Noelle would seem to have all the necessary elements you’d want to find in a feature comedy: a few recognizable actors, a high-concept premise, a character arc, setpieces, etc. But there’s something just…off about the whole affair, from its opening moments. Maybe the key problem here is that the basic conclusion of the movie is such an obvious, foregone conclusion. Or maybe it’s that the humor is lifeless, or the emotion false and unearned. Whatever it is, Noelle is the kind of Christmas present that has shiny packaging and a whole lot of nothing behind all the wrappings.
At the North Pole, our heroine Noelle Anna Kendrick lives happily enough as the daughter of the current Santa Claus the 22nd in his line. She’s bubbling with good cheer, always focused on raising Christmas spirit, and at the ready with a holiday-themed bromide. That should be that for Noelle, especially after her brother Nick Bill Hader gets the job of Santa Claus after their dad dies. Problem is, Nick is desperately unhappy and unwilling to be Santa; Noelle recommends he take a weekend off in a warmer climate. Nick interprets it differently, though, and abandons the North Pole for Phoenix, Arizona. Only Noelle and her longtime nanny Polly Shirley MacLaine can make things right again and save Christmas from her techie cousin Gabe Billy Eichner and his refusal to give most good kids any present.
In the prologue, a young Noelle all but asks her dad, the Santa, to be the next Santa herself. But Santa implies, as do many of the other characters at the Pole, that only a man can be Santa. There is a line of dialogue near the end recalling the Air Bud line where a referee points out that the rules don’t stop a dog from playing, and my hand to God, I wish I was kidding. If you’re still wondering whether this movie ends with Noelle actually becoming the new Santa, I have some land in Florida I’d like to sell you. Noelle has a very clear ending in mind as soon as writer/director Marc Lawrence gets things going, which makes all of the title character’s protestations that she could never be Santa, that would be crazy, and so on, all the more ridiculous.
Noelle is also hampered, ironically, by its lead actress. Anna Kendrick is, as ever, a very talented actress, vibrant and full of quirky energy. The problem is not that Kendrick is unbelievable as a woman who would be Santa, or as a woman who loves the holidays. The problem comes when the fish-out-of-water premise of a North Pole denizen traveling to the real world kicks in, and Kendrick essentially cosplays as Will Ferrell in Elf. Ferrell’s performance as Buddy the Elf works so well because, among other things, he’s great at playing dumb, picking old gum off railings or not realizing the difference between maple syrup and hard liquor. Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, doesn’t play dumb very well. When Noelle takes a bottle of sunblock and tries to eat it, it’s a bad gag that lands poorly both because of the timing and because Kendrick just seems far too smart to do something so doofy.
With the more outrageous humor landing poorly, Noelle leans further into the territory of the mawkish. In Phoenix, Noelle connects with a cynical private investigator Kingsley Ben-Adir and his son, while bonding with the employees of a local outdoor mall and even reaching out to a young single mother and her deaf daughter at a homeless shelter. We are, in these moments, meant to warm further to Noelle – who is intended to be a fairly selfish character, an emotional beat that’s never given enough detail. Instead, these moments feel like leftovers from a Hallmark Holiday Movie.
This is, of course, the part where I will point out the obvious: you can only watch Noelle on Disney+, the new streaming service where the film will live in perpetuity. Originally, Noelle was intended to be released in theaters, which seems a bit hard to believe considering its somewhat chintzy design. It may still be damning to suggest that some films – good or bad – maybe are best experienced on your computer or your big-screen TV, but nothing about Noelle, down to its sloppy computer-generated reindeer, screams out for actual big-screen presentation. Its widescreen aspect ratio aside, Noelle gives off the distinct sense that it was always meant for your TV.
We now have two different Disney+ movies to consider, Lady and the Tramp and Noelle. So far, the results are not terribly encouraging. Noelle is approaching treacherous territory from the start. There are some truly wonderful holiday movies, but this is not one of them. It’s one thing to take your cue from Elf, but that risk isn’t mitigated here by the flat stretches of emptiness and no laughs. Perhaps the funniest part of this movie is that, in spite of constant product placement for iPads, it wasn’t released by Apple TV+. Noelle has a charming cast that’s been stripped of their warmth, and a story that’s both painfully predictable and sentimental. It’s so blah that this doesn’t even deserve a closing Santa-themed pun. It’s best left forgotten.
Cara Jones got married in an Olympic stadium alongside thousands of other grooms in suits and brides in wedding dresses, and that mass ritual — presided over by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the self-appointed “True Father” of his own Unification Church — is exactly what Jones had imagined for herself ever since she was a little girl. And while that approach might have taken the stress out of wedding planning, it came with some unique challenges of its own: Jones wasn't allowed to meet her husband until a month before the ceremony, when Moon himself assigned the couple to each other by pulling their photos from a stack of 8x10s; also, Jones had never been free to consider marrying someone for love, and not as part of one man's grandiose scheme to “make the whole world a family” and reap millions of dollars along the way.
Jones grew up in the Unification Church whose members are often referred to as “Moonies”, and she didn't leave it all behind until she was well into her 20s. Her parents are still members — her siblings are not. They're still a family. Needless to say, the process of disentangling herself from this part of her personal history has not been easy for her, and there's a reason why the intimate documentary she's made about that fraught, ongoing process is far more tempered and bittersweet than most other films about “cults” and their clutches. Here, the cult was literally her own mom and dad.
“Blessed Child” doesn't really dig into the story of how she left the Unification Church, as the film opts against a straightforward personal history in favor of a more kaleidoscopic approach that allows Jones to present her life as a work in progress. Her movie feels much the same way. It skitters through the years, and from one focus to another, with the ramshackle urgency of a therapy session; a scene where Jones injects herself with fertility drugs in the present day is shortly followed by a crash course on the Moonies and on-the-street interviews with ex-members who seldom show up again.
The very first shots find Jones putting on her makeup as she prepares to tell her story at The Moth and asks her cameraman — who we later find out is also her very endearing brother — some basic directing questions that undermine our faith in the film to come. There's a bit too much honesty in that “Blessed Child” is Jones' debut feature, and its darts-at-the-wall structure often suggests as much, but that unabashed messiness is also the movie's greatest strength: This isn't a black-and-white tale of religious indoctrination, and Jones immediately disabuses us from assigning blame. To see how uncertain she is about her own healing process is to recognize that we don't have the right to define it for her.
Jones' parents naturally emerge as major figures in this story, even if the filmmaker — like so many of us — struggles to envision who they were before she was born. One shot of her dad making a breakfast smoothie in his modest Hawaii home is all it takes to demystify the life of a Moonie, and her mom radiates a similar feeling of measured calm. We learn that Mr. Jones has always been considered the family Buddha; no one could get mad at someone with such a sweet demeanor, even as his constant search for spiritual contentment prevented the family from settling into the middle-class ideal they seemed to typify from the outside. Jones' mom seems less dedicated to the Church, but she harbors a darkness that's too painful for the filmmaker to broach for more than a few seconds. The candid, we're-all-in-this-together vibe that Jones so clearly shares with her siblings is gone whenever she visits with mom and dad, replaced instead by a fragile layer of wet ice that nobody wants to fall through. “Even though I'm a 42-year-old woman, I'm still afraid of disappointing my parents,” Jones confesses to the camera.
She’s also afraid of reckoning with the ways that her parents might have disappointed her. While the film never discourages us from rolling our eyes at Moon's charlatan behavior, or the mass weddings for which he became famous, “Blessed Child” has no interest in throwing the Unification Church under the bus. Unconventional as the Church's practices may have been, most of Moon's teachings didn't stray too far afield from typical Christian doctrine. You just to believe that Jesus came to Moon when he was 15 and told him to carry out the work of Christ by parenting the entire human population.
And sure, why not? As one ex-Moonie puts it: “All people who get caught up in mass religions are crazy — read Revelations, it's crazier than 'Harry Potter!'” Besides, these were just the facts of life that Jones was taught at a child, and there's no use gawking at how absurd they might sound to her as an adult. The movie doesn't ignore that Moon committed tax fraud, or was just a profiteer in a prophet's clothing, but that stuff just isn't especially relevant to Jones' residual conflict.
The one piece of Moonie theology that still matters to her is the idea that making the world into a single family required Moon's disciples to sacrifice the families they already had. But how do you heal the world by harming the people for whom you're directly responsible? It's a direct contradiction that Jones' parents have never attempted to reconcile, and the trauma that resulted from that friction is most clearly expressed through Jones' cameraman brother Bow, who to this day is still tortured by the homosexuality that several long church retreats once failed to “cure.” Jones and her siblings share a clear and completely understandable resentment over the realization that it was easier for their parents to turn their backs on the family than it will ever be for their family to turn their backs on them.
The more directly that “Blessed Child” confronts that idea, the better the film leverages and transcends its bizarre context in order to get at the human element that holds all families together — nuclear or religious. The film's various asides such as Jones' interviews with current Moonies about to participate in their own mass weddings are all tender and engrossing in their own ways, but the documentary fails to put its various elements in dialogue with one another. It spreads itself too wide and too shallow, and leaves us wishing that we might have seen more of the journey that has come to define Jones' adult life: The path to starting a family of her own.
“Blessed Child” premiered at DOC NYC 2019. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
Brighton Sharbino and Dominic Monaghan try to get safety after massive blackout in Ben McPherson's survival story.
Set in the tense hours between a calamity and the societal breakdown it'll almost certainly cause, Ben McPherson's Radioflash begins as a visually rich, calmly serious take on apocalypse drama. It shifts by increments, eventually focusing on woman-in-peril material starring Brighton Sharbino an old hand at end-of-the-world fiction after her childhood stint on The Walking Dead and, perhaps unwisely, indulging a Hicksploitation leaning. While the latter theme clashes with its initial realism, the feature debut is more substantial than many survival tales like it, and should get a small commercial bump from the presence of Dominic Monaghan as the heroine's father and Will Patton as her granddad.
The opening scene, an elaborate and expensive-looking escape room action sequence, is something of a non-sequitur, demonstrating the resourcefulness of teenage hero Reese Sharbino but also introducing tech-virtuoso themes that won't lead anywhere. Back home with her widowed father Chris Monaghan, Reese is sounding like a computer prodigy when suddenly, any gifts in that department become useless: An electromagnetic pulse fries the electric grid and communications across her unnamed Pacific Northwest hometown. We'll soon learn the entire Western US has blacked out, surely due to an intentional attack.
Rigging a car battery up to a radio transmitter, she makes contact with her survivalist grandfather Frank Patton. This is the day Frank has lived for, and he convinces Reese and Chris to gather what gas they can and get to his house in the mountains before highways are clogged with fearful city dwellers.
It's almost too late for that. Scenes at grocery stores and on long bridges frighteningly capture incipient bedlam, suggesting it's already unwise to assume a stranger won't attack you.
While it watches father and daughter get underway, the film seems more sure of itself in its characterization of Frank. He calmly takes the steps a doomsday-prepper would save for last — like breaking into a pharmacy and taking meds that don't have an infinite shelf life. He avoids trouble with a fellow looter who's clearly seeking opioids, and leaves a note with payment for what he's taken at the register — "not that it'll be worth anything tomorrow."
The landscapes Reese and Chris drive through are beautifully photographed and usually blanketed in mist, and we interact with them much more intimately after a car wreck forces the two to travel on foot through the forest. An occasionally overwritten screenplay warns us of what they'll find in these mountains — people who are up to no good, even in normal times — and, after several more commonplace dangers, McPherson delivers on that promise.
Echoes of Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre color the last act, in which a reclusive matriarch known only as "Ma" extends some dubious hospitality to a young woman who might keep her feral son and grandson company. In the part, Fionnula Flanagan proves you can't spell "ham" without the letters in her character's name. If the dangers tilt toward the lurid, though, the film never quite loses sight of its endpoint, or gives in to the horrors it threatens. Unsatisfyingly, it instead concludes with a tech-flavored shot that might hint at greater ambitions for what seems like a standalone adventure.
Production company: American Dream Labs Distributor: IFC Midnight Cast: Brighton Sharbino, Dominic Monaghan, Will Patton, Fionnula Flanagan, Miles Anderson, Michael Filipowich, Kyle Collin Director-Screenwriter: Ben McPherson Producers: Rocco DeVilliers, Ben McPherson, Brad Skaar, Clay Vandiver Director of photography: Austin F. Schmidt Production designer: Susannah Lowber Costume designer: Angela Hadnagy Composer: Ramin Kousha Casting director: Jeremy Zimmermann
What do you want out of a new streaming service? What matters most to you if you’re being wooed to drop a few more dollars a month on some new digital toy? For some of you, the answer might be a smooth, easy-to-navigate layout. Others might want a rich library of titles. Some of you might feel like that well-used “Why not both?” meme is the answer.
The two new streaming service unveiled this month, Apple TV+ and Disney+, run the gamut between those two extremes. One of the two services is all about the layout and your ability to swiftly shift from app to app, let alone title to title. The other is all about keeping you locked into the virtual property of the company that oversees it. Apple TV+ and Disney+ are not offering you the same thing. And only one of them is offering you the right thing.
Your Local Library
At its core, the key question of the streaming wars or the streaming arms race or the streaming beauty pageant, or whatever you want to call it comes down to the library of titles a service can offer. Ideally, being able to access everything in a user interface that makes sense would help too. But think of it this way. You may already subscribe to Netflix, but will you want to when they no longer offer The Office or Friends? These are two of the most popular shows on Netflix today, and they won’t likely lose a lot of their fame upon shifting to Peacock and HBO Max, respectively, in the spring of 2020. Regarding Friends, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that an unscripted reunion special is in the works, via HBO Max.
But those titles will leave, thus shifting the burden to Netflix to find titles that will be suitably popular replacements. While the service has plenty of new shows, including the very buzzy Stranger Things, they only had so much of a shelf life. Shows like Friends are enduring and timeless in ways that can’t be put into words. Netflix recently made a deal to be the exclusive streaming home of Seinfeld starting in 2021; your mileage may vary, but I’m not sure that’s going to be an adequate enough replacement for two other very popular comedies with different comedic sensibilities.
At least Netflix has a library of titles, both produced inside their vast studio and licensed from other distributors. Apple TV+ has…well, if you want to be charitable, they do have a library of titles. A library of Apple TV+ shows like The Morning Show, See, Dickinson, and For All Mankind. Their library consists of their own material, and if you don’t want to watch those, you’ll have to watch something else. Part of the draw of the overall TV app from Apple isn’t just that they offer glossy, high-concept shows of their own with big-name actors, but that you can easily access countless other shows or films through their native apps. The hope is that you’ll not only use that app for whatever TV needs you have, but bundle it with things like Apple Music and Apple Arcade.
The flip side is that Apple TV+ represents a market the tech company isn’t automatically known for. By now, Apple has become fairly synonymous with digital access to music and video games, so doubling down on the Music and Arcade apps feels like a natural extension of their brand. But the TV shows they’ve unveiled so far are a new frontier. On the surface, these shows all seem to hit the necessary boxes for viewer interest. Both the shows that have premiered and those coming down the pike hit a sweet spot with genres and/or creators and/or actors. And because it’s Apple, the layout of Apple TV+ looks as sleek as you might expect.
A Fresh Coat of Paint
The package, in essence, looks the part. It’s once you open up the package that everything is revealed to be a bit hollow. I’ve already written broadly about the four big shows that served as the introductory note to Apple TV+ — none of them are so bad that they can’t be saved or enjoyed, at least on a perverse level. But that is, frankly, a very low bar to clear. One of the strange truths of the streaming wars, or the streaming arms race, is that new, original content is not going to define these services. Or, rather, it shouldn’t be the sole defining factor of these services. Apple TV+, in short, cannot hope to define itself simply by its new shows, because it will lose. Its layout looks nice, and it’s easy to navigate. But what there is to navigate is a letdown.
Layout and access to those new shows, at least, was not a problem hounding Apple TV+ on its go-live day. This was a problem that hounded Disney+ upon its go-live date of November 12. I would argue, though, that this is the right kind of problem to have. I’ve no doubt that Bob Iger wasn’t super-thrilled to see report after report after report of technical issues plaguing users on the first day of a new era for the company. The following day, it was reported that Disney+ got 10 million subscribers on its first day, which is also the good sort of news. But that, ideally, is better news than, say, an announcement that your head of scripted programming is leaving. Sorry, Apple TV+.
Disney+, too, has a lot more to offer than just a handful of new shows. So far, at least, Disney+ has the leg up on new programming. Theme-park fanatics or enthusiasts will thrill to the multi-part documentary series The Imagineering Story, and Pixar fans can find new short films in SparkShorts and Forky Asks A Question. And, yes, of course, there’s that fancy new Star Wars show The Mandalorian. After watching the pilot, I’m happy to report that The Mandalorian is the best pilot episode of any of the new streaming shows I’ve seen. I am less happy to report that it achieves this honor largely by being competently made, coherently written, and well-shot. As above, these shouldn’t be high bars to clear. But I want to keep watching The Mandalorian, as opposed to doing so out of obligation only.
Speaking only for myself, I didn’t experience any serious technical issues in accessing Disney+ on either my Apple TV or my iPhone. The flip side is that I accessed Disney+ pretty early on its opening morning. Later in the day, technical issues appeared to be swamping the lay of the land. But from my perspective, the only headache — and it was minor on both the Apple TV and the iPhone — was finding the Disney+ app to download. For the many millions who subscribed for the first time yesterday, that much wasn’t a big hurdle to surmount.
Inside the Disney+ app itself, it’s been interesting to navigate and find even more titles than were promised when the service’s Twitter account went thread-crazy back in mid-October. It’s not just that, over the last few weeks, Disney+ announced the arrival of James Cameron’s Avatar or even more entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The day before the service went live, /Film published a wish list of mine, with titles I hoped would show up on Disney+ one day, or possibly even the launch date.
As luck would have it, a few of the titles I asked for were there on Day One. For example, a couple episodes of the Walt Disney anthology TV series, “The Plausible Impossible” and “Disneyland Around the Seasons”, are both available to watch. The latter episode will be worth watching for any amateur historians — it aired just three days after the death of Walt Disney, although he had filmed scenes for the episode beforehand. And there are some shorts from the Silly Symphonies catalog, too. That’s an unqualified good thing, because the more of Disney’s past is available, the better.
A Wish Your Heart Makes
Where things get tricky and a bit more frustrating is that you wouldn’t have realized Disney+ offered these titles unless you knew to search for them. Regarding the TV episodes, I can thank my podcast co-host/film critic Scott Renshaw, who tweeted about the “Disneyland Around the Seasons” episode, thus alerting me to its streaming presence. If the choices are that Disney+ posts these but essentially sneaks them in between the rest of the Disney Through the Decades collection, or Disney+ posts nothing at all, I’ll take the former option. But some kind of historical context and presentation would be ideal.
The same is true of one of the most common phrases you will see on Disney+ if you go to the Details tab of many, many older titles: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.” That phrase shows up whether you’re watching some of Disney’s animated classics though not all, including, inexplicably enough, the 1992 animated film Aladdin, or the Mickey Mouse Club TV show from 1955. What it means, in as broad a way as possible, is that the show or film you’re about to watch trafficked in troubling, problematic and/or offensive stereotypes of racial, ethnic, or sexual concerns.
A flashpoint for this, at least in terms of headlines online, was the 1941 film Dumbo, which some outlets alleged would be censored to remove the crow characters, who typified negative stereotypes of African Americans. Though the crows are offensive, they’re still part of Dumbo, which remains uncensored on Disney+. Either this means that Disney chose not to censor the crows, or they were never going to do so and the reports were baseless. I vote for the latter, personally. All that Disney has is that aforementioned two-sentence phrase. On one hand, it’s more than the studio had done in the past when releasing films like Dumbo, Peter Pan, or The Aristocats on home media. On the other, it’s the kind of message most people likely won’t notice, in favor of just clicking Play and watching one of those films.
And Now, Your Host
Context, too, would be appreciated in the form of more special features. One of the tabs on some titles, “Extras”, does include commentary tracks…for some films. A counterexample, if I can cherry-pick, is The Rocketeer, which has but one extra: …a clip of the film. Why not just watch the film? Granted, some of the films in question had few if any special features on previous DVD or Blu-ray releases. Now, though, is an incredible time for Disney+ to create new extra features for these films.
In a perfect world, Disney+ could function as a digital Turner Classic Movies for the family set. Yes, darker or more challenging fare will be posted on Hulu instead of Disney+, but you can still learn about the history of some of these films in different ways. Posting introductions featuring someone like Disney critic/historian Leonard Maltin would be a perfect way to ease casual viewers into films that may surprise them upon watching them in 2019.
In a perfect world, too, the battle between Disney+ and Apple TV+ would not be one-sided. Early technical issues aside, and the fact that its layout recalls Netflix often and clearly intentionally, Disney+ is the obvious winner here. The new content they offer isn’t incredible, but comes closer to appointment viewing than anything Apple TV+ has to offer. And seeing as middling shows is all Apple TV+ has to offer, there’s not a true contest here. Disney+ had flaws to be ironed out on its opening day. But it also has a library of hundreds and hundreds of older titles, it has everything from big blockbusters to Disney Channel TV shows, and it looks comfortable and familiar. Disney+ is unsurprisingly a winner.
The 1971 film Million Dollar Duck is all of the following things:
A movie about a duck who begins laying eggs with solid gold yolks after a mishap at a research facility A movie marketed to children that also requires a somewhat advanced knowledge of the international financial markets A movie in which a fictional Richard Nixon shouts “get that duck!” A movie Roger Ebert called “one of the most profoundly stupid movies I've ever seen” in the first sentence of his review A movie that is now available on Disney+
The time has come to talk about Million Dollar Duck.
1. The plot of Million Dollar Duck goes something like this. Albert Dooley Dean Jones, veteran of Disney movies and also Kelly Kapowski's grandfather in Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style is a research scientist in a facility that runs various animals through mazes and puzzles to test their intelligence. Through a truly preposterous set of circumstances that I'll describe in a minute, a duck gets blasted with radiation and develops the ability to lay golden eggs. Chaos ensues. Albert and his lawyer develop a crazy scheme to get rich, his Treasury Department bigwig neighbor gets suspicious, an international crisis develops, and a father and son bond before the father is hauled off to prison. At one point a dog chases the duck down a water slide. It is a profoundly, powerfully weird movie.
2. But how, I assume you're asking. How does a duck develop the ability to lay eggs with golden yolks? I'm glad you asked. It all starts with applesauce. Disgusting applesauce, prepared by Albert's wife, that contains garlic and seeds and lord knows what else. Albert brings it to work and throws it away and a chimp fishes it out of the trash and feeds it to the duck. The duck likes it. The duck is also terrible at the tests, which infuriates the cranky old scientist in charge, who a hates the duck with the fury of 100 bubbling cauldrons, and b is my favorite character in the movie by such a large margin you'd need a telescope to see the person in second place.
Cranky Scientist literally picks the duck up and heaves it out of the lab after it fails another test, at which point the duck waddles into the radiology lab and gets zapped with large doses of x-rays. Perhaps you think I'm exaggerating. I am not. Here, look at this.
Why anyone would leave the door open while radiation-related tests are happening, I don't know. I'm sure the cranky scientist has his reasons. The important thing here is that Albert takes the duck home to be a pet for his son and soon learns that it now lays the golden eggs as a result of the applesauce/radiation combination. I am not making this up. It's incredible.
Everything was in its seeming right place at the conclusion of Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s 2013 animated smash hit “Frozen,” as long-suffering princesses Anna Kristen Bell and Elsa Idina Menzel were reunited, the kingdom of Arendelle was freed from its eternal winter, Elsa was crowned queen with her magic intact and appreciated, and Anna had found love with a doofy regular dude after banishing a nefarious smooth-talking wannabe Prince Charming type. Still, fans of the Disney feature have long clamored for a sequel to the musical charmer, if only to spend more time with a cadre of cute characters including, of all things, a hammy reindeer and Josh Gad as a sentient snowman who has zero right to be as cute as he is inside an inventive new world.
Perhaps they should have been careful what they wished for, if only because it’s about to be upended by a fresh new story.
Sure, Elsa eventually ascended to the throne, leaving her self-created ice castle behind and slipping into a role that had long been carved out for her, but does that choice truly reflect who she is? And while Anna has always been happy to play second very supportive fiddle to her gifted big sis, she’s consistently seemed like the better choice to lead a kingdom and a Disney franchise to new s. Every sequel is tasked with dramatizing what happens next, but “Frozen 2” is built on a sly bit of course correction that might rile the very people who wanted it so badly. The franchise — and the fandom — are better for it.
“Frozen” may have ended with everything in its right place, but Lee and Buck’s long-awaited followup makes the case that a sequel was necessary, not because it was demanded, but because “Frozen” was never the correct end of the story. Loving the characters and themes of “Frozen” and wanting to see more of them can only naturally lead to “Frozen 2,” which does away with so many of the happily-ever-after elements of the first film and finds new, updated ones. By moving the tension between the traditional and the bold to the forefront, “Frozen 2” is one of the more daring visions of the future of Disney moviemaking, all bolstered by gorgeous animation and a handful of instant-classic new jams.
While “Frozen” used plenty of traditional plot points to guide it, including building off a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, imparting key lessons about doing the right thing, and making being part of the royal family sound like a fun gig, it was always laced through with some compelling subversion. Some moviegoers even latched on to Elsa’s alienation and desire to break free from expectations as indicative of her potential queerness - possible sexuality aside, crafting a bonafide Disney Princess who really, really didn’t want to be one is still a heck of a choice for Disney.
Picking up soon after the events of the first film, “Frozen 2” finds Elsa, Anna, Kristoff Jonathan Groff, Olaf Gad, and Sven the reindeer happily ensconced in a cheery Arendelle. And yet an early flashback to Anna and Elsa’s youth — before they were separated out of fear of Elsa’s icy powers — indicates that the seeds of this story were sown long ago. Since the first film, which offed Anna and Elsa’s parents in an off-screen shipwreck, fans have wondered about what really happened to the royal couple, another pair of loving adults lost to the whims of a studio that has always cherished the concept that parental death is key to personal growth.
“Frozen 2” gives the princesses — and the film’s audience — more time with King Runeard Jeremy Sisto and Queen Iduna Evan Rachel Wood, as they share the fantastical fairy tale of an ill-fated political meeting that nearly killed the kid king, locked a distant forest and its inhabitants in a magical mist, and inspires Elsa to go looking for answers she can’t find in Arendelle. Much that’s been guessed about the super-secret plot of “Frozen 2” has turned out to be incorrect: there is no autumnal version of Elsa, no overt same-sex romance, no secretly alive parents. That’s for the best, because the surprises that “Frozen 2” unfurls are emotional, mature, and often quite dark for a kids’ film tip: the youngest “Frozen” fans might need some warm hugs to get through a fraught final act.
As is so often the case, it starts with an unexpected journey. Early in the film, Elsa attempts to push away any thoughts about striking out into the unknown as illuminated by a song that is, of course, titled “Into the Unknown,” one of two sturdy “Let It Go” stand-ins, and muses that everyone she loves is finally under one roof, so why would she need more? For someone as magical and secretly bent on living her own life as Elsa, you can see where the discomfort might creep in.
Anna, meanwhile, is happy as a clam, embarking on zippy signalongs with best pal Olaf “Some Things Never Change” is just as fun and frisky as “Love Is an Open Door” and looking forward to whatever the future might bring. Olaf, now maturing into something of an adult snowman Was he a “snowkid” before? Best not to worry about it, is consumed by the idea that everything — including terrifying spirit-filled magical forests — will make sense when he’s older, while Kristoff just wants to put a ring on Anna’s finger.
When Elsa starts hearing an ethereal singing voice calling out to her, she’s compelled to follow it far North, and the rest of the crew can’t help but tag along, all the better to stick together and assuage Anna’s well-founded fears about losing her sister again. Of course, the journey and the voice lead straight to the distant forest, one filled with secrets and memories many of them rendered literal by magic-conjured ice sculptures, a plot point that makes much more sense in practice. There’s also a handful of new friends to meet, all of which are welcome, many of which are underserved Sterling K. Brown is the lone newbie who really gets to leave a mark.
Keen observers will likely see how this all is going to play out, as previously illuminated by Iduna’s flashback appearance, complete with its own song “All Is Found”. That doesn’t stop the film’s script, from Buck, Lee, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Marc Smith, and Allison Schroeder, from occasionally getting lost in the woods. Zipping between ruminations about the spirits that fill the forest it’s certainly the most pagan Disney film in recent memory to a convoluted exploration of the sins of the father no, really and a series of richly-animated and truly obvious revelations, “Frozen 2” is crammed with material, most of which works.
Despite the emotional upheaval of the final act, it also has a fair bit of amusement and spectacle. There’s tongue-in-cheek jibs about the Disney experience throughout, and Lee and Buck have some serious fun spinning the big musical numbers into fresh territory Kristoff’s big song, “Lost in the Woods,” is filmed as something of a power ballad music video, more Guns n Roses than anyone could ever expect from the Mouse House, and one of the best parts of the film. Olaf is as deranged and cute as ever, moving from court jester to something of a classic fool over the course of a transformational outing. In a flashback, Anna and Elsa’s dad even makes off with a lightning fast joke about a “new Danish author.”
It all culminates in a wild, windswept mission for Elsa, one that capitalizes on her powers and pushes them to terrifying ends. The same can be said of the film’s animation, which has mostly adhered to the style of the original, all sweet faces and the occasional burst of icy action Elsa can still make some insane snowflakes, and more, before building to an ocean-swept sequence that’s vivid, terrifying, and more eye-popping than the “Let It Go” scene in the first film. Like the film itself, it’s scary and different, but it also shows off the inherent power of moving away from expectations and embracing the drama of real life. No sequel is essential, but “Frozen 2” makes the argument that, even in the fairy tale land of Disney, they can still be important.
Disney will release “Frozen 2” in theaters on Friday, November 22.