The results of this year’s Oscars, as well as Frozen II‘s upcoming Blu-Ray release, have had me thinking. I don’t follow the Oscars or care about their decisions for several reasons, which I won’t get into here. Regardless, I have to admit I was surprised, and not in a good way, to hear that Frozen II wasn’t even nominated for best animated feature. On the one hand, I don’t feel bad for Disney as a company. I like some of their movies, but they are just that: a huge company that isn’t by any means an underdog. Toy Story 4, having been made by Pixar, belongs to Disney anyway. Additionally, the existence of a category specifically for animated features is ridiculous and condescending in the first place. If Toy Story 4 hadn’t been nominated and subsequently won this particular award, there wouldn’t be much to say about Frozen II arguably being “snubbed.”
I haven’t seen I Lost My Body yet. Personally, I liked Klaus, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, and Missing Link all more than TS4. I’m not sure how I’d compare them to Frozen II, but I can understand them choosing those titles over a commercial Disney Princess flick. However, I’m kind of baffled that the Academy, or anyone for that matter, actually liked Toy Story 4 more than Frozen II. Voters yearly offer admissions of not watching all the films, and other factors can lead them to strange and stupid results. As such, it’s no surprise to see much of the same this go-round. However, just for fun, I’d like to compare the two films and discuss why Frozen II is better all around.
Visuals are an essential part of film, although for me personally, they’ll always be secondary to character and story. However, being that these are Disney-produced, big-budget animated movies that came out in 2019, I think it’s valid to compare their overall appearance. A film’s aesthetic is by no means the most important factor by which to judge it. However, Frozen II‘s visual scheme is leaps and bounds beyond anything Toy Story 4 even attempts. Both films have impressive, modern, fluid animation that never appears stiff or treads into the uncanny valley. However, Frozen II utilizes colors and lighting to its advantage in ways that Toy Story 4 can’t be bothered with. It also pushes the boundaries of the medium with grand, sweeping shots of landscapes, buildings, crowds, and supernatural phenomena. That last one would have no place in a Toy Story film, but the overall point is that Frozen II is visually more exciting and beautiful. Frozen II also expands on the mise-en-scene of the first film, introducing not only new locales but totally different climates and design schemes. Toy Story 4 takes its characters to new places like a carnival and an antique shop, both of which are about as visually stunning as they sound. Frozen II also has far superior songs and score to Toy Story 4. It would be unfair to make this its own category, as Frozen II is a musical; Disney musicals are expected to “wow” the audience in a way that Randy Newman’s comical songs for the Toy Story franchise aren’t. However, I would argue that “I Won’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” (wow, very subtle there) and TS4’s other music isn’t even as good as in previous Toy Story films. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” anybody? “When Somebody Loved Me”? I rest my case.
In terms of themes and ideas expressed, Toy Story 4 seems to be about facing your own irrelevance and doing what’s best for yourself rather than everyone else. I think these can be good ideas to explore in a film, but the first one was already explored in the series’ second and third movies, and in a much more satisfying manner. Throughout Toy Story 4, Woody is tempted by the excitement of the carnival, the possibility of freedom, and a life with Bo Peep. This is reminiscent of Toy Story 2 when he’s offered the chance to go to the Konishi Toy Museum with his TV sidekicks Jessie, Prospector Pete, and Bullseye. After Andy accidentally rips Woody’s arm, he’s forced to consider life as a broken, rejected toy. The film also posits the idea that Andy will grow up, and the fate of his childhood toys will be uncertain. Going to the museum would both save Woody from future injury and remove the threat of being outmoded or becoming inessential to a growing boy. It isn’t until Woody is confronted by his best friend Buzz that he realizes a life without love isn’t worth living, regardless of how safe or permanent it might be. Being Andy’s toy presents challenges and a scary, unknown future, but it’s a life of purpose that comes with the chance to love and be loved. Toy Story 3 similarly seduces Jessie and some of the other toys with the prospect of living at a daycare center where there will always be children to play with. In Toy Story 4, Woody’s desire to leave Bonnie behind and live free with Bo is treated very differently. The film begins with Bonnie ignoring Woody, giving his sheriff badge to Jessie to play with her instead. This is a massive slap in the face after the end of Toy Story 3, in which Woody was the toy Bonnie was happiest to see and most eager to play with. It feels director Josh Cooley, writer Rashida Jones, and others have no interest in ensuring this film flows naturally from its predecessors. However, if they did care about the series as a whole, there wouldn’t be a 4th film, so maybe that should have been obvious from the start.
In Toy Story 4, Woody makes the easy choice. He chooses himself, not his friends, and certainly not his child. At times, I thought Woody was making progress in convincing Bo to come with him to Bonnie’s. Had this happened, this film would still be unnecessary and tacked-on, but it wouldn’t be insultingly antithetical to the other films that spawned it. Buzz and Jessie, Woody’s best friends and previously some of the most important characters, are relegated to unfunny jokes in this. Jessie pretty much exists to receive Woody’s badge. This could probably be read as a feminist statement, but to be honest, I hated this movie so much I didn’t even care about that. Buzz and Woody parting feels so wrong, being that their friendship has been the backbone of this series. Unlike Frozen II or Ralph Breaks the Internet, this is a permanent split; Woody won’t be visiting his friends or likely ever seeing them again. Hate. Of all the problems I have with this film, it all boils down to the fact that it’s character assassination directed at one of my favorite fictional characters. Toy Story was my first favorite movie, my obsession when I was little. It wasn’t a perfect film series, and I always thought Toy Story 3 was a little overblown, but I never expected to be so disgusted and disappointed by an entry in this franchise.
On the other hand, Frozen II explores its characters and introduces exciting themes in a way that almost makes the first film better by extension. The first Frozen, much like Toy Story 3, seemed totally closed-ended and self-contained. Obvious financial appeal aside, I didn’t think it was a good candidate for a sequel at all. Frozen II goes back to the beginning, back to Anna and Elsa’s childhood with their parents. But unlike various other creators we could name, directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck actually seem to have listened and learned from criticism of the first film. Frozen II never reeks of fan-service or retcons, but we get to see King Agnarr and especially Queen Iduna in a far more positive light. There’s a scene they included in the film’s trailers where Pabbie says, “the past is not what it seems,” and it applies to several things throughout the film. Arendelle’s history, the Royal Family’s past, and the origins of Elsa’s powers are given special attention in the movie. Some of these things prove to be more positive than implied by the first film, while Arendelle’s history and that of King Runeard, Anna and Elsa’s grandfather, are shown to have sinister undertones. Whereas Toy Story 4 seems meandering at times and bogged down by poorly done comedy, Frozen II is surprisingly focused and satisfying. Evan Rachel Wood’s Iduna performs “All is Found” in the beginning, telling her daughters about Ahtohallan, an ancient, magical river filled with memory and knowledge. She sings, “Can you brave what you must fear/Can you face what the river knows,” and this also has multiple meanings. Once Elsa reaches Ahtohallan, she learns the truth about herself but also the truth about Runeard and the atrocities he committed as King of Arendelle. In the catchy ensemble piece “Some Things Never Change,” two crucial ideas are set up. Anna, Elsa, and various other characters don’t want things to change, and they believe Arendelle to be a good, fair kingdom that has always done right by all its people. I really didn’t appreciate this song or its value to the film as a whole upon my first viewing. It’s insanely catchy and full of beautiful harmonies, but more importantly, it puts every major character on a clear path and presents beliefs they hold, some of which prove to be sorely misguided.
Promotional materials for Frozen II promised a darker (but not too dark) take on these characters, and I think it undeniably delivered in several ways. Elsa, and especially Anna, already had complete journeys in the first film. I would argue that Elsa’s wasn’t done very well, but that’s neither here nor there. What really surprised me about Frozen II was that it gives the sisters satisfying character arcs that fit their respective personalities and flaws without undoing the previous film. Anna is forced to confront the notion that things do indeed change. She has to accept that as part of life, as we all do. Change doesn’t just mean the changing of seasons or growing older, things she observes in the opening number. Anna learns that people change too. Your relationships with people change, and the perception and/or reality of a country’s morality changes over time. It seems an obvious lesson, but that’s because it’s one we all learn at some point. No matter how hard you hold onto an idea, a person, or even your own self-image, change can, and eventually will, occur. Furthermore, Anna is brought to her lowest point in the film’s late middle, and she has to make a decision without Elsa or even Olaf to consult. Anna grows much more in this film than the first because she has to go from a follower to a leader, literally taking over the Arendellian throne. I do think she should have had a more significant role in Kristoff’s arc and his desire to marry her. Their becoming engaged could be seen as another sign of her maturation; she already knows the dangers of jumping into an engagement, and we know that isn’t what’s happening. But throughout the whole film, Kristoff is planning his proposal, and at times, feeling left behind by Anna. Meanwhile, all we get out of Anna is her happiness at the proposal and immediate acceptance. I love the journey they gave Anna in this film, and it’s unlike any the other Disney Princesses have had. I just wish the romantic subplot didn’t feel so one-sided this go-round. I also don’t think Olaf adds much to the film as far as themes or character development go. For the most part, he usually just mirrors whatever is happening to Anna. But he is hilarious, unlike anyone in Toy Story 4, so it doesn’t bother me as much as it could have.
At first, I didn’t like that Elsa leaves in the end. For one thing, they’ve kind of been doing this a lot in these films of late; Toy Story 4 and Ralph Breaks the Internet each came out months before Frozen II. For another thing, Elsa learned in the first film that she has to trust Anna enough to let her in. In this film, she again shuts Anna out and, at one point, literally pushes her away and (although accidentally) towards danger. However, even once Elsa has accepted herself as the Fifth Spirit and moved to the woods with the Northuldra, she’s still closer to Anna than she ever was in the first film. She knew they could live separately but always stay close, and she also knew that Anna was right for the people of Arendelle in a way that she never was. I actually think this works much better than what they did with Woody in Toy Story 4. Whereas there it felt like a slap in the face and went against the character we’ve been watching since 1995, here it makes sense. Elsa loves her sister and her people, but she is not a leader, and she doesn’t do well in social situations of any type. In the first film, Anna interacts with her staff and subjects any chance she gets. This comes in stark contrast to her sister Elsa, who can barely share a simple conversation with her own sister. Elsa expressing this kinship with nature and essentially becoming the Avatar (as in The Last Airbender, not the blue cat-people) works better with each viewing of the film. This is because, while I would never have thought of it, it seems like a logical outcome for her character.
There are two other things I don’t like here: the Northuldra tribe and Elsa’s last-minute save of Arendelle and the palace. The Northuldra and their relationship to Arendelle offer an interesting opportunity for Anna and Elsa to see an outside perspective on their beloved home. I think making Queen Iduna Northuldra, and thus Anna and Elsa, half Northuldra was a good move. However, it bothers me that the people in the tribe are basically just props. They give the girls information and prompt them to make decisions, but these characters have no agency of their own. They don’t push the plot forward in any meaningful way; they simply provide information and represent a particular idea within the film. Finally, this may be controversial, but I really think Elsa should not have swooped in at the last possible second and saved the Kingdom of Arendelle and royal palace. The city had been evacuated at the beginning of the film, so nobody would have to die, and it just seems very convenient and silly. This being said, my real problem with her doing so is that it weakens one of the film’s running throughlines. In “Some Things Never Change,” one of the final lines goes, “We’ll always live in a Kingdom of plenty/That stands for the good of the many.” Then Elsa sings, “I promise you the flag of Arendelle will always fly,” which is echoed by Anna and the chorus. Throughout the film, Anna and Elsa learn that Arendelle didn’t always stand for the good of the many. King Runeard was an evil man who broke promises, feared magic, and anyone different, killed the leader of the Northuldra tribe, and plunged both peoples into darkness. Throughout the film, it feels as though maybe Arendelle and the things it stands for should be destroyed. Again, the people are gone, so they would be fine anyway. When Anna breaks the dam built by Runeard and frees both the Arendellian soldiers and the Northuldra from the mist curse, I think the castle and Arendelle’s flag should have been brought down. After the girls learn the truth about their heritage, some meaningful change needs to take place. Something needs to be sacrificed to atone for the evils perpetrated by this Kingdom, and maybe that thing IS the Kingdom itself. Anna should get a fresh start and essentially rebuild her people’s home from the ground up with them. She could use all she’s learned up to that point to lead the Arendellian people down new paths and reconcile the two groups in a fashion similar to what happens in the last scene as-is.
Whereas Frozen II stumbles in some areas while soaring in others, Toy Story 4 makes fatal mistakes that ruin the series and go against the previous movies. Both films are flawed, but Frozen II expands on its world and characters while remaining faithful to the first film. Frozen II learns from the first movie’s mistakes without retconning it or betraying its characters and messages. And this is coming from someone who loves Toy Story and thought the first Frozen was just OK. Regardless of what film won the Oscar or which has a bigger box office gross, Frozen II is better in terms of visuals, theme, character development, and successfully continuing a beloved franchise.