I’m not sure how old I was when I started crying during movies. It must have happened gradually. Nothing made me cry when I was a kid or a teenager, but by the time I graduated from college, everything made me cry. It still does. It’s almost like I started crying around the age of 21 and haven’t really stopped since.
Animated Disney movies always hit me the hardest. The opening notes of “Belle.” Esmeralda kneeling beneath the Rose Window of Notre Dame. Mrs. Jumbo swaddling baby Dumbo with his own ears. “You’ll Be In My Heart,” obviously. Moana, Moana, Moana. I can’t explain it as anything but a symptom of growing older and learning the hard way that sometimes nostalgia cuts like a knife even as it envelops you like a security blanket, and it’s so rampant that when Evan and I sit down with a Disney movie, he spends more time watching me than the screen, waiting for the moment that will break me.
I know when a Disney movie is good because it will make me cry. I know when a Disney movie is bad because it won’t (lookin’ at you, Aladdin). It should come as no surprise, then, that I cried at least four times during Frozen II.
Except … it is a bit of a surprise.
Frozen was 2013’s cultural juggernaut, heralded by an inescapable power anthem and a story unapologetically designed for little girls and their sisters. I was not among the people who loved Frozen when it came out — though, yes, it did make me cry, and I do love that it tried something new in subverting fairy tale princess tropes. I liked it, wanted to feel more passionately about it, but couldn’t go all the way because, let’s face it, Frozen barely escaped decades of development hell, and it shows. The story feels cobbled together despite its lofty ambitions, the characters never break free from their one-dimensional bases, and the songs … are not great. “Let It Go” only stands above the rest because Idina Menzel elevates anything she sings. I wanted to love Frozen, but I couldn’t because more than anything I just wanted it to be better.
Frozen II is better.
Set three years after Frozen, the sequel begins with Elsa (Menzel) reigning over a peaceful Arendelle with her sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), enchanted snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), and Kristoff’s reindeer Sven at her side — a complete and loving family. Elsa has never been happier, but she also can’t escape a mysterious voice that only she can hear, beckoning her on another adventure. The call doesn’t become clear until a threat leftover from her parents’ past awakens to imperil Arendelle. To protect their home, the ice queen, two lovebirds, a snowy philosopher, and a dopey reindeer brave an enchanted forest, where dangerous nature spirits and life-changing secrets wait to test and transform them — Elsa most of all.
It’s the oldest story in the book. In fact, it’s the story that existed before books: the hero’s journey. It’s the story of Odysseus, of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, of Luke Skywalker. And now it is Elsa’s story too: a heroine’s journey. It’s the story she needed from the start.
If it feels obvious and predictable, that’s because you’ve seen it a thousand times, but no one questions it when the hero is a street rat, a farm boy, or a damn lion. If it feels fresh, it’s because we still don’t have enough heroines going on fully nuanced voyages of self-discovery where the prize is not a heterosexual relationship (a Disney princess stalwart), but rather the contentment that comes with simply knowing yourself. The fact that Elsa gets her own journey of such mythical proportions rightfully allows her to join other recent Disney protagonists like Rey from Nowhere and Moana of Motonui as self-sufficient, self-accepting, and utterly inspiring heroines of the modern age.
One need only look at the soundtrack to know that Frozen II is Elsa’s movie. This time, Idina Menzel dominates with not one but two “Defying Gravity”-level showstoppers; while “Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself” aren’t as catchy as “Let It Go,” both of them blow “Let It Go” out of the water in quality and message. “Show Yourself” is particularly gut-wrenching in ways that I can’t talk about for fear of spoiling it, but suffice to say that one pivotal line makes me cry every time I hear it. (I fully broke down listening to it in the car on my commute this morning. As Olaf says, THIS IS FINE.)
But Elsa isn’t the only one who benefits from Frozen II’s classical structure: Both Anna and Kristoff blossom as fully-fledged characters this time around, with journeys of their own that are just as fulfilling. I won’t elaborate on Anna’s much except to say that she is the one who goes to the darkest places, and her song, “The Next Right Thing,” is probably the most important one of the bunch as something that will help many, many people (but children especially) cope with grief and depression in the future.
Kristoff, meanwhile, emerges as my surprise favorite because he’s Disney’s best boyfriend since Robin Hood. This sounds facetious, but think about it for a second: Most Disney men tend to let their own flaws get between them and their love interests. Hercules and his glory, the Beast and his temper, Li Shang and his duty — you get the idea. But Kristoff is different. He knows his role in Anna’s life will always be secondary to Elsa’s, and he accepts that. He’s a supporting character in every meaning of the word, and when Anna needs him most, he says six words that made me cry yet again because they reminded me why I love my husband so much. Such simple, meaningful words, these six, that few men onscreen and off remember to say: “I’m here. What do you need?”
Not to mention Kristoff also gets a significant spot on the soundtrack this time. Between this song and “You’ll Be Back,” Jonathan Groff proves himself the king of singing the goofiest songs completely and perfectly straight.
If I have one complaint about Frozen II, it’s that it perpetuates its predecessor’s problem in that it introduces some really interesting ideas that never get fully developed. The backstory of Elsa and Anna’s parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood), and the introduction of a new ethnic group of people living in the enchanted forest suffer the most in this regard, but it’s forgivable for the sake of expediency. Not all questions need to be answered, and thankfully no time is wasted on anything as pace-killing as the weird shippy trolls in the first Frozen.
It’s been two days since I saw Frozen II. From what I’ve seen online, reactions from other people have been fairly mixed. Some loved it (one critic called it “Annihilation for the whole family,” and listen, he’s not wrong), while others resolutely did not. I’m generally understanding of people’s opinions when they differ from mine, but the one barb I will not tolerate is that Frozen II is worse than Frozen. It’s not. It’s been two days since I saw it. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop listening to the soundtrack and crying about it.
Not for nothing, but one of my favorite things about Elsa and Anna and Rey and Moana is that they let themselves cry. It took me too long to learn how to do that.
I’m never going back.