Thanks to the Roman numeral helpfully attached to its title, audiences should have a fair idea of what to expect from Disney's latest animated musical: It's Frozen, but ya know … twice! Twice the peril! Twice the naïveté from sentient snowman Olaf! Twice the number of screamy power ballads for Idina Menzel to perform at the Oscars! But for all of its considerable pleasures, Frozen II is also more often Frozen Too – as in too formulaic, too unnecessary, and, for its target kiddie crowd and at least one grown-up, perhaps too confusing. Was anyone else a bit taken aback by the enchanted-forest storyline involving the four classical elements and the ambulatory boulders out of Darren Aronofsky's Noah, and by this latest Disney blockbuster being, in the end, all about colonial reparations?
I suppose overreaching is preferable to a sequel that simply re-stages the expected beats all over again, and one of the most cheering aspects of directors' Chris Buck's and Jennifer Lee's follow-up is that the Happily Ever After granted to estranged sisters Elsa (voiced by Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) in 2013 isn't sullied; Frozen ended on a note of deep devotion between the two, and thankfully, their hard-won closeness is only amplified in this continuation. In broad outline, and because Disney flicks and comic-book movies are becoming ever more indistinguishable, Frozen II is an origin story, one explaining how Queen Elsa received her magical ability to turn water into ice, and how her family's kingdom of Arendelle came into being. Turns out it's not the friendliest of tales, and winds up involving lies, murder, broken treaties, pissed-off elemental pixies, and two warring factions essentially held hostage for all time. (What fun! Bring on the action figures and fast-food tie-ins!)
Yet because all of that could easily turn off young children, to say nothing of parents who don't want to spend the whole car ride home fielding such questions as “Why was the grandpa so mean?” and “Why were those rocks so grouchy?”, there's also more. More shenanigans involving the hunky lummox Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who keeps trying, in vain, to pop the question to Anna. More simple-minded hilarity with Josh Gad's Olaf, whose spirit of childlike wonder is newly encased in a perma-frozen exterior. More anthropomorphous comedy courtesy of the Kristoff's loyal reindeer Sven, whose human expressions and puppy-esque demeanor are mirrored in the form of a grinning, panting toad who accompanies Elsa on her travels. (Among things we're gladly given less of are the trolls, whose time-killing appearances in the original film I had completely blocked from memory until their leader briefly returned here.) As someone who really liked Frozen, if not quite enough to watch it more than once, this was all fine with me, and on at least one occasion, far better than fine: Kristoff's romantic showstopper “Lost in the Woods” is sung by Groff and shot with such gloriously satiric mid-'80s-rock-ballad panache – like some recently unearthed Peter Cetera video – that I wanted to applaud.
Most of the rest of the time, though, I resigned myself to merely being amused, primarily because, as with so many origin stories, not all that much seems to be at stake. True, the film opens with the citizenry of Arendelle forced to flee their kingdom and potentially never return, and our heroes do spend the majority of their screen time desperate to free themselves from the aforementioned enchanted forest that appears to offer no escape. But there's no question that they will escape – just as there's no question that one principal character's tearjerking “death” will be shamelessly reversed in the Disney/Marvel manner – and so Frozen II winds up feeling oddly weightless, and meaningless, despite the augmented threats and revelations and (superb) animated effects. The attempts to explore deeper thematic terrain, meanwhile, are largely a wash. It's kind of impressive that the Disney brain trust would allow one of their franchise entries, when all is said and done, to examine what payback might be owed to an unfairly conquered people. It's also kind of unfortunate to discover that said payback, here, basically amounts to “We just wanted an apology.”
Still, Buck's and screenwriter Lee's offering is easy enough to enjoy if you don't spend undue time comparing it to the original, and if you don't try that hard to make sense of it. The vocal performances are again first-rate, with this film's game of “Guess the Celebrity Voice” boasting answers in “Evan Rachel Wood,” “Sterling K. Brown,” and “Jeremy Sisto.” The songs by returning composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are typically melodious and lively, with Menzel's “Into the Unknown” clearly designed as another octave-jumping, award-nabbing earworm in the vein of “Let It Go.” Elsa's precipitation-freezing powers are beautifully imagined; the sisters' rapport and mutual disinterest in romantic love – Anna takes her relationship with Kristoff delightfully for granted – is refreshing; the attention to recognizable human behavior in animated form is commendable. (I loved it when, after telling his young daughter a bedtime story in flashback, Arendelle's king tickled the girl's toe before tucking her in for the night.) And Gad's Olaf, it should go without saying, is a hoot, his hyperactive recap(s) of Frozen plotlines maybe his funniest sustained routine despite veering dangerously close to the meta snark of an animated comedy by Dreamworks or Illumination. Frozen II is most assuredly a Frozen. If only it had more narrative heat.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
If Frozen II feels ultimately inessential, the notion of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, at least for fellow admirers of Mister Rogers and his long-running PBS show, felt positively superfluous. After last year's exemplary documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, what more could we conceivably learn, or want to learn, from another feature film on the iconic children's-television host and his legendary goodness?
Nothing, it turns out, because director Marielle Heller's character piece isn't about him – it's about Mister Rogers' effect on one Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a sad, broken investigative journalist for Esquire who lucks into an interview assignment destined to change his life. There's still more than a month to go in 2019, but I think my favorite tweets of the year will remain those of author Mark Harris, who said of Heller's movie: “It's a lot like The Silence of the Lambs, but with nice people. Preternaturally calm person with unnerving ability to 'read' other people analyzes and is analyzed by younger professional with complex personal issues to work through.” That's exactly what A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is, and as such, there isn't much that's terribly gripping – and certainly nothing that's revelatory – about its story. But like Fred Rogers himself was, Heller's adaptation of real-life Esquire writer Tom Junod's “Can You Say … Hero?” article (its screenplay by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster) is quiet and lovely and sometimes joyously imaginative, even if, as I did, you leave the film thinking that no one, not even the ideally cast Tom Hanks, should be asked to play Mister Rogers on-screen. It's not that an impersonation isn't advisable, or even possible. It's that Rogers was too inscrutable, or maybe just too uncomplicated, to make for truly interesting drama.
One of the more fascinating recurring motifs in director Morgan Neville's Won't Be By My Neighbor? was the way everyone in the found footage, from Senator John Pastore to Tom Snyder, couldn't believe this guy – that his soft-spoken sincerity and irrevocable faith in basic human kindness wasn't some kind of put-on. (Talk-show host Snyder famously, bluntly asked Rogers, “Are you square? Are you really the way you are?”) Realizing it wasn't a con job, though, these people had no choice but to take the man's earnestness at face value – Pastore even granted PBS $20 million in funding because of it – and accept that, yes, some individuals really were this preternaturally openhearted and loving. At least this one was. But selfless perfection isn't an easy thing to play. It might be the hardest thing to play. And so despite Hanks' twinkly warmth and technical savvy, there's nothing he can do in his Beautiful Day scenes to give them or his character much in the ways of complexity and shading. Mister Rogers, here, is solely a good man, the Best Man, for Vogel's profoundly damaged adult child of an alcoholic to bounce off. Heller's final sequence with Rogers alone at a piano hints at interior struggles, and Hanks, amidst all the shoe-tossing and cardigan-zipping, gives his pauses enough weight to suggest diligent consideration of every query and offhanded remark. Yet unlike Rogers himself in interviews or on Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Hanks' Rogers doesn't feel real, and consequently, neither do his interactions with Rhys' Vogel.
It makes an odd kind of sense, then, that Heller's film is perhaps at its most convincing, and certainly its most charming, whenever the director deliberately departs from the real. Rhys, with his undisguised hostility toward Lloyd's father (Chris Cooper, stronger than he's been in years) and his air of having lost something he never quite found, is excellent, and he's wonderfully well-matched with Susan Kelechi Watson as Lloyd's wife Andrea, who's slowly running out of patience with her husband's emotional absence from their marriage and his responsibilities as a new dad. But A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood only really soars in its framing device – Lloyd's story told, by TV host Fred, as a very special episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood – and its bevy of endearing fringe touches: a miniaturized Lloyd confronting X the Owl and company on the balcony of King Friday's and Queen Sara's castle; the establishing shots of New York and Pennsylvania presented in the toy-shop manner of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe; the appearances by doppelgängers of Mr. McFeely and Lady Aberlin. (Upon first glance, I thought the woman playing Aberlin – Maddie Corman – was actress Jessica Hecht, and then, an hour later, Hecht herself showed up in flashback as Lloyd's dying mother. That's some wise, shrewd casting there – having Lloyd's mom closely resemble Lady Aberlin, given that we PBS kids all wanted Lady Aberlin to be our mom.) As befits its subject, Heller's latest is a very nice movie. I liked it best when it was also something of a weird one.
A gritty, violent thriller in which a homicide detective (Chadwick Boseman) is given only a few hours, and a total lockdown of the island of Manhattan, to find the perpetrators of a drug heist (Stephan James and Taylor Kitsch) that resulted in the killing of eight NYPD officers, director Brian Kirk's 21 Bridges doesn't require more than a few sentences of analysis. All it really requires is an audience, because this thing is unexpectedly fantastic – thrillingly staged and paced, intensely performed, and way smarter than it needed to be. If I told you that said cocaine robbery wound up involving corruption within the New York City police force, you'd probably, rightfully, roll your eyes, because really – doesn't every movie in this genre employ that cliché as its narrative “surprise”? Yet Adam Mervis' and Matthew Michael Carnahan's script is meaty and satisfying in ways that cop thrillers almost never are, and its emotional accuracy and pungency lead to unanticipated richness of character, with even James' and Kitsch's on-the-run assailants granted sufficient texture to make them seem both human and, more amazingly, close to empathetic. Boseman, too, is fierce and specific, and among Kirk's across-the-board-terrific actors, we're also treated to stellar work from J.K. Simmons and Sienna Miller, the latter continuing to rival Charlize Theron in her ability to look and sound like anyone she damn well wants. I spent two full episodes of the recent Showtime mini-series The Loudest Voice unaware that it was Miller playing Roger Ailes' wife, and in 21 Bridges, her identity wasn't obvious to me until I was halfway through the film and asked myself, “When the hell is Sienna Miller gonna show up?!” I don't know if that says more about Miller's chameleonic talents or my own ignorance and/or face-blindness. But either way, I'm already eager to not recognize her again soon.