By Sean Kernan
Two weeks in theaters and “Frozen 2” has single handedly revived a sleepy North American box office. To say that Disney has a magic touch with sequels and familiar I.P is not saying much, they’re the master of wringing every last dollar out of their properties. What perhaps sets Disney apart from other companies that increasingly rely on well-known properties rather than risking money on new developments, is that Disney trusts creators more. And if that doesn’t work, they can amp up the marketing budget.
“Frozen 2” is a strong example of trusting their creators. By any account of the first Frozen, there did not appear to be much of any sequel potential in the story of Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, at least not theatrically. In a cynical world, Disney could spin romantic, young-adult tales of the love adventures of Anna and Elsa for infinity on the straight to video market. But Disney has grown ambitious since the Toy Story movies proved there was an appetite for sequels in theaters as opposed to the video market that Disney owned for the better part of two decades.
The creators of Frozen did not rest on the ease and familiarity of the characters of Anna and Elsa by feeding the need to pair Elsa off romantically. That was a natural storytelling alley but the filmmakers sought an adventure that would be more ambitious and capitalize on the strengths that Idina Menzel fueled with her remarkable voice and the original screenplay had given Elsa beyond the need for her to have a prince.
The original Frozen was an adventure story and the filmmakers knew that an adventure story was where they wanted to go again with the sequel, even if it didn’t necessarily have a natural jumping off point from the original story. The clever idea here was to investigate the back story of Elsa’s powers as it related to the deaths of her parents and the history of the Kingdom of Arendelle which it turns out is darker than we’d ever suspected.
The story of Frozen 2 has Elsa hearing a voice that drives her to seek out a magical forest locked behind an enchanted mist that she can access because of her powers. Naturally, Anna (Kristen Bell) insists on joining Elsa on the journey along with Olaf (Josh Gad), Christoph (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer pal Sven. Together they will discover the spirit of the elements, Fire, Water, Air and Earth. There is a fifth element and that is at the heart of the mystery of Frozen 2.
The story is wonderfully told with big, Broadway style musical interludes that help the story along. While the first film had a surefire pop hit in “Let it Go,” the makers of Frozen 2 have boldly chosen not to concern themselves with pop hits and have gone solely for songs that help drive the story. It’s a shockingly uncommercial choice and it gives Frozen 2 an even stronger independent identity from its corporate origins.
The voices of Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell have only grown stronger and more confident in the roles of Elsa and Anna. The comfort in their vocal work lends authenticity to the characters. The same could be said of Josh Gad’s Olaf who rounds into the big beating heart of the Frozen franchise. Olaf, while remaining a predominately comic character, has moments of genuine emotional power in Frozen 2 as he comes to stand in as an avatar for the youngest audience members of the Frozen fandom.
Olaf is very funny and the youngest audience members will absolutely adore him as they did in the original. Gad carries the comic burden of Frozen 2 while facilitating the other characters to linger in more dramatic adventures. Much of the success of Frozen 2 can be attributed to the laughs brought on by Olaf underlining the action of the other characters who are sprinting toward more dramatic and life changing adventures.
In some ways, Frozen 2 is actually superior to the original Frozen. The characters are more fleshed out and relatable. Elsa is more human and relatable than in the original and the music explores her depths in ways that Let it Go and the other original Frozen songs could not. The creative team of Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have also expanded the visual palette of the Frozen universe with daring visuals that include even more gorgeous explorations of ice and a horse made of water that is one of the most beautiful pieces of animation in this young century.
Frozen 2 has that unique ability to appeal to children with stories of wonder and necessary lessons about life and family while also reaching adults who can appreciate the visual mastery and the wonderful characters who have an adult accessibility. It’s rare to see that combination of traits outside of Disney’s partners at Pixar but Frozen 2 achieves it. Frozen 2 is the number 1 movie in America, and the rest of the world, because of those accessible traits.
Sean Patrick has been a film critic for nearly 20 years and member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for eight years. He is the co-host of the “Everyone’s a Critic” podcast.