Frozen II has made a big box office splash over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Since its release, the animated sequel to Disney’s biggest animated feature has nabbed over $700 million worldwide.
The problem? It’s just not a very good movie, at least when compared to the original Frozen. My hunch is that the box office success is largely due to two factors:
First, people are curious to see what happens with Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf after a six year hiatus. When I went to see the original, my twelve-year-old daughter was six. My nine-year-old son was three. Of course we’re all curious to see what this sequel is all about, and why not go to the theater?
Second, it’s a tent-pole family movie for a whole new generation of six-year-old girls who don’t care about plot holes or mediocre music. They love it for the princesses, the magic and the cool water horse. I admit, I did really enjoy that horse. And Olaf, who was—once again—quite funny this time around.
The rest? Well, let’s take a look at the five biggest problems with Frozen II. Spoilers below.
1. The plot is a convoluted mess.
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In the original Frozen, the conceit is quite simple. Two princesses are raised by their parents in a palace, but one is cursed with superhuman powers over snow and water and ice. Elsa is a water-bender, essentially, and it makes her feel isolated. Her power is too strong and she doesn’t know what to do with it, so even as a girl she begins shutting out everyone close to her, including her sister, Anna.
When their parents die at sea, the girls face even more trauma and heartache, and Elsa leaves to go it alone in the frozen north where she builds herself an ice palace and sings “Let It Go”. Anna goes to find her lost sister, and one thing leads to another and pretty soon there’s a story of betrayal and true love and you know the rest.
To be honest, I think the original got off to a slow start and then ended powerfully.
Frozen II follows suit, to some degree, with the ending much better than the beginning, but the whole thing is a convoluted mess. The plot, from the very get-go, feels forced and tacked-on.
Suddenly we have this whole story about a magical river that can tell you everything about the past. Suddenly Elsa is hearing voices, and an elemental spirit shows up at the Arendelle and puts out all the fires, starts an earth quake and forces everyone out.
This apparently all ties into the girls’ parents past. We learn of a story that they heard from their father as young girls, about how their grandfather and his men built a dam for the tribal Northuldra people of an enchanted forest to the north, and how the whole thing ended in blood and tears and the forest was put under a dark spell.
In any case, the girls head north to find out the truth about all of this, leaving their subjects behind them. Elsa makes her way, alone, to a frozen island where there’s a frozen river called Ahtohallan where she discovers that she’s the fifth primal spirit alongside water, fire, earth and wind.
So Elsa is basically the Fifth Element, I guess.
She discovers the truth about her grandfather, who had built the dam not to help the Northuldra, but to bind them to his power. He also killed their leader and I guess this lead to the fight that doomed the forest, and the only way to end the curse is to break the dam, and just as she freezes to death (but not really) she sends the memory to Anna and then Anna goes and breaks the dam by getting giants to throw rocks at it and all is saved.
It’s . . . a pretty messy story that relies on inserting a lot of backstory that was mysteriously not present at all in the original film. Some sequels draw naturally from their predecessor, but this one felt like pretty much every idea—including why the girls’ parents died at sea—was conceived after the first film was out already.
To be fair, there were some bones of a good story here, but the movie failed to capitalize on any of them, and instead we were left with a contrived narrative and a too-rapid conclusion that, for me at least, felt utterly unearned and unsatisfactory.
2. Elsa and Anna’s parentage, and the “noble savage”
This all leads back to Elsa and Anna’s parents. It turns out that the girl who saved their father during the battle in the enchanted forest was none other than their mother! Surprise! (Though, um, not really a surprise.)
But I guess their father didn’t know this somehow? She never told him? Or did they just lie to their kids about it?
Also, why does every member of the Northuldra look somewhat Native American or maybe Inuit, but then their mom is just completely white? [Edit: I guess they are meant to resemble the native Sami people, but that aside the rest of my point still stands.] Neither girl has any physical signs of being part mixed-race. This is part of the problem with ret-conning the story and jamming in this entire plot without establishing anything about it in the first movie.
It’s just another muddled, mucked up aspect of the film. And the fact that the girls’ parents didn’t just perish at sea, but as part of some ridiculous quest to discover whether Elsa was, in fact, the Fifth Element just cheapens the whole thing.
Furthermore, it occurs to me that the film gets perilously close to “noble savage” territory.
There are two trends in American filmmaking when it comes to Native Americans and the portrayal of Native Americans in fiction and film. (Or, in this case, the Sami people).
The first is the “savage savage” in which American Indians are presented as violent and barbaric, whooping and scalping and killing the poor white settlers. Then there is the “noble savage” in which all Natives are portrayed as good, peaceful and at one with nature.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the noble savage is “an idealized concept of uncivilized man, who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization.” (TV Tropes is another good source.)
The Northuldra are the latter. Not only do they live in harmony with nature—a harmony that the vicious white settler has undone with inexplicable treachery—they live in an enchanted forest and are in tune with the magical spirits there. This is, I’m afraid to say, the “noble savage” portrayal of indigenous people to a tee. They are dull. They are noble. They are a backdrop to a story about two princesses.
Coupled with the fact that the queen is lily white and both daughters also lily white, despite their mixed heritage, the “noble savage” elements become even more problematic since we then move right into White Savior territory. Ugh.
Native people are just that: People. Treating them as savages of any kind, whether violent or noble, is pretentious and bigoted. End of story.
(Note: Much of Frozen 2 appears to be a reaction to the reaction the first film received for not including many people of color and for “whitewashing.” The problem with how Frozen 2 handled this is that they really couldn’t up and change the race of the lead characters, so instead they just had them retroactively become half Northuldra. It doesn’t work.)
3. There’s not really much of an antagonist.
The closest thing to an antagonist, other than the curse of the forest, ends up being the princesses’s grandfather, King Runeard. He sought to rule the Northuldra, for reasons never fully explained, by building the dam and harming their forest (for reasons).
We never really learn anything more about the man or his ambitions, or why this would actually make the people of the forest more likely to be bound to him or why a dam would hurt the forest. It seems like a very small tribe, very far from Arendelle’s borders. The movie does little to help us understand the politics or geography or culture of either people in relation to one another, thus leaving the conflict bare-bones at best.
In fact, we don’t even really ever learn how exactly the fighting broke out in the first place, or why a presumably pre-agrarian society would want a dam to begin with (or why such a society is in Europe when it’s so clearly Native American).
Sure, King Runeard attacks the Northuldra leader, but he does so in secret. He, quite horribly, stabs the man in the back. But how does this lead to the fight? And why would he risk all in such an attack, when he could, instead, continue to argue that the dam is actually a boon? Or why not invite the leaders of the Northuldra to Arendelle and then kill them there, or have them ambushed by “bandits” on the road? Even the villain is written like a moron—and then quickly forgotten.
It’s such a sloppy move for a bad guy clever enough to use a massive, expensive dam like that in the first place. He could have just invaded in force and probably saved a lot of treasure in the process. None of it adds up.
Oh, and how come nobody over the past however many decades thought to destroy the dam? Surely some of the other Northuldra would have come to the same conclusion and found a way to destroy it? Why does it take Elsa and Anna to come up with the answer (an answer you could see coming a mile away from your seat in the theater).
And that’s that. That’s our bad guy. Nobody tries to stop Anna from destroying the dam—or rather, nobody really tries very hard. The few remaining soldiers put up a quick resistance but buckle immediately.
What if, instead, King Runeard, had still been alive, living as a hermit in the enchanted forest? What if they’d found him and were overjoyed to meet him for the first time, and he seemed like a kindly old man? And what if, after all that, we then discovered his cruelty and treachery and he was the one who tried to stop them from destroying the dam? What if he trapped Elsa and ordered Mattias and the other soldiers to stop Anna—and Matias’s loyalties had to be tested?
This is all much better than what we got, but still falls victim to the story’s underlying problems with race, overly vague backstory and, well, all the rest.
Think of the villain from Tangled. The witch, Mother Gothel, wasn’t just a witch—she masqueraded as Rapunzel’s mother. It made her villainy that much more unspeakable and horrific, her betrayal of her “daughter” that much more despicable. Same with Hans in Frozen. He pretended to love Anna, only to show his true colors in the end and very nearly kill her. While that film’s central conflict was really between the two sisters, having a compelling and deadly villain certainly helped bring the final act together.
In Frozen II, there’s no similar betrayal beyond one dredged up in the memory of water. And ultimately, there’s no real resolution beyond a forced happy ending with the Arendellians and Northuldra united by a marriage that, well, is full of its own problems as noted above.
4. Anna and Kristoff’s betrothal woes felt super forced.
There’s a running “gag” throughout Frozen II in which Kristoff tries, and fails, to propose to Anna. At first, each time he tries to get her attention for long enough to pop the question, she’s too distracted and he’s too passive to grab her attention.
Then, when he’s finally able to get her to pay attention to him for more than two seconds, he puts his foot in his mouth. Over and over again. He also picks bad times to ask, like on the start of their adventure to the enchanted forest when there’s obviously way too much going on. Anna basically asks him to make out in the carriage and instead he tries to ask her to marry him, but starts by reminding her of her doomed romance with Hans.
If that had been the only time she took him the wrong way, I’d be okay with it. But later on, at the enchanted forest, he says to her “Under other circumstances, this would be pretty romantic” (or some such) clearly indicating that the enchanted forest could be a romantic getaway if they weren’t there to free it from a dastardly curse.
But how does Anna respond? By saying “What, do you mean with somebody else?” which, I’m sorry, has to be the stupidest line in the whole movie. Clearly, that’s not what Kristoff meant. Since when is Anna the super jealous, paranoid type? It doesn’t make sense.
The wacky shenanigans continue when Kristoff meets a Northuldran youth who sympathizes with his plight. Fortunately, the young man says, his people have a special way of proposing that’s bound to get her attention. Apparently it involves going off into the forest without telling Anna to meet him there later, surrounding himself with a bunch of caribou, and waiting for her to show up.
Crazy how that doesn’t work! Crazy how just disappearing in the dead of night without a word sends the wrong message! Then again, it’s also more than a little silly that Anna just bails on him entirely. Could he be in trouble? Could there be some misunderstanding? Surely she and Elsa would have at least spent the night in the Northunlra village instead of leaving in the dark to hurry on their quest? Do neither of them care whatsoever about Kristoff’s well being? Or their own ability to navigate a strange land in the pitch black?
The next morning, a female figure appears in the mist, and Kristoff begins his proposal before even bothering to see who she is, perhaps forgetting that he never told Anna he was going out alone into the woods that night to begin with. It turns out it’s the matriarch of the Northuldra people, , and it’s just not a funny bit at all. The movie is attempting to pull a comedy of errors here, but it fails miserably at every turn.
So then Kristoff sings a funny song about being lost in the woods and ditched by his girl, and it’s purposefully over-the-top like some 80s heartbreak ballad, but even it falls flat thanks to the poor build-up and shoddy writing.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but having your characters act really, really out-of-character just to further the plot is a bad idea that makes otherwise fun characters seem stupid or insane. Anna is a kind, compassionate, brave person. Why would she be so quick to doubt Kristoff, and then abandon him? Why would she freak out when he says they might die, knowing full well the risks they’re taking? Anna is a twit in Frozen 2, and it’s completely out of character. Kristoff is far from the brave, self-sacrificing young man from the original. In Frozen 2 he’s just stupid.
Kristoff isn’t the brightest bulb in the lightbulb factory, but even he would know that simply wandering off into the night without a word is bound to lead to problems. How is he supposed to propose to her when she doesn’t even know where he is? And what’s the big rush to propose anyways? They’re in the middle of a crisis. Kristoff could just be patient instead of all needy and weird.
And finally, I was pretty letdown by the Northuldran proposal ceremony. It’s just a guy standing on a rock surrounded by reindeer? Uh, okay. You couldn’t come up with anything more interesting? Again, the Northuldra are only half-baked at best, built on vague ideas of what indigenous people are like in our most vapid romantic texts.
All of this is resolved in the end when Kristoff shows up at just the right time to save Anna and then he proposes and she says yes, of course, and now I guess he gets to be king. Happy day.
5. The music is forgettable at best.
I will be blunt: “Into The Unknown” is no “Let It Go.” In fact, none of the songs in Frozen II even come close. Elsa hollering “into the unknown” four times at rising pitch is only catchy in the way hammers beaten over ones head are catchy. You can’t ignore it, but you don’t really want to sing along.
I, like so many other parents at the time, grew mighty tired of “Let It Go” but there’s no denying that it had a great hook and held a powerful message for young girls especially. And it ended up being a great subject of satire. It was a cultural phenomenon, even though I thought Tangled had better, funnier, more emotionally powerful music than anything in the original Frozen except for maybe Olaf’s lovely and hilarious “In Summer.”
Olaf’s new song in Frozen II, “When I Am Older” is cute, but nowhere near as funny.
Pretty much the entire movie is made up of largely forgettable songs, and since they come every few minutes in a steady, sonic barrage that’s kind of a big deal. In fact, I’d say that Frozen 2’s lack of compelling or catchy tunes is its very biggest problem. A lot of story issues can be forgiven in a kids movie like this if you want to sing along.
I cannot hum a single tune from the whole lot except for the chorus of “Into The Unknown” which I find more annoying than anything. It doesn’t help that I find Indina Menzel’s voice, while quite powerful and capable, often too shrill at the higher end. I vastly prefer Kristen Bell, and did find her songs the better of the lot, but still . . . I can’t recall a single one.
Oh, and this hilarious video with Jimmy Fallon and the incredibly talented Kristen Bell singing a medley of a whole bunch of Disney songs illustrates my point about “Into the Unknown” perfectly. The way Fallon sings it is pretty much how I hear it in the movie:
Were there parts of Frozen II that I did enjoy? Absolutely. The magic itself was quite breathtaking at times. Elsa’s powers grew immensely (and I wonder, is she also the Avatar now, capable of bending earth, water and air as well as water?) and that led to some truly gorgeous moments. The visuals in general were stunning, and at times the forest looked very nearly real.
There were funny and touching moments throughout, especially between Olaf and Anna. And Sven and the other reindeer are all just too cute. I want one. I want a pet reindeer that talks to me when I’m down and a pet snowman that never melts and never shuts up. Okay, maybe a mute pet snowman.
There were many moments I found myself smiling or laughing or just immersed in the action, but few where I found myself surprised or relieved or really drawn into the conflict. Enjoyable, yes. Necessary? Not really. As a sequel, Frozen II is an undeniable success.
It just isn’t a terribly good movie. Frozen 2 could have been a grand adventure. Instead, it was a slog down memory lane where a couple white chicks learn that they’re half Native American, after all! And also key to bringing peace between two nations who barely know the other one exists! And also Elsa is the Fifth Element and she’s definitely going to hook up with Bruce Willis in Frozen 3. Or something.
I hate to be a stick in the mud, but Frozen deserved a better sequel. And frankly, if these are the best songs you can come up with, maybe it’s time to find new songwriters. And new writers.