Reviews: ‘Frozen II’ pushes girl-power themes even further with more songs and wondrous visual elements

When “Frozen” landed in theaters in 2013, it plowed down several notable cinematic records. The computer-animated musical fantasy inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen” became the highest-grossing feature-length cartoon feature at that time, grossing $1.3 billion in world-wide ticket sales — a record that was recently broken by this year’s “The Lion King” remake. It was also the first animated release by Walt Disney Studios to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar that wasn’t tied to Pixar or Studio Ghibli (which was behind the 2002 champ “Spirited Away”) since the honor was first given out in 2001. Disney’s 53rd animated release also won Best Original Song for its female empowerment anthem, “Let It Go.”

It was also the first fairy-tale feature from the House of Mouse where the primary love story was shared by two royal sisters and not one involving a Prince Charming. And, on top of that, Jennifer Lee became the first female director of a Disney cartoon full-length film, a duty she shared with veteran animator Chris Buck (“Tarzan,” “Surf’s Up”).

Let’s just say that is a whole lot to live up to. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that the early reviews of the highly anticipated sequel “Frozen II,” which opens on November 22, has slightly slipped a few notches compared to the original when it comes to its Rotten Tomatoes score. But while the first “Frozen” scored 90% positive, this fall’s follow-up currently stands at a still-strong 82%.

As is the case with many sequels, there is more of everything — songs, characters, story threads, wondrous visual elements tied to threatening weather-related upheavals — as the plot delves into the source of Queen Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) ability to create ice three years after the first story ended. When she hears a melodic voice calling her beyond the  Nordic kingdom of Arendelle, Elsa goes up north to investigate, along with devoted sister Anna (Kristen Bell), snowman buddy Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna’s herder beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his faithful reindeer sidekick Sven, after she discovers an enchanted forest hidden by mist. What is behind that curtain of fog is a tribe of indigenous people as well as a group of soldiers led by Lieutenant Mattias (newcomer Sterling K. Brown) who have been trapped there for decades. Here is a sample of what critics thought about this second helping of “Frozen” treats:

Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times had this to say about Menzel’s Elsa, who still defies past Disney female royals with her lack of  interest in a romantic connection: “There’s a mix of kindness and thorniness to Elsa, a refusal to simply smile and go with the flow, that feels pleasingly consistent with the first film. Although no longer forced to hide her powers from the world, she still tends to isolate herself and fight most of her battles alone. And unlike Anna, of course, she continues to show not even the slightest interest in romance, making her a genuinely radical figure among the marrying-kind ranks of most Disney heroines. Those who have embraced Elsa as a proto-LGBTQ heroine in the first ‘Frozen’ will find further grist for their arguments in ‘Frozen II.’ “

Peter Debruge of Variety points to how Disney heroines continue to evolve and grow along with their audiences: “Gone is the need for a conventional villain; gone are any expectations of princes charming or otherwise; gone are the gowns that have shaped young women’s dreams of prom and wedding attire for more than a century. ‘Frozen II’ pushes the girl-power themes even further, rejecting dresses in favor of pants for much of the adventure, as Anna and Elsa set out to find the source of a mysterious song emanating from somewhere far to the north — a mythical place called Ahtohallan that holds the secret of their parents’ disappearance, as well as the key to finding peace with nature and the Northuldra, an indigenous tribe toward whom they’ve been taught to be wary.”

Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair dings the tune-filled ‘toon for trying too hard to replicate another “Let It Go” power ballad: ” ‘Frozen 2’ is really hungry for a sellable anthem. In that vain pursuit, the movie throws not one, not two, but three would-be barn-burners at the audience. The songs are by the original, Oscar-winning ‘Frozen’ tunesmiths, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, so one might assume (if one is, perhaps, Bob Iger) that at least one of these sweaty songs is bound to recapture the old magic. They all sound fine, and are sung with the usual bombast by Idina Menzel (as Elsa) and, finally getting a belter, Kristen Bell (as Anna). And yet … not a half-hour after seeing the movie, I couldn’t call up a single melody.”

Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter wished for more surprises and less rehashing of what worked before: ” ‘Frozen 2’ has everything you would expect — catchy new songs, more time with easy-to-like characters, striking backdrops, cute little jokes, a voyage of discovery plot and female empowerment galore — except the unexpected …. Disney has been careful, cautious, conscientious and committed to continuing the franchise with the utmost fidelity to the original, resulting in a sequel that can’t miss with its massive constituency and will make another mint, but at the same time can’t help but feel predictable, safe and beholden to formulaic rules.”

Tania Lamb, whose site is called Lola Lambchops, was wild about the music, including the fact that Groff, the Tony-nominated star of “Spring Awakening” and “Glee” cast member, finally gets to do a solo number in the sequel: “You’ll definitely get music that will be sung through the house and in the car. ‘Into the Unknown’ is my Idina Menzel wannabe power ballad that I sing with my daughters. And Kristoff, oh just you wait for Kristoff to have his moment – but that is more for the parents than the kids.” (Note: She is referring to his ’80s-style anthem, “Lost in the Woods,” that plays like a vintage MTV video complete with romantic breezes.)

As for Brian Truitt of USA Today, his response was somewhat tempered: “The themes of growing up – especially evidenced by Olaf – make sense for a massive fandom of boys and girls moving through formative years themselves. But unfortunately, “Frozen 2” is a heavily plotted – and sometimes plodding – affair with way too much going on and not enough of it working together cohesively. At the very least, the relentless exposition looks great, with top-notch animation delivering a larger magical landscape and its dynamic nature-centric fauna. (Elsa befriends a little fire demon salamander and a water horse who both look pretty nifty.) … While a joyful noise is being made unto the fjord yet again and the sisters still rule, “Frozen 2” doesn’t have the same pizzazz as the original. The cold never bothered us anyway, but we definitely miss having the old chills.”

Kate Erbland of Indiewire lauded the follow-up’s comical moments: “Despite the emotional upheaval of the final act, it also has a fair bit of amusement and spectacle. There’s tongue-in-cheek jibs about the Disney experience throughout. … Olaf is as deranged and cute as ever, moving from court jester to something of a classic fool over the course of a transformational outing. In a flashback, Anna and Elsa’s dad even makes off with a lightning fast joke about a ‘new Danish author. ‘ ”

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