"Frozen 2" Travels "Into the Unknown": But is it Worth the Journey?
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
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 smash hit for the unstoppable House of Mouse.
To be clear, the original Frozen is not my favorite Disney film. It's not Disney's best either. Not by a mountain or a mile. But it did hit enough right notes, and its magic (and songs) make up for most its deficiencies.
What worked? Well, what do almost all of Disney’s animated musicals have in common:
Lovable, iconic characters,
A successful application of classic archetypes,
Gorgeous animation, and
Show-stopping songs we can't help but sing
We will forgive a lot of misses if most of these four elements are performing at their best. I'll give Frozen three out of the four.
The question now becomes: does Frozen 2 hit 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. Similar to its new song, it takes its characters and the audience “Into the Unknown”. However, some of the magic of classic Disney animated musicals is missing from this particular adventure, which simply tries to do too much.
With Frozen 2, all of our favorite characters are back, but in the opening song “Some Things Never Change” we learn that everyone is older, not much has changed, and they’re 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 queen of Arendelle?
What’s Anna’s role in Arendelle now that her sister is queen?
Who are these characters now and what do they need/want?
Before we’ve had the chance to even get reacquainted with them, Elsa receives her call to adventure, which sends our heroes on a journey north to the Enchanted Forrest. In doing so, they discover what secrets of the past mean for the future of Arendelle, Anna, and Elsa.
While I do like where Anna and Elsa end up as character at the end of the film (kind of), the path to getting there feels rushed and sometimes forced.
A bright spot, of course, is Kristoff, who’s been trying so hard to support Anna in her goals, conveyed hilariously in his song “Lost in the Woods”.
And then there’s Olaf. Love him or hate him, the naïve and gullible snowman is just as annoying as ever. Olaf, as always, gets the most laughs from kids in the audience because, as I’ve discovered, 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 just for adults, if at all. They are written for kids too, and no character is written more for the child and child-at-heart than Olaf.
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 by the vocal talents of Norwegian singer Aurora delivering the film’s main motif.
The songs of Frozen 2 are good, and they advance their character’s storylines. 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 good story being told in Frozen 2’s soundtrack.
My one big caveat is, if "Into the Unknown" is the "Let it Go" showstopper, it comes far too early. I'm personally more supportive of "Show Yourself," and I would assume that's the movie's big number, but it wasn't really 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 introduce incredible landscapes and new magic. 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, but we were kind of okay with it because neither did she. Frozen was a story about Elsa finding out who she is, who she wants to be, and where she belongs. As she figured things out, so do we.
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 stunning, 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 lock down what actually happened and how all the magical elements actually worked and came together.
Kids may not mind, and they'll probably 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.
I wondered if Frozen 2 was going to continue the sister story, 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 and even fix the mistakes of those who came before them. This is where some may feel the story tries to force a more contemporary political narrative. It's subtle, but the connections are there.
The prologue tells us about Anna and Elsa’s grandfather and Arendelle’s relationship with the magical lands of the north, known as Northuldra. Later in the film, we learn that Anna and Elsa’s grandfather, fearful of northern magic, actually tricked the people of Northuldra into building a dam (which someone weakened their use of magic) and attacked 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. Calling out to Elsa, who we learn is not only the fifth spirit but the daughter of Arendelle (her father) and Northuldra (her mother), the spirits enter the story to commission Elsa to make things right.
Okay, so there’s a lot of plot mechanics here, and I still have a LOT of questions about how events of the past really impacted the present narrative and its magic. The theme that Frozen 2 attempts to hit home 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 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.
That’s a pretty heavy twist that would subvert most traditional archetypes.
Unfortunately, because the magic of this backstory is so unclear, we’re not really sure how Anna and Elsa’s actions and the destruction of Arendelle would actually right their grandfather’s wrongs. Is it more suffering to reconcile past suffering? 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 destroying Arendelle, the writers brought Elsa back in the nick of time to save the day. The filmmakers tried to have their cake and eat it too, introducing a very complicated (and unmistakably modern) issue without fully committing to it. The result is an ending that weakens the point they were trying to make, making their themes and audience feeling lost in the woods.
Sometimes less is more. We have archetypes and grand narratives for a reason, something Disney animation has mastered for most of its history. And while I completely understand where the storytellers were trying to go with this story, and praise them for the effort and risks taken, I do feel that Frozen 2 might have been benefited from a bigger focus on story, less preaching.
Frozen 2 is not a terrible movie by any means. It just exceeds its grasp and often buries its more promising elements in an avalanche of ambition that attempts to be more culturally relevant.
Is Frozen 2 worth the journey? Sure. 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 characters.
But let me know your thoughts. Is Frozen 2 the next great Disney classic or a snowball destined to melt with time? You be the judge.
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Until Today, Storytellers!