Friday 29 November 2019

Firefighting: "Frozen II"

Call me cold-hearted if you choose, but you're listening to one of the five or six earthlings left entirely unfussed and untouched by the animated juggernaut that was 2013's Frozen. That movie looked to these eyes like one of New Disney's altogether calculated works in progress, hustled into multiplexes on its way to becoming a Broadway extravaganza (Frozen on Ice?) for which the company could charge harassed parents upwards of $50 a ticket to sit through "Let It Go" again. (I mean, where was the comparable love for 2016's Moana, which was properly coloured-in and everything?) That development may yet be ahead of us, but in the meantime, we have the inevitable sequel, greenlit once the original hit a certain number in combined ticket and merch sales. Frozen II has to try and get over the ending of its predecessor (loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen), where the kingdom inhabited by Elsa, Anna, Olaf et al. was comprehensively unfrozen - a fundamental gamechanger acknowledged here in the reassuring title of an early song ("Some Things Never Change") and a scene that finds our heroines and heroes enjoying a non-urgent game of charades. What follows is an exercise in watching a corporation with near-unlimited resources fix the problems that derive from starting from scratch within a storyverse that was embraced like that of no other Disney film this century; I can't honestly say I was enchanted or entertained, but I was semi-diverted by the effort.

First things first: it looks gorgeous. No expense whatsoever has been spared on making the visuals eye-catching and dynamic; even gawping at it from the back row of the Odeon, you stand no risk of mistaking Frozen II for those unhappy-making sequels Old Disney churned out for the straight-to-DVD market either side of the millennium. The animators' pencils and mousemats have picked up the slack, big time. Trouble is, there's been an unusual amount of slack for this sequel to pick up. The story - credited to five writers (including returning directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee) working in two separate teams - never feels like anything other than a frantic scrabbling around for inspiration: it opens with a tale Elsa and Anna were told before the events of the first movie, which sets up some airy-watery business with an enchanted forest, which might just have something to do with climate change ("when nature speaks, we listen"), because that's a very zeitgeisty peg on which to hang a children's movie in 2019, and - hey - Bambi was credited in some quarters with kickstarting the green movement of the 1960s and 70s, don't you know. Noble as these intentions may be, on screen they play out back-to-front and otherwise all over the place: the ambulant snowman Olaf's recap of the first film's events (useful, if you don't have kids and therefore only saw Frozen once) comes around the 45-minute mark, and that forestry business merely serves as cover for some light retconning of the Frozen canon.

Drippy dirges though they were - proto-showtunes only a generation raised on Ed Sheeran and Ellie Goulding records could possibly tolerate - Frozen's songs achieved some wishy-washy sort of parity with the storytelling: for better or worse, they were an integral part of what the original was. ("Let It Go" went to character and plot direction, as well as being a saphead's idea of a showstopper.) Here, the songs seemed to me to be leading the storytelling, yanking the characters from A to B and whistling over any disconnects, as if the composers got bored waiting for the endless script meetings to finish up, and pressed on regardless. If the songs were better, they might have got away with it. Yet "Into the Unknown", widely touted as the new "Let It Go", is - like so much contemporary pop - a big, uplifting chorus (choice earworm: the whale cry that backs up our heroine) in search of anything like a memorable verse or lyric. As for "Lost in the Woods", the sub-Glenn Medeiros number handed to the terminally bland Kristoff to wail through, well, it's a good excuse for a toilet break. Still: "Into the Unknown", "Lost in the Woods"... Frozen II makes a show of its searching and insecurities, in a way that makes it slightly more interesting than a lot of committee-derived digimation; it's a Disney movie where the methodology, muddled as it is, sits intriguingly close to the surface. (Call it skating on thin ice.) Olaf's existential crisis - why am I here? What am I doing? - is quite funny in the way some of the Frozen shorts have been funny, but it's also the film's own existential crisis; and though a passing troll's advice - "When you cannot see a future, all one can do is take the next right step" - means to comment on the climate (meteorological and sociopolitical), it's also apparently the maxim of the producers working around the clock in the hope of pulling another billion-dollar megahit out of thin air. There have been worse ways of making a movie, but it's still no corrective for an overriding absence of creative vision.

Frozen II is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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