It’s weird when you miss an entire cultural happening. In 2013, for whatever reason — I have no recollection, but my best guess is that, at my job then, this movie was assigned out to someone else for coverage and I didn’t object — I didn’t see Frozen. And then the holidays started kicking in, I got busy, and still never saw it even though it was becoming a legitimate phenomenon. After a while, it almost becomes something that kind of, embarrassingly, defined me, “Yes, I am the only person left who has never seen Frozen.” And let me tell you, those characters were everywhere, yet I understood none of the references (well, except the whole Adele Dazeem thing, which has, somehow, only gotten funnier as time has passed — I always love that strange inflection Travolta uses and just how confident he looks that everything went according to plan). Then, finally, it all becomes spite. No, I haven’t seen Frozen, what of it?!?!
Anyway, yes, last week, a couple of days before seeing Frozen II, I watched Frozen for the first time. And you know what? It’s pretty good! It’s a pretty simple story with great characters, where the story is pushed forward by those characters and the relationships between them, instead of some crazy, convoluted plot. There’s a nice twist at the end that reveals a villain, then that villain gets slugged in the face and it all feels very rewarding. Yes, it makes a lot of sense why this movie did so well. (Also, it’s not lost on me that die-hard fans have been waiting six whole years for this sequel and I had to wait a grand total of two days.)
But in those two days between movies, it wasn’t lost on me that a sequel to this extremely self-contained story seems, on the surface, a difficult task. There’s no easy way into a sequel. And creating a true, evil, cackling villain just seems wrong for this story. And Frozen II is a movie without a traditional villain. Not counting revelations and/or flashbacks, there’s literally no villain at all. Instead, Frozen II takes our fear of the unknown, our fear of other people we don’t know or understand, and uses that as a basis for the entire plot. It actually feels like a risky decision. Frozen II isn’t a preachy movie, but there’s no doubt it certainly has something to say.
We start in the past, as young Anna and Elsa are told a harrowing story about an enchanted forest by their parents. They are told this forest is now haunted because after their grandfather and the people of Arendelle built the inhabitants of this forest a dam, those inhabitants turned on their grandfather and attacked. Ever since it’s been a place of haunting and sorrow. Even young Anna questions this story. Why would these people, who just received a new free dam, just attack for no reason? But they’re told that’s what happened and to avoid the forest at all costs.
We pick up three years after the events of the first film and Elsa continues to hear calls from this forest. She’s not sure why she needs to go, but she must go. Of course, Anna isn’t going to let Else go without her, and along for the ride is the whole gang: Olaf the snowman, Kristoff (who is best described as, maybe, a “galoot”), and his reindeer, Sven. What happens when they get to the forest is fascinating. They find the indigenous people, who have their own side of the story. Elsa goes on a fact-finding mission for the truth and what she finds is, frankly, fairly grim. It’s a moment that lesser movies would have made vague or sugarcoated. But it forces our heroes to confront their own past and ask the right questions about how things really happened. Yes, history is written by the victors, but that doesn’t always make it the absolute truth. (This is a movie that will spark a lot of family discussions.)
The first Frozen is such lightning in a bottle that it’s impossible to capture that exactly. The phenomena around that first movie is one of those once-in-a-generation type events that can’t just be duplicated, so why even try to do exactly that? What’s smart about Frozen II is, instead of trying to just recapture its past glory, it decides to be interesting. And when making a sequel to a cultural phenomenon, “being interesting” seems both pretty rare and the best we can hope for.
‘Frozen II’ opens on November 22nd in theaters everywhere. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.