I feel like I always have to remind people that Frozen is a great movie.
People seemed to forget that in all the hoopla of the phenomenon, the omnipresence of “Let It Go,” and in the endless rewatches of young children everywhere. As they say, familiarity can breed contempt. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact it is indeed great to begin with. Whatever nits you might pick, Frozen delivers memorable songs that are deeply tied to characterization. It tackles big themes that purposefully invert the longstanding (and often ugly) tropes of the Disney canon. But its value is not just in the fact it's meaningful story about sisterhood, but how it tells that story through well-established conflict, clear obstacles, and prescient character arcs. In short, the movie fucking works. Which is the reason it became a phenomenon in the first place
I just wish Frozen II remembered that, too.
I’m honestly hard pressed to think of a sequel that seems so keen to run from its previous identity (maybe Rise of the Skywalker and Rambo: First Blood Part II). In theory, I appreciate the general spirit of wanting to evolve any story and not do a lazy retread. But rather than grow with the characters or try to delve into more daring subject matter, Frozen II instead opts for a series of artificial, surface-level differences that are almost bewildering. And on some level, they almost seem to be coming from a place self-loathing. Take the sequence when Elsa is journeying through memories of her past in the first film. There’s the moment where she hears herself singing, “Let It Go” and she actually cringes. I get the meta-joke here, but I also have to take it in context. Not only would Elsa think fondly of that song / moment, it also denies the power of what made the song so well known in the first place.
And at the same exact time, one of the more delightful scenes in the sequel comes when Olaf re-enacts the first film for some new people they have met. He does so with lovely reverence for it’s highs and most dramatic moments. I get how you could write off both moments of light-hearted fun, but to me, they actually speak to an incredible identity crisis at the heart of the film. Frozen II really, truly doesn’t know what it wants to be. And in its quest to hide that fact?
It ends up being nothing.
1. The Forever Fights
There are certain problematic story concepts I’ve been talking about for a damn decade now. One of the big ones has actually been the misapplication of “mystery.” As a kid who grew up on detective fiction, you learn pretty quickly that mystery isn’t about the unknown. It’s largely about creating a compelling driving question, providing a clear set of circumstances that point you in one direction, then providing new story beats that change your direction to new possible targets. You make them think “okay, it’s that person- No, now it’s THAT person!” until you get to the ending catharsis. Essentially, you evolve the viewer / reader’s belief of what happened with compelling drama that makes for twists and turns. And you are able to achieve this because you are able to operate on clear conflicts within the moments themselves. There’s very little teasing and confusion. In other words, don’t make me care about what is gonna be revealed later in the movie, you make me care about what’s happening right now.
Then the damn J.J. “mystery box” presentation came along.
I can’t tell you how much it misunderstands the core tenets of traditional mystery. Because what it instead taught was the concept of hiding the story. It turns “mystery” into unknowable points and vagueness. Now, does this “work” in terms of piquing your curiosity? Yeah, of course it makes us curious! But basic wonderment is like putting a carrot on a string and leading a tortoise. It endlessly teases and creates this monotonous feeling of diminishing returns as our curiosity lessens over time. And often, it leads to wholly unsatisfying conclusions because there’s no real misdirection that sets up the surprise of the moment. Catharsis is supposed to be the solution to problems. And if your only problem is series of confusing motivations for “answers” then you’re not setting anything up. Worst of all, the mystery box also provides the most dramatically inert pathway of getting there possible. Because you’re just stopping scenes through plot-blocking and equally-confusing, unmotivated obstacles along the way. You aren’t actually telling a story. You are hiding a story until it you have to drag it out.
And I did not expect Frozen II is guilty of this to almost comical proportions.
I’ll remind you the first film straightforwardly brought us into a world, characters, conflicts and plots that we could all understand implicitly as the scenes unfolded. We got a beautifully-dramatized version of “Do You Want to Build A Snowman?” which spoke to the sad conflict and distance between these two sisters. In Frozen II, we once again return to childhood, but their father instead just tells them a song-less, lore-heavy story that’s full of vague allusions and nonsensically withheld information (like why would they even hide the mom’s role, honestly?). Little Anna even pleads with them, asking questions right then and there, like “who betrayed who?” and “who saved dad?” But she’s told to she has wait, which, as a storyteller, is the single worst plot-blocking move you can offer (quick explanation: plot-blocking is when a character is prevented from knowing something for no real dramatic reason other than “it’s not late enough into the story”).
From there, the story rockets to the present and are introduced to our big MacGuffin! Which is just an ethereal three note voice that Elsa hears in the distance. After some futzing about, the notes spurs Elsa into an abstract song sequence that “awakens the spirits” I guess. Then Arendelle is attacked by them for some reason? Not only is all of this so wishy-washy as it happens, the later revealed reasons turned out to be nothing more than the need to move pieces into place and getting Elsa to her fate. Speaking of which, this is precise moment when the trolls show up cause reasons and Elsa is fatalistically told she must reveal the truth of their town!
Now, not only is this quest completely vague, uninspiring, and not-actually-based-on-characters-or-relationships, it actually hurts the so-called mystery through this same vagueness. That’s because the story doesn’t misdirect anywhere at all. Instead, it directly invites us to question the withheld information from their Father’s opening story. From this wonky framework, we therefore KNOW Arendelle must have been the attacker because there’s literally no other choice of a “secret truth” given the situation presented. Honestly, the whole choice feels bananas. And it should be hopefully apparent to storytellers who could so sublimely pull off the Hans misdirect in the first film. But instead, they default to the mystery box and it helps sow their doom.
The story should theoretically get better once they get into the adventure in the forest, but sadly we just get more abstract confusion. For all the danger happening to our characters, we are 43 minutes into the film and there STILL isn’t a single graspable conflict (meaning we don’t know the motivation behind anyone presenting these dangers to our characters). Even as the fire and wind attacks happen, Olaf basically stops the momentum and sings a song about how “this will all make sense later” (which is an interesting concept when framed through age, but in terms of it’s effect on the plot and audience’s drama? OOFA DOOFA). Really, even this song is symbolic of the movie’s endless penchant for delay and hiding.
We then meet a bunch of characters from the opening story who are now stuck in the forest and still at war, I guess? (I dunno, the whole thing gets scrubbed pretty quickly because Disney never really wants to address Colonialism). They then spend some time with characters who will have almost no baring on what is to follow. Really. I don’t understand their inclusion on any story level. Because just when they get comfy, and the main four characters begin to understand that the “spirits” mean well enough to them, Kristoff goes off on his own, and Elsa goes off on her own, before she puts Anna off on her own, but… wait…
You know what?
I feel insane trying to describe all this. I mean, I literally just watched the movie and yet I have to google plot details just to try and make sense of it in any real motivated way.
The truth is that every single machination of the plot is just about fatalistically putting characters into X place so that Y can happen. No one ever stops to really dig deep. Nothing ever feels born from true conflict in their relationships. Unlike the last film, there’s no architect of villainy, nor any real problems for them to work out within themselves or their relationships. We just slowly reveal more clarity to this mystery box of a predicament, but none of it really affects or changes them. Elsa and Anna discover the ship in the middled of the forest and now they can finally learn what happened to their parents! But turns out their parents died just how they thought they did. And when it turns out they were going on this journey to understand Elsa? She feels bad for two seconds, but none of this has any real affect on the conflict of the story. Even logically, she’s just still trying to find the voice.
Then when Elsa finally reaches Ahtohallan, there’s no real reuniting with her mother, just a cave of memories. She then gets frozen there for… reasons? Even the big obvious reveal that their grandfather was bad feels so meaningless to us. Why? Because we know next to nothing about him and have no relationship to him. The characters don’t either (if it was their father who did the betrayal, that would at least be something?). Then when Anna makes the choice to sacrifice Arendelle it turns out they won’t have to. The movie leads us from scene to scene in search of answers we’re told are so important, but really affect no character and warn us of consequences that never come.
Which means that the reason Frozen II is hiding so much because they’re nothing really there. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s always the reason stories get lost in plot-machinations, vagueness, and mystery-boxing. It doesn’t matter when you get answers that we were never dramatically given reasons to long for in the first place. And worse, answers that have no real effect on the characters, either. Which helps reveal a movie that’s hiding not only its story…
Its hiding its relationships.
2. Wishy-Washy Wants and Lip Service
Tell me, what does Anna want in this movie?
I ask because it is literally the first question one would ask themselves when writing a story about anyone. You need to understand what the character wants because it informs how their personality manifests in conflict. Which then provides the architecture for a character arc in going from what you want to what you need. So what does Anna want? Well, she starts the film in a state of relative happiness with a touch of ennui. She sings a song with Olaf that basically evokes the tone of “everything’s fine.” And I guess it’s interesting on some level to have a major studio movie attempt to dramatize this. But not only is the film not really about overcoming malaise, it hurts everything about the story. Because without a want, it just means that from start to finish all Anna does is react to other characters in ways which help the plot delay. Which makes for the most dramatically inert viewing experience possible.
The other characters don’t fare much better.
You can argue that Kristoff is the only one with a clear, tangible goal: he wants to propose to Anna! The conflict? No, it’s not something substantial about personalities, he’s just comically bad at timing! It’s the sort of thing that makes up a lot of light-hearted French farce. But is it a real tangible conflict based on an actual problem between them? Nope! And thus it renders everything pretty airless. So when Kristoff gets his great 80’s ballad in the middle of the movie, the problem is it’s not attached to anything really all that serious. He can croon out, “why is love so hard!?” But it’s not really hard for him. The two actually seem like they are in great shape. We call this sort of conflict “lip service” because it’s when characters are directly telling us things that are not actually dramatized in the story. And Kristoff is not the only character guilty of it…
Ostensibly, Frozen II is about Elsa’s journey to self-understanding. At the start of the film, she’s mostly distracted by the ethereal voice and niggling question of identity. Her big want? Curiosity! It’s clearly personified when singing “Into The Unknown,” which, yes, is probably the best song in the film. Now, there is something to “the spirit of adventure” calling us away, of wanting to go off on something one shouldn’t. But this also makes the vague, unspecified nature of her character’s want oh so literal (particularly for a movie that’s full of un-specificity). It’s like hanging a hat on a hat. But the real problem is how little this want seems to affect her personality or much of anything about her. Because underneath her entire arc, Elsa doesn’t actually have a problem, just an itch to be scratched.
Compare her desire for “the unknown” to the journey to Up, where THE LITERAL spirt of adventure was something that affected Carl’s entire personality and reconstruction of himself. But here, Elsa’s journey is really just about going through the motions. She changes locations, fights danger, and gets “answers.” But there’s nothing that really changes in terms of her self understanding, nor even her relationship to her mother or her past. Even when Elsa realizes she’s the fifth spirit with Anna (ugh, we’ll get to that) it doesn’t feel like any real catharsis to their actual problems. They’re just filling in a space within fate. And when I think about how different this non-story is when compared to their incredible journey of sisterhood in the first film? My jaw honestly hits the ground.
Weirdly, Olaf is the most interesting character in the film, but only because he happens to be going to the most interesting places. His curiosity touches on things like maturity and sentience and the knowing of weird facts. But it sort of feels like they’re throwing darts at funny, esoteric approaches that don’t come together to click. It stinks, because they were so close to getting to the misdirection of “being older” and the set-up for his character’s very sudden and largely-unmotivated death. But what should feel like a moment of transcendence instead… just happens. All because his passing isn’t really “about” anything (compare this both dramatically and thematically to the passing of Bing Bong in Inside Out). Worse, we also know Olaf will be back, so it’s just more going through the motions to get to a desired result.
Ultimately, you need to ask yourself what all four of these main character’s non-stories have to do with the main story of Arendelle and the enchanted forest?
Yeah, I’m stumped, too. Because none of these stories have to do with ancestral guilt, nor the lessons adventure, nor the difficulty and fears of leadership, nor complications of diplomacy. In other words, none of their conflicts are actually born from plot. Frozen II is a movie utterly divisible from itself because nothing ever comes together in coherent unison. Anna and Elsa fight over sticking together being too dangerous like four damn times, but I still don’t get why Elsa makes that choice to send Anna away before the climax (in other words, it’s unmotivated). Just as I don’t understand why it would have been better if Anna got to come along. I mean, she would have likely drowned? Also been frozen in the cave? If anything, her getting left behind is precisely what saved them. Meaning their reconciliation and apology isn’t based on something actually dramatized.
It’s lip service in an ending that is chock full of it. As they stand on the shore, Elsa and Anna say “we did this together” but they really didn’t. Someone tells Elsa, “you look different! Did you cut your hair or something?” and she can only answer “or something” because it’s that joke answer hides the fact that there really has been no real change. They then say “I feel like this forest has really changed us all!” But the characters didn’t change one iota from who they were at the beginning. But nothing perplexes me more than the scene that comes just after, where Elsa opts to live in the hills and Anna becomes queen in Arendelle.
It’s like, wait, did either of them want this? Did Elsa really need to be free? Why? And how does Anna really feel about her new role? Is it part of either of their journeys? Is this the catharsis to some conflict they had? What in the beginning set all this up, exactly? Was this ending something they could never hope to do at the beginning? And wait, why was Kristoff sidelined halfway through? How does he feel about all this? What if Kristoff had to stay at the castle and had to learn how to be regal and lead and do all the stuff he wasn’t good at? What if it was somehow about them choosing to lead together?
Understand, these aren’t plot-holes, they’re character motivation holes. And these questions are essential because they would likely lead you to an ending that, you know, might be an actual conclusion to something shown in the story. And would in turn would allow us to get to the heart of what this movie is really about. But instead, their complete unanswered nature just leaves me asking a broader question…
What is Frozen II about, anyway?
3. Lore Bores and Theme Stores
One of my favorite quotes about modern storytelling comes from Lindsay ellis:
“No meaning, only lore.”
To be clear, she was ironically evoking a popular mantra of fans while in the midst of making her video essay on Game of Thrones. But it’s such a perfect encapsulation of what I often find problematic about a lot of fantasy storytelling: a deference to lore without thematic power. Now, I get the allure of telling stories like this. The author wants to build a world and live in a place with a sense of history. I mean, I grew up reading Lord of the Rings every year, I get it (hell, Tolkien pretty much just wanted to invent his own language) But there’s a reason both I and most others didn’t get through The Silmarillion even once. And that’s because lore is just information. And good stories have compelling, dramatic narratives that not only drive our interest, but speak to themes that resonate inside us and live on in our hearts and minds.
So why the heck is Frozen II suddenly so damn interested in lore? The first film jumped us into its setting with nary an explanation. It used fun songs to establish the setting and mood, then it came alive through it’s character’s wants and needs. It didn’t need to explain anything about Elsa’s abilities. We understood who everyone was by what they’re actively trying to do. But Frozen II can’t wait to take that different tact, even though its journey into the past and history feels so comparatively inert. Seriously, the entire plot hinges on the betrayal of their grandfather, but again, they have no relationship with him. And the people they hurt are not ones the kingdom has any real relationship with anymore. It represents the worst of “lore” because it has no meaningful conflict to the situation at hand.
Same goes for the film’s magical mythos. I could talk about the comparisons to Avatar: The Last Airbender of it all or how it quickly descends into The Fifth Element in a way that feels way too close for comfort. But I care far less about the possible cribbing and more about how I don’t have a real grasp of what the spirits… are?… And for? But its not because it needs more explanation, it’s because they’re not actual characters. While I genuinely wish we got fleshed-out characters here just so that the lore actually could mean SOMETHING, the truth is I’m not even sure what they would really have to say. Because the spirits are just beings that alternate between cute and malevolent and ultimately serve no purpose other than fatalistically moving the characters into the places they need to be.
The character-less-ness of the spirits evokes the way that the lore will constantly hint at these ideas that seem big, but are wrapped up in ways that feel so haphazard to the story. Take the way that Olaf clumsily introduces the theory that “water has memories.” It’s not like this a running joke that ends up having a surprising emotional payoff (I tend to love those). Instead, it just just gets planted from the get go with this clunky thud of explanation that’s half-serious, but ends up being foundational lore to the entire damn story. There are HUGE moments that hang on it, but it’s not set up and paid off in any real dramatic moment. But nothing is ever really given the space to hold its meaning.
Even when Elsa achieves her “destiny” by going into the cave while singing “Show Yourself,” she even outright says that you’re “the one I’ve been looking for all of my life!” But even that becomes another fleeting moment. She gets a brief harmony with her mother, but there’s no acted moment or real catharsis. In turn, Elsa never stops to really introspect on her life. There’s no moment of transcendence, or change, or catharsis. There’s no conflict being resolved. There’s nothing that even comes from this later. Elsa is simply unfrozen then runs and saves the kingdom and then she’s like “I’m the fifth elemen-I mean spirit.” And Anna’s like “yay, let’s not fight.” And that’s the end of it….
They saved the day cause the literal “spirit animals” (good god Disney, read the room) pushed them around and they learned nothing. Which means the lore of this entire film is created just to solve the puzzle architecture of it’s own created story. Truthfully, this is part of why I hate “destiny” in storytelling all together. Because it almost always fails to do anything dramatically interesting. It renders characterization into a series of pieces on a board instead of actual dramatic choices based on a characters active wants and needs… God I feel like a broken record. I’ve made the same points again and again, but when a film has the same problems again and again, you have to keep pointing them out. And to bring it all together, it brings me back to that question…
“What is Frozen II really about?”
Unfortunately, the beginning moments of ennui spell it out and then never offers a solution…. because this film about going through the motions. I feel at best, maybe the movie could have said something about life and the problems of going through the motions.
But instead, it just embodies it.
Epilogue - The Nothing-burger
I can’t stop thinking about the difference in the songs.
These films are musicals, after all. The original Frozen is loaded top to bottom with catchy, full-bodied songs with catchy choruses and memorable lyrics that introduce to spaces, ethics, characters, wants, needs and so much more. It uses “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” to build an entire arc of their early sisterhood. Then “For the First Time in Forever” fully documents Anna’s quick, naive capacity for love. And the aforementioned “Let It Go” is a defining anthem, the catharsis of a character becoming their true self (Hell, even “In Summer” and “Reindeer Are Better” are good old fun that fit within the purview of the traditional musical). Best of all, they all constantly speaks to conflicts between the characters and push the story forward.
The songs of Frozen II could not feel more different. So many of the opening chorus-less songs are constantly trying to explain these complicated inner monologues. Even when straight-forward, they’re trying to illustrate the abstract concepts of ennui and malaise and not knowing what to do. In theory, I actually like some of the ideas in “Some Things Never Change,” or doing the “Next Right Thing” or getting this all “When [you’re] Older” And it’s not even that they’re too abstract to get, it’s that they’re wholly undramatic. They’re basically just wistful sighs that point at feelings of being unsettled. They’re hard to sink your teeth and emotions into. And they’re even hard to sing in the shower. Which is why they really feel part of a movie that’s unwittingly, but actively trying to push you away, or worse, doesn’t really want to exist.
Make no mistake, these actors are too good and these characters are too well-beloved for Frozen II not to offer some forms of pleasure. There are moments and laughs and striking images to be found. But because of the errant overall approach, I get something that falls so flat. To the point that I really can’t believe these two films were made by the same people. But since they were, I can admit that I don’t really understand what Frozen II was trying to accomplish. But I can’t be sure the filmmakers do, either.
Was it out of embarrassment for the success? Their own being sick of the omnipresence? The push-pull of wanting to make a sequel, yet not wanting to whatsoever? While it’s impossible to project, I do know when films are hiding. And sadly, almost everything about Frozen II evokes that feeling of just not wanting to happen. Hell, it took seven years to make a cash-out sequel and if you look at the development history there seems so much non-interest in it happening. And it’s a shame that the final result feels so painfully arrived at, existing as little more than constantly moving stasis of hiding and obfuscation.
Frozen became a phenomenon because it was the ultimate ear worm. Nor just through it’s catchiness, but because it was really a heart worm, too (wait no that’s something else). Okay, let’s just call it a beacon of good spirit, one that created a beautiful space within the hearts of movie-goers, karaoke enthusiasts, kindly parents (at least the first time they saw, not the 1000th), and, of course, young kids everywhere. It was a film that had something important to say, and more importantly, a dire reason to exist. But in defiance of themselves, the powers that be created a second course that was utterly devoid of those same principles. The proverbial nothing-burger. A meal that looks the part, but can’t help leaving you completely empty. But perhaps I shouldn’t mix the metaphor.
Instead of the ear worm, they gave us a song that goes in one ear and out the other.
I can think of no greater difference.