***Contains spoilers for FROZEN 2***
Frozen 2 is a sequel to Frozen, but it’s also a continuation of a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t really dissipated over the past six years – to the delight of its converts and to the chagrin of those sick of hearing “Let it Go” for the thousandth time. The sequel is a visually masterful companion piece to the original, but as a musical it must also be measured by its songs. Thankfully, Frozen 2’s songs are excellent. While not generally adhering to the subversive quality of Frozen’s numbers, the sequel takes big swings with its songs, coming out the other side with operatic emotion and distinctive comedy. What secrets do these new songs hold?
All is Found
Like “Frozen Heart” in Frozen, this song’s narrative function is to foreshadow some of the drama of the movie. Unlike “Frozen Heart”, which used a truly removed Greek chorus approach, Anna and Elsa hear the song, receive it as folklore, and later refer to the lyrics as a warning, almost as prophecy. “Go too far, and you’ll be drowned.” The lyric, “Can you face what the river knows?” sets up the discovery of a great sin in Arendelle’s past. This is a kingdom that later in the movie is described as an eternal “kingdom of plenty that stands for the good of the many”, so it’s a mature move to complicate that, reminiscent of the similar anti-colonial themes of Thor: Ragnarok vis a vis Asgard. Additionally, the song’s full-volume power comes when it’s later magically reprised within “Show Yourself”. Musically, the piece is a lovely folk melody that sets up the nature-based beauty of the film.
Some Things Never Change
Unlike any song in the first movie, this is a true ensemble piece for the cast of major players, something tailormade for a Broadway company, or even more so, a cast of Muppets. Like the Muppets’ “Life’s a Happy Song”, the song features an irresistible groove in the chorus and an infectiously cheery tone, even while commenting on the inevitability of the passage of time, which provides a slight tension. “Like an old stone wall that will never fall” plays over, of course, an old stone wall falling apart. “The flag of Arendelle will always fly” is shortly followed by the flag decorating the ground (shades of the flag of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).
“The leaves are already falling / Sven, it feels like the future is calling.” The verse hook is killer. The song respects the happily-ever-after ending of Frozen, before the complications of the story. And because of the excellent execution, it sidesteps the direct-to-video sequel feel that this sentimentality could’ve led to. (Even as Olaf is allowed a meta moment to address the audience directly!)
Into the Unknown
An Elsa solo show-stopper and worthy successor to “Let it Go” (though that anthem is still impossible to top, especially in terms of cultural impact; the sequel does well to spread the pressure of a follow-up between two songs). The song incorporates talk-singing in the verses, making for a strong contrast to the soaring chorus. That chorus demonstrates a mastery of syllabic dynamics, as the progression of 5-syllable to 6-syllable to 8-syllable phrasing perfectly livens up what could’ve been a repetitive use of the title “Into the Unknown”.
The song also begins a recurring musical motif among the film’s songbook. The galloping rhythm under the chorus suggests travel or determined footsteps, mirroring Elsa’s desire for bold movement and specifically foreshadowing her wrangling, taming, and riding the Water Nokk as a horse. We’ll return to the motif of musical footsteps later.
When I am Older
A nifty little Vaudeville comedy song for Olaf, about… him having a dissociative episode from the uncanny events happening all around him! Because of this obvious and amusing tension in the song, this is the Frozen 2 number closest in spirit to the subversive stylings of the original film. Musically, the song doesn’t stand up as well on its own without its physical and emotional comedy context. But there are still wonderful touches, like the kooky sting that scores the verses. On the one hand it’s a creepy family-friendly horror-tinged lick, but on the other it doubles for Olaf’s frightened and scattered footsteps.
Lost in the Woods
The most unique song in the movie, “Lost in the Woods” is an unapologetic 1980s power ballad shot like a music video, complete with specific visual references to classic rock such as Queen. Coming on the heels of a brief reprise of “Reindeers are Better than People” from the first movie, the ballad represents the clearest formal musical experimentation of the film. If nothing else, I’m pleased Broadway musical star Jonathan Groff has a chance to use his pipes, after barely getting a look-in in Frozen.
An emotional epic, “Show Yourself” is a euphoric experience even on its own, but pair it with the mind-blowing visuals of this portion of the movie and you have something truly special. The imagery of this sequence is prismatic, crystalline, mythical, magical, and a clear highlight not only in the film but in Disney’s animated canon. The full Aurora Borealis effect feels like a fulfillment of what Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu could’ve been.
The cresting intersections of voice in the song make it a lightning rod of emotion. Elsa, her mother Iduna, and the Ahtohallan voice combine for a three-pronged effect; when “All is Found” is reprised, it’s an incandescent moment. Add to that a jagged piano backing and some juicy saxophone application, and from a storytelling perspective, an almost literal killer coda that freezes Elsa solid.
While on a musical level “Into the Unknown” will get the headlines as the sequel’s answer to “Let it Go”, “Show Yourself” is its true spiritual counterpart, because Elsa’s journey of self-discovery finds its next chapter at Ahtohallan. In Frozen’s ice palace, Elsa let her hair down and created an icy blue dress. In Frozen 2’s Ahtohallan, Elsa fully unbraids her hair and creates a crystalline white dress. The two sequences are true visual companion pieces. When Elsa runs down an enclosed ice cave, the rebirth imagery is clear. “Grow yourself into something new.”
The Next Right Thing
“The Next Right Thing” is Frozen’s version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. Just as Fantine cries her way through that heartbreaking piece, Anna cries her way through the strains of this one, before gathering strength and taking decisive action. There are even musical quotes of specific Les Miserables moments in “The Next Right Thing”; a rising swell coinciding with the lyrical phrase “in my mind” from “I Dreamed a Dream”, and a descending operatic harmony at the song’s climax that recalls the ending of “One Day More”. The drama of the song is a little jarring for a children’s movie. “Hello darkness, I’m ready to succumb”?
But Anna rallies and picks herself up the floor. The phrasing of the title, “Next Right Thing”, is presented as hard glottal stops that don’t flow into each other (for example, like “The Place where Lost Things Go” in Mary Poppins Returns), but the effect that creates, for the third time on this soundtrack, suggests footsteps. Next. Right. Thing. Three successive distinct movements that don’t glide, but step one at a time. Each syllable is a choice for Anna to make even when all hope seems lost.
And each song is a rich earworming expansion of the Frozen repertoire, an impressive canon that also includes songs from two animated shorts and a Broadway musical. As I said, cultural phenomenon. And when looking in Frozen 2 for a worthy follow-up to a songbook that won an Oscar and the Internet, all is found.