Here's a word most assumed wouldn't apply to a second Frozen movie: ambitious.

After the 2013 film was an unprecedented phenomenon for Disney, launching "Let It Go" into regular radio rotation and becoming the highest-grossing animated film ever made at the time, just the title Frozen 2 naturally provoked skepticism. Given that Frozen didn't present any more obvious need for a theatrical sequel than all of the other Disney princess movies that came before, it sure smelled like a cynical cash grab, and a safe second installment following a familiar template for another easy $1 billion seemed likely to be in the cards.

Rest assured, though, Frozen 2 is no soulless retread but rather a much more narratively complex, visually inventive, and thematically interesting follow-up than anticipated. Its reach at times exceeds its grasp, but the effort is consistently admirable.

After unfreezing Arendelle and opening up the castle gates, Frozen 2 picks up with Queen Elsa and Princess Anna having achieved the peaceful, happy lives they wanted but in a state of anxiety that this won't last forever. That's especially true of Elsa, who hears a mysterious voice calling her out into the unknown. Even while fearing the risk that comes with following this voice, something tells Elsa she's not where she belongs. So Elsa and Anna, accompanied by Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf, journey north to an enchanted forest they learned about as kids, where a battle between an indigenous tribe and the Arendellians once took place.

As might already be clear from that description, this is no mere Frozen redo plot-wise. Indeed, Frozen 2 is jam packed with the kind of mythology that the original film didn't have as much interest in, from this tale of the enchanted forest and how it came to be inaccessible to the outside world, to the story of a fabled river full of memories, to the introduction of a group of mythical spirits for the elements of wind, fire, earth, and water and an exploration of how Elsa's powers fit into this equation. We get the sense that directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee were so self-conscious about returning to this cash cow that they may have overcompensated a bit, stuffing absolutely every idea they could think of, plus tons of new characters, into one 100-minute movie.

Frozen 2, as a result, is a lot more unfocused than its predecessor. The original Frozen was fairly lean narratively, and basically every plot line was in service of the same central idea. But the sequel juggles tons of different threads that don't all coalesce as satisfyingly by the end. In its effort to lay out so much new lore, the film also spends too many scenes in its first half having characters simply relay information to one another in a way that can get a bit too complicated, especially for younger viewers. The film really begins to find its groove in the second half, though, when the quest's end comes in to view, the heavy amount of backstory starts to pay off, and two breathtaking final songs are unleashed.

Visually, Frozen 2 is also an unexpected reinvention, and not just because it shifts from the original's snowy aesthetic to an autumn setting. It's also filled with stunningly gorgeous new visual concepts, among the most compelling being how the past is depicted. Oftentimes, rather than going with a traditional flashback, the film utilizes Elsa's powers to show us ice sculptures that form in front of the characters as living portraits of these past events. We don't cut back but instead receive a snapshot through the ice, an imaginative idea beautifully fitting with the theme of memories being contained in water.

Another jaw-dropping sequence teased in the trailer sees Elsa encountering an elemental spirit appearing as a horse made of water in an almost photorealistic ocean, an awe-inspiring stretch that's among the most visually impressive pieces of Disney animation in recent memory.

Equally ambitious is the film's takeaway message, which isn't just an extension or reaffirmation of what came before. Another one of those sequels that grows up with fans of the original — get ready to hear a Disney princess say the line “hello darkness, I'm ready to succumb" — it not only speaks to young viewers beginning to fear change in their lives as they grow up, but also cuts deeper than you'd expect by forcing its characters to reckon with uncomfortable revelations about the past and the privileged world they've always enjoyed. A simple tale of self-acceptance this is not.

Admittedly, Frozen 2 isn't above a little bit of light retreading now and again, including another song in which Olaf obliviously sings about something he's very, very wrong about. But the film more often than not opts to do its own thing entirely, as evidenced by a dramatically different approach to an antagonist following the original Frozen's villain reveal being one of its most talked about moments.

Ultimately, the first Frozen remains superior to its follow-up as a more focused work. But after the first film's massive success, this sequel's willingness to not merely follow that established road map and instead journey into the unknown is a pleasant surprise worthy of celebration.

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