This review has minor spoilers for Frozen II.
I admit I didn’t expect much from Frozen II. I figured that in the worst case, it’d be another direct-to-DVD sequel, bloated to feature length. But even in the best case, I figured that it’d never be quite able to escape that feeling of desperately trying to recapture the one-in-a-lifetime combination of timing and talent that made the original such an unexpectedly charming breakout hit.
But after seeing — and enjoying the hell out of — Frozen II, I realized that not only did it do all of the “next right things” that an inspired sequel should do, it made me retroactively respect the original even more than I already did.
I’d always thought of Frozen as a happy accident: a not-particularly ambitious Disney fairytale that happened to get the right cast, and make one inspired decision to tell a story about a different kind of true love, that made it stand out beyond all the elements that Disney animation just gets right “by default.” But that’s absurdly dismissive of how many decisions must have gone into the movie. Kristen Bell deliberately wanted to introduce a Disney princess who was clumsy and goofy, who’d appeal to girls like she was growing up. And hearing early versions of songs and seeing deleted scenes from earlier versions of the movie make it clear that the movie’s charm wasn’t effortless but instead the result of many iterations.
That’s something that’s clear after only one viewing of Frozen II. You can immediately see that they refused to rely on just what would be expected from a sequel, and instead make a story that’s explicitly about transformation and maturity. Elsa’s character is more open and more impetuous, Anna’s character is less clumsy and more confident, and even Olaf spends a lot of the movie talking about what it means to grow up.
You can kind of even see it in the song that Disney is pushing as the successor to the movie’s big show-stopping musical number. “Let it Go” is an absurdly catchy Broadway-style song designed to show off Idina Menzel’s talents but also make something that a Main Street full of people can sing along with during the Disneyland fireworks. “Into the Unknown” isn’t anywhere near as catchy (I don’t think any of the songs in Frozen II are, really), but it feels a little more sophisticated. It’s got a range that only Menzel and the guy from Panic! at the Disco can hit.
To be clear, the movie does check off all the requirements of a blockbuster sequel. The characters are smashed together for the sake of having them together again, they make frequent callbacks to the first movie and in particular the runaway popularity of “Let it Go,” and they even have an entire scene where Olaf recounts the first movie. If they’d just done that throughout, it would’ve been insufferable. But I noticed three masterful aspects of Frozen II that I believe show the insistence on maturity and change:
Even a layman like myself can see that the movie got a rendering upgrade. The characters look mostly the same as far as I can tell, although their hair and clothing is more complex and sophisticated. (Fortunately, there are fewer of those uncannily appealing characters from the first movie, so that unsettling realization of “Wait, am I actually attracted to an animated character?!” is limited to Kristoff). But the more dramatic changes are to the environments.
Water, rocks, leaves, and trees are all beautiful and more painterly, a purposeful change from a movie that was previously covered in snow. But the more advanced lighting is what I noticed. It seemed similar to the jump from lighting in Monsters, Inc to Monsters University: I’d read that Pixar’s big tech advance for that movie was more sophisticated natural lighting, which was crucial to the story that took place over a school year, allowing you to tell instantly what time of year it was based solely on the quality of light and shadow. The jump from Frozen to Frozen II feels like the transition from winter to autumn — again, thematically appropriate as the story goes from a season of cold to a season of change.
This was the first detail that jumped out to me. The characters’ facial animation in Frozen II is outstanding, and it’s key to the thing that makes Frozen unique. Much of the movie’s charm comes from having fairytale characters delivering naturalistic, contemporary dialogue. If you don’t nail the tone of that perfectly — and, frankly, if you don’t have actors like Kristen Bell and Josh Gad bringing their personality to the part — then it comes across as insultingly cheesy, the way 9 out of 10 animated movie trailers have a character mugging the camera and saying “Oooh, that’s gotta hurt!”
But the first movie still seemed to me to apply traditional animation techniques to 3D characters. Their faces are still transitioning between fairly broad keyframes. In Frozen II, the style seemed like a combination of performance capture and keyframe animation. I don’t know what the actual process was, but the effect was as if they’d taken motion capture data from the actors and turned each frame into a professionally animated keyframe. Some scenes seemed to have dozens of subtle shifts in expression. The actors more or less vanish, and it’s as if the Frozen characters are actually delivering their lines.
“Lost in the Woods”
This has to be my favorite scene in the movie. I love that they just went for it. They REO Speedwagoned the hell out of this scene, all the while knowing that a significant chunk of the audience was born after 2010.
And most likely, a significant chunk of the team who made the scene was born after 1990. That’s a trend in pop culture that I really like to see; it feels like people are getting better at being able to make fun of things without being completely dismissive of them. Every aspect of “Lost in the Woods” is simultaneously mocking the power ballad and earnestly loving it. That works for Frozen II because of its careful balance in tone — balanced at the tipping point between mockery and melodrama.
Overall, the movie tries — and mostly succeeds — to carry on all of the charm and and goofiness of the original while also refusing to just make an uninspired victory lap that just repeats the first movie. I can’t go so far as to say that this is a story that demanded to be told, but if they had to make a follow-up to such a blockbuster hit — and why wouldn’t they? — I have to respect the integrity that went into this one. It insists on doing something new, it forgoes the over-simple villain of the first movie in favor of more sophisticated obstacles, it downplays the conventional fairytale story in favor of one that’s about respecting people instead of seeing them as “other,” and it emphasizes that change isn’t just inevitable, but positive.