Monday, January 6, 2020

Frozen II Delivers Good Musical Numbers But Its Script Is Too Dense For Its Own Good

Doing Frozen II was an inevitability. Disney is a franchise-minded studio, the first one made more money than is conceivable, nobody needs a road map to figure out what comes next. Only the fourth sequel* Walt Disney Animation Studios has done up to this point, Frozen II, thankfully, isn't content to exclusively regurgitate the events of the first movie again. Unlike the direct-to-video animated Disney sequels I grew up on, Frozen II doesn't just give Elsa a kid who wants the complete opposite of what the first film's protagonist desired. Thank goodness, would anyone wanna watch Elsa deal with a child who could spurt fire from their palms? That would get so gruesome so quick.

The actual premise this go-around begins with Anna (Kristen Bell) overjoyed over the current state of things in the kingdom of Arrendale. The gates are opened, she and her sister, Elsa (Idina Menzel), have never been closer, the status quo right now is just perfect. But normalcy gets upended once Elsa begins to hear voices in her head beckoning far beyond the gates of Arrendale. Such voices are connected to ancient spirits embodying the four elements (Earth, Water, Wind, Fire) that Anna and Elsa's parents told them about when they were little as bedtime stories. These spirits are more than just stories, they're threatening the kingdom of Arrendale itself.

To solve this problem, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), reindeer Sven and snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) head out to the Enchanted Forest, an isolated location connected to Elsa and Anna's grandfather, an ancient feud and those pesky voices Elsa can't get rid of. This premise, though admirably intent on rejecting the easy route of remaking the first Frozen, leads to the biggest issue with Frozen II. There's a ton of newly-introduced mythos connected to ancient spirits and that Enchanted Forest to explore here that ends up taking the plot down a couple of convoluted rabbit holes. It turns out the world of Frozen, like a joke, tends to be better the less you explain it. All of these explanations and backstories don't really enhance the already endearing characters.

Compounding the issues related to the overdose of revelations is that Frozen II tends to be in quite a hurry to get to the next step in its adventure. There's rarely a moment for either the audience or the characters to really absorb big developments. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee (who also directs alongside Chris Buck) also has an issue with a third act that ends up chickening out on fully exploring a central theme connected to the relationship between Arrendale and the Enchanted Forest. A chance for boldness is eschewed in favor of a more traditional finale. Having said all that, the script for Frozen II is not a bad creation, but it is one with a number of issues mainly concentrated on marrying its love for dense lore with strong character work.

On the brighter side of things, Frozen II's writing tends to succeed best when it hands itself over not to convoluted fantasy mythos but to more elegantly simplified means of storytelling, whether that be through visual-oriented sequences or the assorted musical numbers. The former is best exemplified by impressively abstract moments where Elsa interacts with the voices that are calling to her. Frequently set against a black backdrop and depicting both Elsa's ice powers & the powers of both spirits just bouncing about, it's a beautiful way of showing this central character connecting with an unknown force with powers just like her own. A later dialogue-free scene of Elsa charging into roaring waters makes similarly strong use of more abstract imagery stemming from fantastical powers.

As for the musical numbers, a number of them turn out to be the primary reason Frozen II. Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez haven't delivered a soundtrack as consistently good as the one in the first Frozen (there's an extraneous & overly repetitive Olaf tune that should have been cut) but the tunes tend to be the scenes where Frozen II really shines. Much of the quality in the songs derives from the wise decision to not try and chase the tail of already-established Frozen songs like Let It Go. Much of the music here, instead, charts its own course, particularly Lost in the Woods, a Kristoff musical number that's more like a Bonnie Tyler pop ballad than anything in the first movie. Even Show Yourself, the requisite Idina Menzel powerhouse musical number, is good enough on its own merits to ensure it isn't just Let It Go Redux.

Show Yourself is an incredibly well-executed musical number, from its poignant lyrics to the camerawork used to realize it in the film to its immensely rousing final verse. It's one of a number of sequences in Frozen II that impress but, unfortunately, Frozen II is an example of a movie where the whole is not quite the sum of its parts. Still, much of its agreeable and the best musical number sequences are considerably better than that so it's hard to get too down on Frozen II. It delivers most of what you'd expect, it's enjoyable more often than not but its key character and pathos moments keep getting undercut by overly labyrinthine storytelling details. Hey, even in its weakest moments though, Frozen II is still exceedingly better than The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea!  

Addendum: For the new decade, can Walt Disney Animation Studios make a resolution to commit to having more versatile character designs for their female characters? There were numerous times in Frozen II where Elsa had her hair down where she looked distractingly indistinguishable from Rapunzel in Tangled or Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Even before this movie, though, the lack of variety in how women are designed in Disney's CGI features has been pretty prominent, notice how Honey Lemon in Big Hero 6 and Rapunzel in Tangled look like they could be twins. There's a samey look across Disney's theatrical animated fare that's disappointing (especially the exclusive reliance on photorealistic backgrounds) but this lack of versatility when it comes to designing computer-animated female characters is especially aggravating. There's more than one hair color, body type, ethnicity and other physical traits for animated women to adhere to! 

* = following in the footsteps of The Rescuers Down Under, Winnie the Pooh (2011) and Ralph Breaks The Internet

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