Friday, January 3, 2020
Disney Watch: Frozen II (2019)
Format: Alamo Slaughter Lane
Not to be overly dramatic, but after seeing Frozen II (2019) the first time, I knew I'd need to watch it again before I'd do my usual posting.
The reviews were kind of lukewarm, so going in, I had my expectations set for "it'll be okay", and so... when the movie ended and I was having all the reactions I deeply *want* to have after seeing a movie, I'll admit that I kinda-sorta didn't trust my own reaction and figured it would fade after a day of thinking about (or forgetting about) the movie.
We'd seen it at a morning show with a theater full of kids in Frozen character costumes, who didn't yet know these new songs, but they knew the characters, and were doing little dances in the aisles before the film started, and, basically, people who showed up - parents, kids and us Child-Free Americans who attended, were there to stan Queen Elsa.
Anyway, I wasn't exactly sitting there with my critical thinking cap on, and if it were permissible to wear a Sven costume in a 54 long whilst watching the movie, that would have been me. But, now I've seen it again - and, I'll cut to the chase and say - I liked it even more on a second viewing.
Here's the thing - if you're going to make a sequel - Frozen II did everything I *hope* will happen in the follow up. Bigger stakes, expand the world and cast, build on what you liked before, but allow for surprises... Characters grew and changed between the two movies, but not so you couldn't catch up. Their character arcs made absolute sense based on what we knew from before, but in directions you didn't necessarily anticipate. Everyone (but Sven, dammit) got a storyline, emotional beats across the range, and as we entered uncharted territory we learned more about our characters as they learned more about themselves and grew to meet the challenges.
The animators did something I can't quite recall in many other animated films - but which they'd played with in Frozen, and that's to use 3D rendering to give the landscape geography and a world that felt like it existed in Cinemascope rather than in cozy little animated sets. We knew Arrendale was on the water and had some mountains - but here we see the soaring cliffs carved out in the fjord, high mountains made of textured stone. Sure, you can see the next generation animation at works in minute detailing of costumes (you can see the beadwork on the outfits for chrissake, and strands of Anna's hair), but it was those panoramic shots that opened up the world and put the characters in a *place*, and that's really something.*
Overall, the design of the film is stunning, abandoning the white ice of the prior film for the rich palette of autumn in northern woods with leaves ready to drop in bright, fiery colors, with enough greenery, stone, blue sky and more to give beautiful color scheme to the movie, and one offset by the blues, purple and green of the main character's wardrobes. It's a masterclass in design in every frame. Maybe not the same brain-breaking way as, say, Into the Spider-Verse, but it's a fairytale land that feels tactile and buyable.
Look, I am a sucker for the brand of humor the first Frozen sported - I went to go see the movie on the strength of one bit in the trailer with Anna trying to walk in a dress that had frozen solid and was absolutely sold by Olaf's song about summer. This one find Olaf in a new place as he's maturing (and oddly self-aware of the process) - and it makes for some much needed comic relief. But, of course, we also have a circa 1990 romantic power-ballad that I can attest, the parents in the theater were loving even if their kids had no idea why everyone over 30 was laughing.
One reviewer I quite like was put out that the movie delved into "lore" and sought to answer the question no one in the first film asked: "hey, now why does Elsa have magical powers?". But the thing is - that's not an unfair or ridiculous question, and if we're going to return to these characters, it's probably the most obvious story to tell. The movie doesn't take a step back - so the challenge now is for Elsa to ask "now that I'm allowing myself not to live in fear, who am I?", and much of the plot hinges on the question that's the right one to ask - if you've actually got a character-driven answer on the other side.
Fortunately, Jennifer Lee and Co. have as much love for Anna as Elsa, and her storyline is kind of shockingly complex, between being the glue holding their group together and winding up in the pit of despair in a way I found kind of breathtaking for a movie I sat in surrounded by elementary school kids. Like, Anna is laying down some deep truth about grief and dealing with it, kids. (Kristin Bell's performance is absolutely heartbreaking).
Oh, and not to mention dropping a cautionary tale to the kids that you're going to find out history isn't what you thought it was.
The first Frozen has, of course, a gigantic show stopper in Let It Go. And at first - I wasn't sure that either of the songs given to Indina Menzel were the same level - and maybe they are or aren't. But I'll argue that, song per song, the music in the film does more to push the story along and shed light on characters and moments than in the first movie where Let It Go was really the one song that performed narrative work. Here, the music is more integrated. And, in fact, plays a narrative role. But everyone's songs drive the movie forward rather than giving us a pause to enjoy a little tune. Heck, even the big opener for Elsa/ Idina Menzel in Into the Unknown has her character turn the song into an "I Want" song before we hit the chorus, and it's pretty good stuff.
Also - hats off to Evan Rachel Wood who lends vocals to the movie.
I do wonder how boys see these movies as Kristoff is not exactly front and center, and his main preoccupation is figuring out how to give Anna the perfect engagement moment - not exactly stuff for boys who like to poke and destroy. But I will say - hats off to the writers for giving Kristoff a modeling behavior moment that passes in a flash and keeps Anna front and center as we head to the finale. He doesn't jump in front of danger for her - he just asks "what do you need?" So - life lesson there, guys.
The movie does leave some items a bit unanswered, and I wouldn't be surprised if Frozen III (and possibly IV and V) isn't in the offing as we speak. Disney wants franchises, and as an original-ish story, by expanding the world of Arrendale and moving them on, they both demonstrated this can work and point our characters on to additional journeys that can continue to evolve the characters - not unlike the "let's grow up with Harry Potter" concept.
Look, I could (and might later!) go on and on, but I'm gonna cut it short(ish). The biggest thing the movie has going against it is the contempt of familiarity with the characters, and particularly in family movies, that's taken as a strike against the work. Here - I think it's incredible what Disney has accomplished. Disney's animation department is making amazing films again, and I'm quite pleased if Frozen is treated as the crown jewel. If they can keep the band together, I'm in for another film or two, and wanting more always seems like a win.
*Moana played with this, but was confined to moving across the two-dimensional world of water so much and relatively small islands, that it didn't have quite the same impact.