All right, first things first: The number that’s likely going to win the best song Oscar this Feb. 9 is “Into the Unknown.” Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel, she of the howitzer pipes) unleashes it about 20 minutes into “Frozen II.” It’s reprised by Panic! at the Disco as the closing credits start, but that’s the junior varsity coming off the bench. This is an Idina Menzel song the way that “The Man That Got Away” is a Judy Garland song or “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is a Barbra Streisand song or, sure, “Let It Go” is an Idina Menzel song. Vocal quarter is neither asked nor given, and that single syllable known, as sung by Menzel, becomes as polysyllabic as a pocket dictionary.
Actually, the first first-thing-first is that “Frozen II” has screenings Thursday evening and opens Friday.
Second things second: The sequel is a solid, if not quite inspired, follow-up to “Frozen” (2013). Solid is saying a lot, since “Frozen” really did enter the cultural bloodstream. You’d have to go back to the original “Lion King” (1994) for a Disney animated feature that can be said about. It’s not just the recordings, the books, the stage musical, the merchandise (no fewer than 3 million “Frozen” costumes sold within a year of its release). It’s the hold gained on the imagination of much of a generation, the female portion especially.
The principals from “Frozen” all return, as does the songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. They contribute seven new songs, all tuneful, all suitably “Frozen”-ish. Anyone familiar with the original knows what that means. The visuals are even better. They may not be Pixar-quality, but that’s OK. It can seem sometimes that not even reality is Pixar-quality.
In the first “Frozen,” Elsa and Anna (Kristen Bell) are princesses who live in Arendelle. It’s a 19th-century-ish Scandinavian-ish kingdom. The time and place may have something to do with the story being loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” In a nice touch, a character in “Frozen II” mentions in passing that he’s reading a work by “a Danish writer.”
Elsa has a magical power: She can create ice and snow. One thing leads to another, as one thing so often does in Disney movies, and she ends up in a distant ice palace (her idea) and freezes Arendelle (not her idea). Anna comes to the rescue, with the help of hunky ice harvester Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer, Sven, and scene-stealing snowman Olaf (Josh Gad). In one of the new movie’s more imaginative bits, Olaf gets to do a rapid-fire recap of the original’s plot.
It must be said that the first “Frozen” is pretty strange. It braids together three disparate elements — Broadway musical (surely the key factor in the movie’s success); witty comedy (often quite well done); and fairy tale (thank you, H.-C. Andersen). The last is what sets “Frozen” apart and is the most peculiar thing about it. The business of turning everything cold and wintry is, metaphorically, about as close as you can get to desolation and death without having everyone dead. In that sense, “Frozen” is “The Waste Land” wearing an overcoat. April may or may not be the cruelest month, but Arendelle is definitely the coldest kingdom. For a while anyway.
“Frozen II” opens with a flashback preamble. Little girls Elsa and Anna are being put to bed by their parents (Alfred Molina, Evan Rachel Wood). He tells them a story from his past, about the nearby land of Northuldra. When grown-up Elsa hears a mysterious voice, that’s where she heads. Accompanying her, naturally, are Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf. They variously encounter an Enchanted Forest, a Dark Sea, and a swirl of autumn leaves bearing the appropriate name of Gale.
Newly on hand are a Northuldra leader (Martha Plimpton), a loyal Arendelle soldier (Sterling K. Brown), a quite-magnificent ice stallion, and a very cute salamander. In legend, salamanders have an association with fire. This connects with another new aspect: more than a whiff of mysticism. There recur invocations of the four elements: earth, water, air, and, yes, fire. Might that voice have something to do with a fifth element? Whether or not it does, “Frozen II” features a fair amount of flames. Their presence and that of some rather scary stone giants mean that taking children under 6 would not be a great idea.
So much of the appeal of fairy tales — or of movies even just derived from fairy tales — is their dream-logic inexplicability: darkness and magic and suchlike. “Frozen II,” which is notably less fairy-tale-like than “Frozen," offers its own, up-to-date inexplicability. Elsa wears so much eye shadow you wonder if “Frozen III” will have her auditioning for a Vegas chorus line. This 19th-century Scandinavian kingdom is multi-racial. Speaking of multi-racial, whenever Elsa does her ice-creation thing it’s as if she’s channeling Frozone, in the “Incredibles” movies. Ah, if only Samuel L. Jackson had voiced Kristoff.
One of the movie’s running gags is Kristoff’s efforts to propose to Anna. Their romance is another of the several balls that “Frozen II” keeps juggling, along with the skim-milk mysticism, the musical numbers, and, of course, Elsa’s spectacular (not to mention highly useful) deep-freeze capacities. With so much going on, it’s easy to overlook that the most profound and moving relationship in either film is the bond between Elsa and Anna. It’s the most human and least-calculated thing in “Frozen” or “Frozen II.” Their love is the ultimate special effect. Ice is nice. But sisterhood is what’s really powerful.
Directed by: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Written by: Lee, with Buck, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Allison Schroeder, and Marc Smith. Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 103 minutes. PG (action/peril and some thematic element; don’t take kids under 6).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.