New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “FROZEN 2” CONFOUNDS WITH TONAL ISSUES AND A WEAK SONGBOOK

Few brands have as much good will as Disney does, yet the entertainment monolith has made some moves this year that have blemished their sterling image. They’ve done four, middling, live-action adaptations of their classics cartoons DUMBO, ALADDIN, THE LION KING, and LADY & THE TRAMP. Disney Plus, their streaming platform, has launched with plenty of bugs in the system and some classic content not included on the roster. Even their THE LITTLE MERMAID LIVE! on television was heavily critiqued for its odd mix of spirited, live musical numbers alongside the rerun of the 30-year-old animated feature. Some have even taken Disney to task for its preponderance of sequels and rehashed material, versus projects more fresh and new. They have more money than God, so why take such risks beyond the tried and true? Indeed, it would behoove Disney to leave well enough alone if they’re going to create sequels like FROZEN 2 that do little to enhance the franchise.

In Hollywood, few successes ever get left alone. Almost everything that strikes a chord with the public is instantly greenlit into a franchise, and even though the first FROZEN film in 2013 ended satisfactorily with no need for further chapters, here we are in 2019 with the saga continuing. It’s another chapter in the saga of royal sisters Elsa and Anna, only this time out, their story is not very exciting or meaningful. This being Disney, the production here is gorgeous, of course, with some of the most intricate and impressive animation put on screen since, well, the last FROZEN film. But once you get past the full beauty of its look, the rest of the attributes pale in comparison.

For starters, FROZEN 2 mangles its core story, striving for a complex narrative that is sure to confuse adults in the audience, let alone the kids. In the first movie, Anna (Kristen Bell), the younger sister of Elsa (Idina Menzel), set out on a journey into the icy tundra to find her ostracized sister and return her to rule the kingdom. You’ll remember that their land was being threatened by an evil interloper from another country. Alongside rugged iceman Kristoff (Jonathon Groff), his loyal reindeer Sven, and a chatterbox snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna led the team to get Elsa and her magical powers back in time to save the kingdom. Pretty simple. Ticking clock. Vital stakes.

Here, the new stakes involve the sisters’ desire to discover the history of their deceased parents. That wish is spurred on by a strange song that compels them from afar. What the song exactly remains in question too. Is it a warning, a welcoming, or perhaps something connected to Elsa’s strange powers? Whatever it is, it’s fuzzy, and it doesn’t make for a clear motive or connection to her parents’ deaths.

So…what’s at stake here? Is the village in danger? Is there a villain from another country chomping at the bit to invade? Perhaps Elsa and Anna are feuding, and the kingdom is thrown into turmoil? No, nada, nope. None of that is part of the plot. The film further misfires by taking a full hour to get these players out of their inertia and up into the mountains to discover the musical source and find out what led to the death of mom and dad.

Perhaps the screenwriters realized that the story was short on excitement and immediacy so they threw a lot of new plotting into the narrative as the film drags on. The idea that Elsa’s powers seem to be vitally linked to the four elements of the planet – earth, wind, fire, and water – is introduced, but not in any way that truly affects the stakes. Is it all connected to saving the planet, in a global warming kind of way? That would be interesting, but it’s not. Instead, it’s all about just helping her understand her powers. Do her powers put her or the village in genuine danger? Not so much. Nothing seems too critical in this plotting, and that’s a shame.

The story continues to throw in obstacles, but they’re quickly sidelined. Ginormous rock giants appear as a threat but quickly turn into comic foils, defanged like the Abominable Snow Monster at the end of the Christmas TV special RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER. Olaf’s existence is once again threatened by heat, but you know Disney isn’t going to kill off their vital comic relief. And the B-story is a non-starter too as Kristoff frets over when to propose marriage to Anna. Hint hint, Kris, do it after the conflicts are resolved.

Perhaps none of this would be too egregious if the songs were great, and lifted the material like “Let It Go” did six years back. Unfortunately, all the songs are lackluster and frankly, unhummable. Even the most memorable staging of one of them seems superfluous as it satirizes 90s power ballad videos. It’s a hoot, but wholly unnecessary to anything vital for the plot.

And then there’s the tonality problem throughout. Flashback scenes suggest the murderous bludgeoning of the land’s indigenous people. Really, this film is about the excesses of colonialism? Good luck, folks, explaining that one to the 6-year-olds on the car ride home. Adding further moodiness to the proceeding is Olaf’s running commentary on the movie while it’s playing. Sotto voice is a bit sophisticated for this fare, but when did the franchise decide to become so meta and snarky?

There’s also a cute little character named Bruni who looks like a baby dragon and the lil’ guy creates plenty of fire too. Is he there to spoof HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON? Coddle the younger audience members who won’t understand colonial overreach? Or he is there to create oodles of merchandise opportunities. Yes, yes, and cynically yes. Such obviousness is not the best look for Disney.

FROZEN 2 isn’t terrible, and a lot of it is good, but it’s very far from inspired. Furthermore, it betrays so much of what made FROZEN so effective – a great conflict between the sisters, memorable music, and an exciting, easy-to-follow storyline. One would think Disney would be more protective of such equity. Instead, this one is too dark, too glib, and cannot carry a tune in a bucket. The ice horse Elsa rides around on is stunning, one of the best visuals onscreen this year, but the rest of the movie around them seems far from necessary viewing.

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