Frozen II – Disney’s best sequel?

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for both Frozen and Frozen II.

Disney doesn’t have a good track record when producing sequels to its animated hits. There have been a number of attempts over the years to follow up a successful title with a sequel, but usually the main focus of the studio was elsewhere, with the best writers and animators working on the next big title. The result has been that almost every sequel attempt has ended up as a direct-to-video affair, with an expected drop in quality. There have been some gems hidden amongst these titles – The Return of Jafar, the 1994 sequel to Aladdin, being one example – but generally speaking, Disney prefers to direct its attention to projects other than direct sequels.

Frozen II is something altogether different. With the exception of Fantasia 2000, a sequel to 1940’s Fantasia, and a couple of films in the Winnie-the-Pooh series, Disney hasn’t attempted a big-screen sequel that required anywhere close to the effort put in to Frozen II. The first Frozen, which I picked as one of my top ten films of the 2010s, was a runaway hit even by Disney’s standards. In 2013-14 Frozen merchandise was inescapable, and the film had as big of an impact – or bigger – as 1989’s The Little Mermaid, which kicked off the era known as the “Disney Renaissance”. The value of Frozen as a brand was phenomenally high, and cashing in on that success – especially in an era of cinema so dominated by sequels and franchises – was too tempting for the studio to resist!

The relationship between Elsa and Anna is the core of Frozen II.

Because I was living overseas in 2013 I missed practically all of the pre-release marketing for Frozen. It was only when browsing local cinema listing for English-language titles that I first heard of it, and while I had high hopes as I’d always been a Disney fan, I was absolutely blown away by just how amazing that film was. In my opinion at least, the “Disney Renaissance” can be stretched to include 2002’s Lilo and Stitch, but after that the quality of the studio’s output seemed to dip, and while there were still some enjoyable titles in the decade after, Frozen was on a completely different level.

Idina Menzel, who voices the co-lead role of Elsa, is someone I was quite familiar with before Frozen. I’d been lucky enough to see her on stage in the London production of Wicked – a musical about the Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz series. She’d also released three albums by the mid-late 2000s, all of which I owned, and as a big fan of Wicked I was used to hearing her belt out the show’s big hits like The Wizard and I, Popular, and of course Defying Gravity from the show’s soundtrack album. Menzel also had a co-starring role in 2007’s Enchanted, which is a fun parody of some of Disney’s tropes – made by Disney itself. She seemed like a great fit for a starring role in a Disney film, and I wasn’t disappointed by her performance; I’d always felt she was quite an underrated performer.

I guess we can admit – as Frozen II hints at itself – that the song Let It Go may have been played a little too often in the aftermath of the first film’s success, but nevertheless the Frozen soundtrack has to be one of Disney’s best. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez returned for Frozen II, and the sequel benefits greatly from their involvement. The songs and music have always been a huge part of any Disney title, so getting that right is incredibly important!

Elsa’s reaction to Let It Go was pretty funny.

Elsa’s ballad from early in the film, Into the Unknown, was Frozen II’s answer to Let It Go from the first film. Music is, of course, something very subjective, and comparing two powerful ballads by the same composer sung by the same singer really boils down to “which did I like better?” While I obviously have to concede that my opinion is influenced by having heard Let It Go many more times, I think I prefer it over Into the Unknown. But that’s really just a subjective opinion.

The other two standout songs for me were Lost in the Woods and Some Things Never Change, which was played close to the beginning of the film.

The song Some Things Never Change from Frozen II.

Frozen II picks up the story a few years after the events of the first film. My initial concern on hearing a second film was in development is how it would get around the usual Disney sequel problem, which I can summarise thus: how do you tell a dramatic, engaging, and interesting story after the “happily ever after” moment in the original title? This isn’t a question exclusive to Disney; many sequels can falter when it comes to answering, but because Disney films like Frozen have self-contained stories that are wrapped up by the end, it’s something ever-present and noticeable in practically every Disney sequel. Frozen’s ending answered the question of Elsa’s magic, fixed the relationships between Elsa and Anna, and Anna and Kristoff, and saw the newly-crowned Elsa open up the kingdom of Arendelle and her castle, no longer feeling the need to isolate herself. Any sequel would have to find a way to get around these finalities.

In the film’s early scenes, we’re reintroduced to Elsa and Anna’s parents, who tell the young girls a story of a battle between Arendelle and their northern neighbours near an enchanted forest in a flashback sequence. The Northuldra tribe are evidently based on the Sámi (or Laplander) people who inhabit northern Scandinavia, and I believe Disney consulted Sámi leaders and historians to enhance the tribe’s appearance and portrayal in the film. The cause of the battle between the Northuldra and Arendelle forces is unknown, but as a result the enchanted forest has sealed itself off, shrouded in an impenetrable fog bank.

Frozen dedicated a lot of time and effort to getting its animated snow to look and behave just right in 2013, and that has carried over to this film too. But I want to also acknowledge at this point the fog effect, which is something that can be difficult to get right in computer animation. Frozen II absolutely nailed the way this fog looks and behaves – and as something that does get a fair amount of screen time, it ended up looking amazing and fit right in with the aesthetic of Frozen II’s world.

The fog in Frozen II was beautifully created and animated.

To get back to the plot, the basic premise that the princesses’ grandfather and the rulers of Arendelle were the “bad guys” who instigated the fight with the Northuldra wasn’t well-disguised – but it gets a pass for that as a kids’ film. I’m sure all of the under-tens in the audience were shocked at that revelation! However, it does draw comparisons to the big twist in the first film: that Anna’s fiancé, Prince Hans, was evil and the film’s villain. That twist caught everyone off-guard, simply because Disney had never pulled a stunt quite like it. There may have been some pressure on Frozen II to follow suit and throw in a twist or curveball, and while it was a success as a story point, it wasn’t a shock in the way the Prince Hans twist had been.

The second point to make from this twist is that it leans very strongly into the “white people bad, natives good” storyline that we’ve seen a lot of in recent years. The portrayal of the Northuldra tribe overall definitely veered toward a common trope in fiction called the “noble savage”, which is where native/indigenous peoples are portrayed as being peaceful, in touch with nature, and so on. Neither of these points need to be taken as criticism; we could spend years arguing the history of European colonialism and its lasting impact on the world and get nowhere. The fact that we’re dealing with a couple of tropes that, by 2019, have been used so often that they’re becoming clichéd doesn’t actually detract from the plot of Frozen II, nor make the film worse. But it is worth noting their inclusion.

The Northuldra tribespeople meet with the King of Arendelle and his guards.

In that sense, the way King Runeard is presented, and the way relations between the Northuldra and people of Arendelle unfold is comparable to another Disney classic from a few years ago: Pocahontas. Swap out King Runeard for Governor Ratcliffe, King Agnarr and Queen Iduna for John Smith and Pocahontas, Arendelle and the Northuldra for the English and Powhatan/Algonquian tribe and you have a similar setup and a comparable situation. In recent years Pocahontas has come in for some criticism for its portrayal of Native Americans, and we’ve seen Disney use films like Moana to try to broaden the viewpoints of its heroines to include more non-white and indigenous peoples. While Frozen II doesn’t give us native protagonists it does continue this trend of using fictional settings to at least give some of these aspects of history a cursory glance. And yes, I am aware that Elsa and Anna are revealed partway through the film to be of half-Northuldra descent, but it doesn’t really become a major point for either of their characters until the film’s final moments.

Frozen was a film which broke some of Disney’s self-imposed boundaries, and in particular threw away the idea of princesses as damsels in distress or characters without agency, who do nothing besides waiting for their handsome prince. Not only through the reveal of Prince Hans as a villain, but by making the film’s one great act of true love an act of sisterly love, Frozen placed Elsa and Anna firmly at the centre of the story. Kristoff, Anna’s boyfriend, actually takes on a role in Frozen II not unlike some Disney Princesses of the past – pining for and chasing after Anna. Some films and television shows receive criticism for the way they handle female characters because those characters spend all of their time talking to or about men. Kristoff’s entire storyline in Frozen II is about his relationship with Anna and trying to figure out the best way to propose to her. His big song midway through the film, Lost in the Woods, is one that in years gone by we might’ve expected a film’s female lead to be singing! Turning this trope on its head was fantastic, and it kept Elsa and Anna as the two main protagonists while still including Kristoff in a way that made sense.

Kristoff’s storyline in Frozen II is all about Anna.

The first Frozen took on almost a Christmas vibe due to its wintry setting and heavy use of snow. Elsa’s ice magic is still prominent, but there was certainly less by way of snow and that wintertime, holiday theme than had been present in the first title. The woods – where a large part of the film takes place – have more of an autumnal vibe, and early in the film we see what seems to be a harvest festival taking place. The setting is clearly the late autumn, but we haven’t quite arrived at winter. That’s really neither here nor there, but I thought it worth mentioning.

There are two fake-out character deaths in Frozen II – Olaf and Elsa both appear to succumb to the limitations of magic. Where the first film had clearly established that a “frozen heart” was something terribly damaging, thus explaining why Anna appeared to freeze solid at the film’s climax, the in-universe rules governing how ice magic works in Frozen II seem a little more lax. There was a vague warning about not diving too deep, but nothing that would explicitly mean Elsa should have frozen in the way she did. Olaf’s disintegration makes more sense, given that his existence was tied to Elsa, though. Despite this pretty small nitpick, both Elsa becoming frozen and Olaf evaporating into snow were truly emotional moments, not spoilt in any way by thoughts of why or how. Perhaps it’s best in a Disney film not to question such things anyway!

Olaf’s “death” was an emotional moment in Frozen II.

The climax of the story sees a dam which the princesses’ grandfather had constructed being torn down. The dam, far from being a peace offering to the Northuldra, was in fact a nefarious plot to control their land and water supply, and Elsa realises that the only way to fix things with the spirits and the Northuldra is to destroy it. Elsa and Anna realise why the people of Arendelle were forced to leave town earlier in the film – breaching the dam will release a flood, destroying Arendelle. Despite this enormous sacrifice, they go ahead with the plan and destroy the dam. But Disney could never let a whole city – and the princesses’ castle – be destroyed! Elsa’s return from the ice magic/spirit world means she’s able to use her magic to turn some of the water to ice, saving the town and everyone’s homes.

The reunion between Elsa and Anna, as well as the resurrection of Olaf, was an incredibly emotional moment, and is the heart of the film. Frozen II really succeeded in getting me invested in these characters. As a sequel, part of that is because they’re familiar from the previous film. But as we’ve seen many times, a bad sequel can take once-important characters and rob their stories of any emotional weight. Frozen II is at least on par with the first title when it comes to the emotional stakes – Anna and Elsa’s reunion, and Olaf being restored, parallels the moment in the first film where the one great act of love restored Anna’s frozen heart.

Elsa and Anna are reunited in Frozen II’s final act.

Both Elsa and Anna have very satisfying arcs in Frozen II, despite my initial concerns that they’d already accomplished so much in the first title. Elsa learns the true nature and source of her powers, and their presence in her life is finally explained. Anna learns to step out of Elsa’s shadow and truly become her own person, which sets the stage for her coronation at the end of the film when Elsa chooses to remain with the Northuldra. Cue Frozen III, perhaps?

Far from being the typical Disney sequel I was fearing, with a convoluted and tacked-on plot, Frozen II delivered an experience on par with its predecessor, and managed to tell an interesting, tense, and emotional story where the princesses remained the stars. The introduction of the Northuldra expands our knowledge of Frozen’s setting without feeling out of place, and the Scandinavian theme from the first title continued to be treated respectfully.

While a couple of the story points were a little more obvious than the Prince Hans moment in the first film, I don’t feel that really detracted from the story. And for many of the film’s young viewers, those moments would have been just as surprising. It was great to see the characters from the first film make their returns, as well as meet a handful of newbies.

The relationship between Kristoff and Sven was a great source of fun.

Some of the smaller moments that I liked that I haven’t had a chance to mention yet were: Olaf’s line directly to the camera saying: “you all look a little bit older”. At my age that starts to feel like an attack(!) but for the film’s younger viewers who are returning from the first title, it was a cute acknowledgement that they’re growing up. I’m sure it was appreciated. I liked how one of the girls in the village asks Elsa to make her a sextant from ice in one scene. I liked the uniforms used for the Arendelle soldiers. I liked that there were some hints of newer technology in Arendelle – such as gas lamps and railways – showing that the world is not stagnant or medieval, and that modernity is creeping in. Finally, I liked how Olaf retained his status as the film’s comic relief; he’s great in that role and Josh Gad’s performance was pitch-perfect.

The story of Frozen II was clever, and it didn’t feel like a tacked-on sequel, nor one that disrupted the princesses’ “happily ever after” for no reason. There was a story worth telling at the film’s core, one that had heart and that was entertaining. Compared to Disney’s past attempts at sequels – as well as memorable flops in other franchises – Frozen II is outstanding, and I had a great time with it from beginning to end.

Frozen II is available to stream on Disney+ in the USA, and will be available on Disney+ in the UK from the 3rd of July 2020. The film is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Frozen II is the copyright of Disney. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.