Dirs: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee. Starring: Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K Brown, Alfred Molina (voices). U cert, 103 mins
The most burning question about Frozen II was whether or not Disney would be able to concoct a new show tune with enough hurricane force to knock Let It Go off its perch. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s long-anticipated sequel to their 2013 animated blockbuster answers it within about half an hour, and the answer is a rafter-shaking yes.
The song – which like its forerunner was written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez – is called Into the Unknown, and it goes into your ear like musical caustic soda, scouring away all other tunes in its path. I sung it to myself for the entire train journey home, fell asleep singing it, woke up singing it, and am in fact still singing it right now, while typing this.
Not with the requisite gusto, though. “Into the un-knowwwn”, blares Idina Menzel’s Elsa, at a volume and intensity that makes the cinema walls bulge out.
Does the fact that there will be no escaping this thing for the next few years count as a positive? In Frozen II’s case, absolutely: without a deadly new arsenal of empowerment ballads, it just wouldn’t be a Frozen film. (There are other goodies too, such as Show Yourself, a second Elsa spine-prickler, and Lost in the Woods, an affectionate send-up of Nineties boyband angst pop, performed by Jonathan Groff’s cuddly reindeer husbandman Kristoff.)
Yet an early song-and-dance reassurance that we’re in for more of the same – “Some things never change,” trill the ensemble – turns out to be a ruse. Because once the pieces are in place – a process that takes just long enough for you to wonder if the film knows what it’s doing – Frozen II tacks excitingly away from the Disney princess template.
Like 2016’s Moana, Buck and Lee’s film is less a fairy-tale than a Voyage of the Dawn Treader-esque allegorical quest, in which Elsa and the gang – loyal sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Kristoff and his antlered confidante Sven, sweet-summer-child snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) – journey to faraway lands where they unearth some uncomfortable truths about the way their elders had been running the kingdom.
A cartoon princess musical that’s also a swingeing critique of colonialism and a Greta Thunberg-like call to arms for a generational environmental rethink? This is the Disney of 2019 in action, and it is hard not to admire the studio’s willingness to spike even its child-friendly output with resonant modern-day talking points. (See also Ralph Breaks The Internet, which might be the smartest film yet made about toxic online conduct.)
In fact, at one point Frozen II seems to be asking you to brace for a truly radical ending: not a death, exactly, but something shocking enough to have given a new generation its Bambi’s mother moment. In the event, it opts for something gentler and more conventionally happy-ever-after-ish – though without wafting away the underlying point.
In visual terms, too, the film pushes the envelope rather than tearing clean through it – and perhaps more obviously than the first Frozen pays generous tribute to Disney artistry of the past. The enchanted forest where Elsa and co spend much of the film owes a debt to the great Eyvind Earle’s storybook backdrops for 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, while Elsa’s frozen-fractal zips and zaps hark back to the glittering fairy-dust arcs of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo sequence in 1950’s Cinderella.
And there are moments when the elegance of the animators’ draughtsmanship combines with the dazzle of the CG effects to create something truly striking, such as the horses of water and ice that come coursing through a crashing sea as Elsa’s quest nears its end.
Occasionally, the fan-service can feel a little effortful: Olaf’s solo number, When I Am Older, feels like an obvious attempt to duplicate the archly naive In Summer from the original film. But there are a wealth of fresh details and skits just waiting to be seized upon, from Kristoff’s perfect-boyfriend yelp of “I’m here, what do you need?” to Anna at a moment of crisis – swoon-a-rama! – to a handsome new supporting character called Ryder, who offers to help Kristoff plan a memorable and stylish marriage proposal, despite emphatically declaring that he himself “knows nothing about women”. (Call it Queer Eye for the Sleigh Guy.)
For all its feints and innovations, Frozen II knows its audience inside out, and wants to ensure every last subdivision leaves feeling both seen and satisfied. That’s obviously good business. But it’s also generous, deeply charming filmmaking.
Frozen 2 is released on Friday November 22
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