozen gives us any hint of what could be, Disney’s latest sequel will probably become another financial cash cow for the seemingly unstoppable House of Mouse.
But is it good? Financial success aside, that is the question!
To be clear, the original Frozen is not my favorite Disney film. It's not Disney's best by a long shot, mountain, or Herculean mile. But it did hit enough right notes to make up for its discords and deficiencies.
What worked? Well, what do almost all successful Disney animated musicals have in common:
An understanding and application of successful archetypes
We will forgive a lot of miscues if most of these four elements are performing at their best. I'll give Frozen three out of the four. I've highlighted the one I feel is missing.
The question now becomes: does Frozen 2 hit any of these notes? We know it’s going to break records, but is it a worthy sequel and worthwhile adventure to go on this Thanksgiving?
SPOILERS ahead if you have not seen Frozen 2!
Frozen 2 takes narrative risks, expands the magic of its Nordic world, and sends its characters on a journey that attempts to grapple with some pretty modern themes (perhaps to a fault).
Similar to one of its new songs, it takes its characters and the audience “Into the Unknown”. However, much of the magic of classic Disney adventures is missing from this particular story, which often tries to subvert traditional archetypes with a more contemporary message.
Let me break it down.
With Frozen 2, all of the characters are back, but in the opening song “Some Things Never Change” we learn that everyone is older, not much has changed, but they're all about to experience some sort of transformation.
There’s a lot of missed moments to show us what these characters have been up to since we last left them.
How has Elsa been doing as the new queen of Arendelle?
What’s Anna’s role in Arendelle now that her sister is queen?
How does Kristoff fit into all of this?
Who are these characters now and what do they now want/need?
Before we’ve had the chance to even get reacquainted with them, Elsa receives her new "call to adventure", which sends our heroes on a journey north to the Enchanted Forrest. There they discover what secrets of the past mean for the future of Arendelle as well as Anna and Elsa.
While I do understand where Anna and Elsa end up at the end of the film, the path to getting there often feels rushed, uneven, forced, and perhaps unearned.
The original Frozen did the same with the character of Hans, who had very little development, only a final moment of villainy and betrayal that really bore no consequence on what happened between Anna and Elsa or even Arendelle.
Here's a question: can you really call a character the primary villain if they have a mostly benign impact on the story and don't provide much conflict for its main characters?
The same question can be asked of Frozen 2. Who's the real villain of this story? I'll address this more in a moment.
Looking back at the original Frozen, and this may just be my take, but making a mostly charming and amicable character like Hans a surprise villain at the end isn't as effective as allowing the characters to grow with that story.
Again, Hans can absolutely be the big bad, but if that's the case, make him one. Make his actions actually an obstacle to Anna and Elsa and the plot.
Disney has always given us iconic villains to stand against the heroes. In Frozen, why wait until the last possible second to surprise us with a Hans villain twist?
I understand that Hans is created to be a subversion of the Prince Charming archetype. That's fine. He looks and sounds good on the outside but masks his true sordid/devilish intentions on the inside. There's definitely a lesson to be learned here about trust and appearances being deceiving.
Subverting the familiar can be a really fun trope to play with as a writer.
However, part of what makes figures like the the wolf of Little Red Riding Hood, The Odyssey's Sirens, Pinocchio's Honest John (Fox) and Gideon (Cat), or The Bible's Delilah so powerful (and frightening) is that we, the reader, discern they are bad news before the hero does. At the very least, we assume something isn't quite right about these characters.
Many a weak-minded sailor has been lured to their death by the Siren's song, foolish boy turned to a donkey by the temptations of Pleasure Island, and gifted warrior stripped of his strength by the guiles of a beautiful woman.
So perhaps Hans was more of a wolf in sheep's clothing or a Lotus Eater, a sweet flower who distracts Anna from her true purpose. Perhaps.
In Frozen Anna has little interaction with Hans beyond the first act. She leaves on her quest to find Elsa and returns later to discover Hans plan to rule Arendelle through marriage. He never really loved Anna. He was only using her to gain power.
That is a perfectly horrible motivation for a Disney villain, but was Hans really the primary antagonist or threat to Anna or Elsa throughout the story? I don't think so.
So what is the biggest obstacle to Anna and Elsa? The men in their lives? Society? The past? Each other?
This is an unanswered question that bleeds into Frozen 2.
We can still see threads of Disney's original plan to make Elsa the primary antagonist of this story, which might have really worked. As that plot was scrapped, it feels like Hans being a last minute villain was the product of a last minute story twist.
This could have been a story about Anna having to win back/battle her sister, whose lost control of her power.
Ironically, "Let it Go" is an iconic song, but while we're meant to celebrate Elsa's "liberation", her choice to let go has dire consequences for everyone. If Elsa had been the villain, "Let it Go" could have been one of the best villain songs in Disney history.
The sister dynamic should be a redeeming quality of both films, and I have no problem giving Frozen credit for trying to center a story around sisters. However, there's a lesson to be learned from movies like The Parent Trap or Ten Things I Hate About You in regards to sister dynamics and their relationship with the men in their lives.
Consider 10 Things I Hate About You, the adaptation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew:
Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan) is the pretty boy every girl wants and the one going after Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). However, he's an absolute jerk from the very beginning. We see it. We know it. And we all know what Bianca can't seem to figure out: this is not the guy you want to be dating.
Bianca, in a lot of ways, is an archetype for Frozen's Anna. Both are kind-hearted but incredibly naive when it comes to their goals and relationships, and they don't seem to have any need for the wisdom of their older sisters.
In Frozen, Anna goes all in in her relationship with Hans, a man she barely knows (which isn't that new for Disney movies). But though there's a lesson to be learned in rushing to the altar, there's very little about Hans to make us question his character or be wary of his motives. He's no Joey Donner.
Anna can still discover, through her adventures with Kristoff, that, actually, Kristoff is the kind of man she really wants/needs in her life. The takeaway could be, we learn more about the inner demons of the Prince Charming of the world when we really get to know them. Not every guy is a villain, though, as Kristoff demonstrates.
And yet, we have very little to contrast Kristoff to Hans.
In 10 Things I Hate About You, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), isn't the most assertive guy in the world, but he's kind and respectful and loves Bianca, and he grows to become a confident man who can love and care for her and be loved and respected in return. And he's way better than Joey Donner!!!
I'm not sure Kristoff has this kind of arc at all, so why is he here?
Hans may have subverted the classic Prince Charming archetype; Kristoff arguably exists to subvert the Knight in Shining armor.
The writers can absolutely do this, but when it comes to subverting archetypes, the question we should always ask is what's the intention?
Let me be clear. Kristoff supporting Anna in Frozen 2 isn't the problem! Supporting characters can and should support the main characters in their quest, but they should also have a role to play in supporting the plot too.
I get that Frozen is not a traditional love story. In many ways, it tries to be about the love between sisters, and I don't think anyone would be upset at Disney giving us that kind of story without a love interest for Anna at all.
However, when the love interest is thrown in or exists only to support some point made by the storyteller, story and character become subservient to another agenda. In doing so, Hans and Kristoff also distract from the central plot that should revolve around Anna and Elsa.
And then there’s Olaf. Love him or hate him, the naïve and gullible snowman is just as annoying as ever in Frozen 2. Olaf, as always, gets the most laughs from kids in the audience because, well, he is one. He’s an annoying, inquisitive, unpredictable four-year-old who chimes in when he shouldn’t and is innocent in his quirkiness.
I think sometimes we forget that animated movies aren’t made for adults. They are written for kids too, and no character is written more for children than Olaf.
Do I love him? No. He doesn't make much sense in either film. But does he work? I think there's enough children in the audience who have fallen in love with the gullible snowman for me to step back and say, yes, he's fine.
Let’s be honest. Idina Menzel can probably elevate any song on her own. She’s that good, and she doesn’t disappoint in her second turn as Elsa either.
Kristen-Andersen Lopez and Robert Lopez have crafted a soundtrack even more ambitious and lyrically complex than anything we heard in the first film. And their duo, in partnership with composer Christophe Beck, incorporate even more Scandinavian sounds with the vocal talents of Norwegian singer Aurora delivering the film’s primary motif.
The songs of Frozen 2 are fine, and they advance story effectively. None of them, however, with the exception of maybe Elsa’s “Into the Unknown” or “Show Yourself” are outright showstoppers, and few come close to the iconic, play-on-repeat status of “Let it Go”, “In Summer”, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, “For the First Time in Forever”, or “Love is an Open Door,” which is too bad, because there is some interesting musical moments in Frozen 2’s score.
My one big caveat is, if "Into the Unknown" is the "Let it Go" showstopper, it comes far too early. "Show Yourself" is a much more important number. It just wasn't marketed that way.
As the characters explore more of the Scandinavian countryside in their journey to the Enchanted Forrest and lands of Northuldra, the animators paint beautiful landscapes and new magic for us to explore. However, when it comes to the spectacle of the story’s magic, there are often far too many magical elements to keep up with.
We never fully understood the extent of Elsa’s powers in the first film (I'm not sure the filmmakers did either), but we were kind of okay with that because neither did she. Frozen was a story about Elsa figuring out what she can do and how she can control these powers. As she figures things out, so do we. Kind of.
In Frozen 2, not only do Elsa’s powers evolve, there are new magical elements for Elsa and her friends to content with.
From the four elements spirits (fire, wind, water, earth) to the way water somehow preserves memories and manifests them as ice sculptures… oh, and let’s not forget about the Enchanted Forrest, the mysterious Ahtohallan, and Elsa actually being the fifth spirit (whatever that means)… there’s just a lot of magic happening that never really gets explained or properly introduced. We just have to go with it, and sometimes it’s tough to keep up.
While the film’s new magic is visually attractive, I found myself trying to figure out what was happening, why things were happening, and where things were going.
Frozen 2 is surprisingly ambitious, not just in terms of story but spectacle, but it’s really confusing at times too, which is probably not what you expect (or want) from a film like this. I spent the better part of a day talking through the plot with my wife to try and clarify what actually happened and how all the magical elements actually worked and influenced the story.
Kids may not care, and maybe they'll track with the story’s magic better than this rambling fool, but there comes a point where sometimes less is more, and maybe less magic, or at the very least, more clarity, would help.
Going in, I wondered if Frozen 2 was going to continue the sister storyline, and in a lot of ways, it does. However, this is also a story about the sins of the past and how these characters attempt to reconcile with and even fix the mistakes of those who came before them. This is where some may argue the story tries to shoehorn in a more contemporary political and ideological narrative.
The prologue tells us about Anna and Elsa’s grandfather and Arendelle’s complicated relationship with the magical lands of Northuldra. Later in the film, we learn that Anna and Elsa’s grandfather, fearful of the northerner's magic, actually tricked the people of Northuldra into building a dam (which somehow weakened their use of magic) before attacking them without provocation.
This act angered the four spirits and led them to trapping the people of Northuldra under a thick mist in the Enchanted Forrest. However, it's hard to understand why the people of Northuldra were punished by the four spirits for Arendelle's treachery.
Calling out to Elsa, who we learn is not only the "fifth" spirit but the daughter of Arendelle (by her father) and Northuldra (by her mother), the spirits enter the story to commission Elsa to make things right.
Here's my question. How exactly is she supposed to do that?
There’s a lot of plot mechanics here, and I still have a LOT of questions about how events of the past really impact the present narrative and its magic.
What is this story really about?
The theme that Frozen 2 attempts to hit home (I think) is that Anna and Elsa must become a bridge between Arendelle and Northuldra, the past and the present, and the magical and non-magical world.
In Elsa’s search to uncover the origins of her powers (reflected in her song, “Show Yourself”), she learns the truth about her mother and past injustices committed by her grandfather. It is Anna, however, who takes this knowledge and decides to do something about it (“The Next Right Thing”). Anna decides that she must destroy the dam her grandfather built, even if it also destroys Arendelle and its people?
That’s a pretty heavy twist.
Unfortunately, because the magic of this backstory is so unclear, we’re not really sure how Anna and Elsa’s actions or the destruction of Arendelle would actually right their grandfather’s wrongs.
Is present suffering and injustice required to reconcile past suffering and injustice? Is this a story of inherited, generational guilt? What does the destruction of Arendelle actually accomplish? Does it help the people of Northuldra? Not really. It hurts more people than it actually helps.
So what's the message being communicated?
Furthermore, who is the main antagonist of this film? This matters.
Is it Anna and Elsa's grandfather? He's dead and gone. Are the sins of the past really the biggest obstacle to the present?
We can acknowledge that what Anna and Elsa's grandfather did was wrong, but does tearing down the past and destroying Arendelle or anything he built really remedy that?
We’re not even fully sure what the damage their grandfather caused really looks like apart from a mist surrounding the Enchanted Forrest. And instead of actually destroying Arendelle, the writers bring Elsa back in the nick of time to save the day. Here it feels like they tried to have their cake and eat it too, weighing in on an unmistakably contemporary debate without fully committing to it.
I don't think the destruction of Arendelle proves anything except that perhaps actions have long term consequences, but again, the people of Arendelle, including Anna and Elsa are not their grandfather, nor are they to blame for what happened to the people of Northuldra. We don't even know how they benefit from their grandfather's treachery either?
The result of such a confused ending sends mixed messages and undermines the point(s) the writers seem to be trying so hard to make, leaving the audience feeling lost in the woods.
In the end sometimes less is more.
Archetypes exist for a reason, something Disney animation has understood and mastered for most of its history.
And while I understand where the storytellers were trying to go, though I don't agree with their worldview, I do feel that Frozen 2 might have been benefited from less preaching and a more classical approach to storytelling.
Frozen 2 is not a terrible movie. It's not very good one either. It exceeds its grasp and often buries its more promising elements in an avalanche of ambition that tries to be more culturally relevant, which it probably won't be in the years to come.
Is Frozen 2 worth the journey? Maybe. Just know that when all is said and done, you may not walk away feeling the "warm hugs" you’re used to getting from most Disney animated films.
But let me know your thoughts. Is Frozen 2 the next great Disney classic, a worthy sequel, or a snowball destined to melt with time? I guess we'll have to wait and see.
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