“Let It Go,” the warble heard around the world, wasn’t just the signature song from “Frozen.” It was an anthem (“Here I stand!”) for the mighty, mighty girl power that helped push Disney into industry dominance. The company’s supremacy is often pinned on its highest profile franchises: Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar, which have historically featured male-driven stories. But Disney has also heavily profited from a sparkly pink world of adventure and aspirational uplift for spirited girls and women who “dream big,” to borrow a motto from its princess franchise.
The sisters from “Frozen,” the magical Elsa (the leather-lunged Idina Menzel) and the younger, perkily ordinary Anna (Kristen Bell, a honeyed soprano) aren’t part of the official princess juggernaut. Maybe that’s because Elsa was crowned queen in the first movie, though also because the sisters are big enough to have their very own franchise, having raked in a billion plus worldwide. So, of course they are back for another round of global domination in “Frozen 2,” a diverting, prettily animated musical, again written by Jennifer Lee, who directed the movie with Chris Buck.
“Frozen” neatly tied things up with Elsa having embraced her magic and wearing the crown, and Anna matched with a nice bland hunk, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). But there’s no such thing as happily ever after in Franchise Land. So, after the reintroductions (hello, Olaf and Sven), Elsa performs a call-and-response with an ethereally pure voice, a “secret siren” (the Norwegian singer Aurora), in “Into the Unknown.” True to her new musical grail, Elsa ventures off into the unknown, followed by Anna, and together they climb the mountain, touch the sky and re-enter the circle of life.
The ensuing adventure is lively, amusing and predictably predictable with revelations, reconciliations and some nebulous politics for the grown-ups. It’s never surprising, yet its bursts of pictorial imagination — snowflakes that streak like shooting stars — keep you engaged, as do Elsa and Anna, who still aren’t waiting for life to happen. They’re searching, not settled, both active and reactive, which even today makes them female-character outliers on the big screen. Even better, this time this journey isn’t as tethered to romance. Kristoff yearns to propose to Anna and spends much of the story fumbling to pop the question, a light comic refrain that smartly never overwhelms the story.
Instead, the emphasis remains on the sisters. In “Frozen,” Anna found true love with Kristoff, but mostly she and Elsa found each other. It was a promising change of genre pace particularly given that Disney has long drawn from classic fairy tales (its first animated feature was “Snow White”), which it has struggled to recalibrate for changing gender norms. With “Frozen” it created grown heroines with different once-upon-a-time stories, one sealed with a man’s kiss, the other happily not. It was a modest liberating détournement along the lines of the first “Maleficent,” a rethink of Sleeping Beauty in which a kiss from a motherly queen, not a prince, wakes the princess.
“Frozen 2” continues in the same nonthreatening, emancipatory vein, jumping to life when Elsa responds to the siren’s call. As before, the songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez are pleasantly melodious with lyrics that can have the quality of a confession, as if a friend were sharing her inner-voice struggles: “I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you.” One of the sweetest tunes, “All Is Found,” appears in a flashback with Elsa and Anna’s mother (Evan Rachel Wood), who introduces an animistic motif (“a river full of memory”) while readying her daughters for the future with the Disney Dare: “Can you brave what you most fear?” Well of course they can.
As is often true in animation, “Frozen 2” soars highest when it embraces abstraction, as in one number with a pitch-black void that entertainingly evokes Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” These moments enrich the storytelling as do Menzel and Bell, who give Elsa and Anna feeling, not simply pluck. This adds dimensions to their sisterly quest, even if the harmonious emotions and good intentions never fully atone for the conventionalism of the blond-on-blond character design, the tiny waists, pert breasts, jeweled eyes and pale plastic-y skin. Hearing women sing of freedom is irresistible, but Disney needs to take its old-fashioned ideal of female beauty and just, well, let it go.