Can’t let it go: The inevitable success of Frozen II will keep Disney looking to the past

After months of carefully co-ordinated press campaigns, red carpets and sneak preview events, the sequel to the biggest animated movie ever has arrived.

The record-breaking success of Frozen put a different kind of pressure on the creators. How could they even come close to $1.6 billion at the box office? Frozen was more than a smash hit. For a generation, it was the soundtrack for their childhood, an anthem about female empowerment and sisterhood, wrapped in a wintry fairy tale.

“It’s a daunting task,” said Peter Del Vecho, producer of both Frozen films.

Speaking with CBC, Del Velcho talked about the expectations inside the studio to find a sequel story that was suited to the characters. For months, co-director and screenwriter Jennifer Lee wrote in journals in the voices of Elsa and Anna to explore what happens after Frozen‘s happy ending.

Kristen Bell, voice of Anna, left; Josh Gad, voice of Olaf, middle; and Idina Menzel, voice of Elsa, right, at the Frozen II premiere at the Scotiabank Cinema in Toronto. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

But before Elsa and Anna returned to the big screen in Frozen II, Disney began stoking expectations. There was a flurry of press events where the voice actors teased fans with excerpts from the new film.

Was there a reason they were keeping the full finished product under wraps?

At an event in Toronto earlier this month, Kristen Bell, who plays Anna, said she wasn’t worried about matching the success of the original.

“I’m firm believer if you make a cake and you use those same ingredients the next night, chances are it’s also going to be a great cake.”

WATCH: Frozen II stars Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell and Josh Gad stop in Toronto

But this cake is, if not half-baked, a muddled and mushy followup.  

The story finds Elsa, the ice-powered queen of Arendelle, played by actor Idina Menzel, once again pulled away from her sister when a voice calls to her from beyond.

In one of the sequel’s best scenes, Menzel belts out the new number, Into the unknown, harmonizing with the haunting voice while ice sculptures spring to life.

But once Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and Olaf arrive in the fog-shrouded forest, we’re quickly ensnared in a tangled thicket of plot lines.

Co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee include an acknowledgement of colonization, introducing the Northuldra, a fictional community of Indigenous people based on the very real Sámi people of northern Europe. We learn the Northuldra have been locked in a conflict with an army from Arendelle for years.

Just days before the premiere of Frozen II, Menzel and Bell were honoured with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Jerod Harris/Getty Images)

Frozen II does have some inspired moments.

As Elsa’s powers evolve, she encounters the water spirit Nokk, a shimmering living sculpture of a stallion created in part by Calgary-born animator Jackie Koehler — one of many Canadian artists who worked on the film.  

As opposed to the icy original, the sequel has more of a warm, autumnal palette. Producer Peter Del Vecho says the team was inspired by an expedition to Iceland and tried to capture the unpredictable power of nature.

Much like the dramatic landscapes, Frozen II is a film of contrasts. One moment you’re dazzled by the elemental powers of the forest spirits, then Kristoff takes centre stage for an amusing rock ballad. (Imagine Bon Jovi with reindeer and you’re getting close.) 

The result is a calculated and confusing attempt to replicate Frozen‘s success. It’s a lot to process for kids looking for another blast of Let it go. But, once again, Disney’s success is seemingly guaranteed thanks to the built-in affection for the brand.

In order to remake the beloved 1994 film The Lion King, director Jon Favreau created a fully computer-animated version with photorealistic singing animals.   (Disney/The Associated Press)

Since 2010, the studio has increasingly banked its box office prowess on new versions of treasured classics. While the reviews for new versions of Dumbo, The Lion King and Aladdin were less than magical, the affection for the originals drove parents and kids to the theatres. 

Beware the Solo stumble

But how many times can Mickey dip into the vault before the studio suffers another Han Solo moment?

Remember Solo: A Star Wars Story? Walt Disney Studios acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and quickly put a series of Star Wars films into production. But the prequel about the dashing rogue suffered a backlash from fans and less-than stellar ticket sales. In the aftermath, producer Kathleen Kennedy decided to slow down the string of Star Wars spinoffs. 

Meanwhile, Disney heads into the new year with a new live-action version of Mulan, as well as Jungle Cruise (inspired by the theme park ride) and Cruella (based on the villain from 101 Dalmatians). 

Smaller, more adult-oriented films continue to melt away from the multiplex. By year’s end, it’s entirely possible the top five films of 2019 could all be Walt Disney productions.  

Into the unknown? Not exactly. For Disney, the road ahead is built on the hits of the past.

Elsa shares an icy glare on a backdrop for a blue carpet fan event in Toronto. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

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