Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Starring Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff
I have never really gone in for the songs of Frozen: They have the intricate melodic progressions of musical theater—all the better to accommodate complex narrative machinations expressed in song—and lack the easy-to-sing-along iambic meters of the best Alan Menken-Howard Ashman collaborations from the second Golden Age of Disney animation in the early ‘90s. (The Oscar-winning title song of Beauty and the Beast, for example, had verses that were exactly only five syllables each.) One of the reasons why parents have been climbing the walls since “Let It Go” came out six years ago is because their kids can only screech the “Let it go! Let it go!” chorus and, really, not much else.
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But even though I’m not really a fan of the songwriting of the husband-and-wife team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, I am a fan of how shrewd Disney’s storytelling brain trust is. And I can only marvel at all the cleverness on display in Frozen II, the sequel to the one billion-grossing juggernaut that told the story of two sister princesses—a sweet spot for every little girl right there—who are trying to repair their fractured relationship while saving their kingdom from unscrupulous outsiders. This time out, the relationship between the princesses—elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who has been bestowed with the power to summon ice from her appendages, and earnest baby sister Anna (Kristen Bell)—is on firm ground, and the question now turns to the origins of Elsa’s magical abilities.
The key may lie in a story their deceased father (Alfred Molina) relayed to them during their childhood: about an enchanted forest housing a people called the Northuldrans whom their grandfather tried to befriend by building a dam. A battle breaks out during the welcome festivities, prompting the elemental powers of air, fire, water and earth — which protect this forest — to swoop in, quell the sudden war, and entrap the realm in an imprisoning mist. Now, even as these powerful elementals are acting up again, demanding justice be done and endangering the kingdom of Arundelle, Elsa is hearing a voice calling to her to uncover the secrets of her family. And of course her sister Anna—along with her blonde boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his trusty reindeer Sven, and their permafrosted snowman Olaf (Josh Gad)—will not let her go alone.
The thing I admire about the Disney storytelling machine is how deeply they know their core audience. It’s no secret kids watch these movies over and over again with slavish devotion, and so Frozen II’s creative team led by directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee ladle out messages accordingly: In the middle of an autumnal setting where Olaf advances the question of whether change (ie, death) is to be feared, Anna launches into a song about how some things (ie, love and family) never change. During the darkest night of her soul, Anna sings about being overwhelmed by the enormity of crisis, and the importance of taking problems step by step and “doing the next right thing”. Even the goofy Olaf gets to throw off some casual philosophy by observing that an enchanted forest represents transformation. These are remarkably mature messages to foist on five-year-olds.
The thing is, Disney always knows to never underestimate its audience. The media behemoth built its empire on the idea that kids are smart about what they like, and the key to success is in giving what they like over and over. The Mouse House knows that kids who are born into a world whose environment is embattled (an issue Frozen II glances on) and one increasingly falling under the cloud of populism…these kids are different from the kids of a generation ago. The children who will have to confront rising sea levels and the long-lasting betrayal of leaders like Trump need to hear the message about the endurance of love and take-it-one-step-at-a-time fortitude over and over. Throw in eye-popping visuals (and maybe one ravishing costume with a disappearing neckline for Elsa, or two), one ear worm song (“Into the Unknown” will be driving parents crazy for years to come), and you’ll see the secret to Disney’s success writ large: The more things change, the more your formula should stay the same.
Photographs from Disney