'Frozen II' Review: A Gorgeously Animated Sequel That Tops The Original

"Some things never change," or so go the lyrics in one of the songs in the highly anticipated Disney sequel Frozen II. This follow-up arrives six years after the worldwide phenomenon of Frozen took hold of popular culture, with its songs becoming so unavoidable and ubiquitous almost overnight. Frozen II attempts to carve out a place for itself while delivering the charm, catchy music, and core emotional underpinnings that so inflamed people's imaginations in 2013. With its eye-popping animation, world-building, and character exploration, Frozen II is nominally a slight improvement on its predecessor. But it's still limited by the burden of expectations.Arendelle is thriving in the reign of Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), yet the young leader is plagued by the mysterious sound of a beckoning siren call only she can hear. Coupled with her memory of the king and queen describing for her a strange, enchanted forest in the North where magic reigned supreme, Elsa is compelled to leave her home. Unable to quell her wandering spirit, she heads off to an enchanted forest in the North, joined by her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna's beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the supposedly lovable snowman Olaf (Josh Gad). The core adventure is less about the sisterly bonds delved into during the 2013 original, and more about the pressing question of why Elsa is gifted with magical powers, and whether those powers might destroy or save their land.What works most in this film's favor is that it doesn't present itself as a direct copy of the original. Shrewdly, Anna and Elsa are teamed up for a bulk of the story, this enabling their connection to be more believable. Now at least, Anna and Elsa act like sisters, instead of lip service being paid to their relationship. Elsa, too, may still be a figure of some mystery, but Jennifer Lee's script (she co-directed the film with Chris Buck) is at its strongest when the icy queen is at the forefront. Anna, though less outlandishly klutzy than in the first film, is placed in a silly subplot with Kristoff, who's desperate to pop the question but unable to close the deal. It's not exactly a good thing that this film recalls the first-ever Disney animated sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, wherein the kindly male lead struggles to pop the question to his longtime girlfriend. But the similarities are...unexpected, if not straight-up unwelcome.Of course, the vagaries of what is expected of a sequel—the same, but more of it—means that there are more songs, including two big numbers for Elsa. ("Into the Unknown" has received the "Let It Go" treatment in the marketing campaign, but her other solo number, "Show Yourself", is the standout.) Groff, like Menzel, is a seasoned Broadway vet, although he ironically never got a show-stopping number in the original film. That has mercifully changed with Frozen II, where his 80s-throwback song "Lost in the Woods" is the best of all the compositions from songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez. It's one of many pop-culture in-jokes that toe the line between being too referential and just slyly funny enough. (To describe the song further would ruin one of the film's most delightful surprises.)There is also a great deal of Olaf, speaking of humor that tries to land on the right side of being too jokey. If you like the sentient snowman who loves warm hugs, you're in for a treat—Olaf jockeys with the two sisters as the second lead of the film. The rest of us have to stew in silence through extended comic bits that land with a thud, as when Olaf hurriedly rushes through a plot synopsis of the first film for a captive audience of new characters. Less continues to be more with Olaf, which means his screen time is an aggressive albatross hanging around the rest of the film.Those aforementioned new characters are plentiful, but it's fascinating that none of them make much of an impact, nor are they meant to. Sterling K. Brown appears as a long-lost Arendellian (Arendellite? We'll have to wait for the third film to know for sure) with a connection to Anna and Elsa's parents, acquitting himself nicely enough in a mildly thankless role. The same goes for Martha Plimpton and Jason Ritter, both as denizens of the mysterious forest where our heroes spend most of the film. Yet Frozen II is not about the new characters, instead trying to expand upon the creaky mythology of the original. (The expansion of said mythology does not improve its creakiness, sadly.)The truest improvement between films comes not in its story, but in its striking presentation. Though Elsa's powers arrive in full bloom in the enchanted forest, the real power of this movie comes through its gorgeous, often jaw-dropping animation. Much of the film's antagonism is driven by natural elements like air and water, which are visualized in crisp, detailed fashion that goes well beyond past Disney animated fare, hand-drawn or computer animated. An extended sequence midway through the film, in which Elsa goes on a very important journey of self-discovery, is visually one of the most accomplished sequences of the 80-plus years of Disney animation, period. The way that Disney animators have pushed computer technology to give life to even droplets of water is genuinely gasp-inducing. Whatever else can be said, Frozen II is truly beautiful.Frozen II has an insurmountable challenge in front of it. When the original arrived in the late fall of 2013, no one would have predicted exactly how massive it became. Its songs became instant anthems, its story tapped into the vibrant spirit of young women around the world, and its characters were quickly welcomed into the collective public's hearts. Nothing about this movie is going to ruin the original film's impact, and it's a more coherent story with a stronger emotional heart. It's a good movie, a solid follow-up to a slightly less entertaining film. But only when its visuals do the talking does Frozen II really sing./Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10