Frozen 2 is nothing short of miraculous. In many ways, its predecessor became a victim of its own success; after it smashed every conceivable box office record, Disney did what it normally does with its more lucrative intellectual properties: drained all the heart and soul out of it via aggressive marketing. What had initially been hailed as an instant classic ended up… polarizing audiences, to put it mildly. So how do you follow up such a divisive pop culture phenomenon?
The answer is refreshingly straightforward: you build on what already worked, rather than merely recycling or regurgitating it—and, in the process, you refine and improve it. You subject familiar characters to new challenges, thus illuminating decidedly unfamiliar facets of their personalities. You expand upon the setting, revealing details that completely re-contextualize what viewers thought they knew about the fictional world. You twist and deconstruct the previously established themes, demonstrating that not all conflicts can be resolved by a simplistic Aesopian moral.
In this case, Frozen 2 uses the beautiful complexity of “Let It Go” as the foundation for its own triumph. Try to set aside the song’s overexposure for a moment in order to really dissect its lyrics; this is an elegantly-structured masterpiece of musical storytelling that masquerades as a celebration of its narrator’s newfound liberation, but is actually about denial, repression, and anxiety—despite Elsa’s insistence that “the cold never bothered [her], anyway,” she’s still controlled by her fear, slamming the door of her empty ice palace on her old life and resigning herself to a lonely existence of exile and solitude. Such nuance pervades every aspect of the sequel—and not just in the show-stopping numbers (though there are plenty of noteworthy gems in that regard: “Into the Unknown”, for instance, manages to cover several stages of the Hero’s Journey in a little under five minutes, beginning with the refusal of the call to adventure and concluding with the crossing of the first threshold). Our protagonists are permitted to be flawed: Anna’s efforts to support her sister, for example, often hold the latter back from achieving her full potential (“If you don’t want me to follow you into fire,” she scolds in one scene, “then don’t run into fire!”); Elsa’s attempts to protect Anna, meanwhile, frequently place her in greater peril. They make numerous mistakes, but because their respective motivations are so clearly defined, their ill-advised choices rarely feel forced or contrived; all of their arguments, disagreements, and misunderstandings arise naturally and logically, serving as organic obstacles on their quest to save their kingdom. In fact, the most significant antagonist they face is not some foreign invader or conniving traitor… but their lack of genuine trust in one another.
This absence of a central “villain,” in particular, epitomizes the evolution of Frozen 2’s craft and style in comparison to the preceding film. Like I said earlier, fallible characters are hardly unprecedented in this series—but by allowing those foibles and shortcomings to propel the plot towards its spectacular climax, rather than once again falling back on an external foe as a convenient third-act complication, screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Allison Schroeder exhibit a surprising degree of restraint. Indeed, the quality of the script makes it obvious why it took this movie six years to reach theaters (more so than even the impressive visual upgrade—computer animation has certainly progressed a long way in only half-a-decade): instead of following the easy route of adhering to the proven formula, Disney carefully sculpted a worthy story before jumping into production—a major risk, considering the industry’s relentless pace (fledgling franchises tend to succumb to the temptation of “striking while the iron is hot,” usually to their detriment—look no further than the DCEU and Universal’s now-defunct “Dark Universe” for evidence). But you can’t argue with the results of the studio’s patience; although its critical reception appears to be split, in my personal opinion, Frozen 2 is infinitely superior to the original (which I already adored unconditionally)—more resonant, more honest, and definitely more mature.
I know, I know: we’ll soon be buried under a renewed avalanche of Olaf plushies, sing-along CDs, and other merchandise; we live in a capitalist dystopia; blah, blah, blah. Relax. Forget your cynicism for two hours and enjoy a magical, heartwarming fairytale.
Let it go.