Once upon a time, when the Walt Disney Company released a massively successful animated feature and wanted to wring some sequel dollars out of it, they would have the decency to farm them out to the B- and C-team animators at Disneytoon Studios and bury them on home video. In 80 years covering 56 feature films starting in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney Feature Animation proper (later renamed Walt Disney Animation Studios) only oversaw three sequels to its own films - and that's if we agree to call The Three Caballeros and Fantasia 2000 "sequels". But the 2010s have proven to be arguably the most sequel-happy period in American film industry, and so the studio has ended that decade by releasing two sequels in a row. To be entirely fair to Frozen II, it makes a hell of a lot more sense for it to exist than 2018's beastly Ralph Breaks the Internet. 2012's Wreck-It Ralph made a fair bit of money, but 2013's Frozen made an absolutely ludicrous amount of money, setting the record for the highest-grossing animated feature in history (since surpassed only by 2019's remake of The Lion King, depending on how you define "animated") and also holding strong as the highest-grossing film of the entire decade that was neither a sequel nor a remake. Even for a company with no native history of making sequels, the pressure for a Frozen II must have been enormous.

Well, the pressure has been relieved. And to the surprise of nobody who has been following filmmaking trends over the decade, Frozen II does not seem to have answered the crucial question: is there a non-financial reason for making this movie? I hated Ralph Breaks the Internet a lot, but I concede its sincerity: you don't come up with a story like that movie had if you don't believe in it. Having sat through all of Frozen II's 103 minutes, I'm not certain that they came up with a story for it at all. It eventually lands on something that works pretty well, a good halfway through the movie. The first half, though, feels like the movie has to restart very nearly every single time it changes locations. It presents a deeply confusing state of affairs for the characters, in which they do not appear to have goals they wish to achieve, nor conflicts they are challenged to overcome, not really. For a long while, it's not even clear that there are dramatic stakes: the first act consists of the characters trotting off in the woods to see if a certain situation is going to transform into stakes, or if things are fine just the way they are. Which is a very cheeky thing for the film to do.

Anway, it's three years after Frozen, and Arendelle has been thriving under the reign of Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel). Her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), is still dating the reindeer-loving ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and the sentient idiot snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) has been given a coat of plot contrivance magical permafrost, so he can live in the world without the animators having to keep including his magical personal snowstorm in shots. Everything is going well, so well that Anna gives the film its first big musical number (though not its first song) by leading the cast in rousing celebration of how things stay the same even when it looks like they're changing. This will, shockingly, turn out to be ironically upended; as the first bite of an autumn chill in the air symbolically promises, things are about to change a whole lot.

How things change and what things change are the matter of the rest of the story, though if you can confidentially add "why" to that list, you're doing better than me. Where things go from here is that Elsa hears an ethereal quasi-human voice (provided by Norwegian singer-songwriter Aurora), and in her attempts to contact it, she inadvertently awakens the four spirits of nature (water, fire, earth, air - that bit), and they start wreaking merry hell in Arendelle. To calm them down, Elsa must go into the enchanted fog-covered forest a little bit outside of the kingdom; Anna goes with because she's become a raging control freak; Kristoff goes with because he's trying to propose marriage to Anna with all the bumbling ineptitude of a character from a 1960s sitcom; and  Olaf goes with because the five people credited with assembling the story know what side their bread is buttered on.

It doesn't really get less arbitrary or cluttered for quite a long time; and even then, it's more that, at long last, Elsa starts to make choices that feel related to her goals and wants, rather than simply being bounced along by the requirements of the story. Frozen II has a pretty severe problem with giving its characters clearly-defined goals that drive their actions; Kristoff is the only person who starts the movie wanting anything at all, and what he wants is a tedious cliché. So that's one big problem: the first 45 minutes of the movie at least simply don't do anything. We meet some characters, a couple of them voiced by people famous enough that you'd expect them to have more than a three-line cameo; we get to see the magical fire lizard who is absolutely not a much lamer version of the wonderful chameleon from Tangled, and who is definitely not present because they needed to come up with a new plush toy. We get to hear a lot about the strange and forgotten history in which Elsa and Anna's grandfather built a dam as a gesture of goodwill to the Northuldra people (loosely inspired by the Sámi of northern Scandinavia and Finland, who are having a good month at the movies, between this and Netflix's Klaus), and how this is related somehow to the magical fog that has trapped all the Northuldra and several Arendelle soldiers in the woods for decades; we hear so much, in fact, that we are able to pretty far ahead of our characters about what that forgotten history is hiding in its nooks. What we don't get is any kind of cohesion, or sense that scenes are building upon each other in the direction of any particular incident, not until Elsa finally decides that enough is enough, and it's time to pay off the heavy foreshadowing of the opening scene.

In the absence of a clear, satisfying narrative, Frozen II has two things to offer. Three, if you consider gruesome pandering to the audience's pre-existing affection for these characters, who frankly don't seem to have ended up where the first movie ostensibly left them. The first of the other two things are a whole bunch of new songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, who are struggling a bit. There's not a "Let It Go" anywhere among the seven new compositions, though there are two explicit attempts, with Menzel getting a first act "I Want" song and a third act "I am defiant and unafraid" number, both of them asking her to belt out high notes and do very little else (the second, "Show Yourself", is much better than the first, "Into the Unknown"; unfortunately, "Into the Unknown" is the one that has been officially anointed as the "Let It Go" successor). Anna gets two bland numbers that are trying to shove the plot forward, Olaf gets a terrible articulation of his very strange thematic journey (he's afraid of becoming a grown-up, which would be much more charming with a different voice actor than Gad), and Kristoff has an '80s power ballad for some odd reason. To be fair, his "Lost in the Woods" is a great deal more fun than any of the other songs I've mentioned, and it's also the only proper musical number, with choreography and all, in the whole movie. But it's also the most tonally off-kilter thing that happens in the entire movie. For my tastes, the best song by far is the lullaby "All Is Found", which debuts in the opening scene, sung by Evan Rachel Wood, and gets a few fragmentary reprises; it has a lilting, folk music quality in an unexpected minor key. Everything in the film is trying to live up to Frozen's musical heritage by blowing the doors off; "All Is Found" is alone in trying to find something small and emotionally humane, and it provides a much needed shot of real feeling in a film that mostly just checks off items on a corporate list.

The other thing Frozen II has to offer in its first half is atmosphere. Real thick, gloomy, moody atmosphere, too. I am genuinely surprised and pleased that Disney would sign off on something as dour as this: between the coming of autumn, the fog, the sense of ruin, and the characters' fear of an unseen doom crushing towards them, Frozen II is a downright morbid movie. It is fascinated by the decay of stately old places, the excited fear of being in a place where humans aren't meant to be, and this carries it through a lot of very shabby storytelling: what happens might be boring, but where it happens is generally quite amazing. And it helps a lot that Frozen II has the best effects animation of Disney's 3-D era. It's a pity that this has come out just a few months after Toy Story 4, since it's bested by that film in every way (Frozen II does its best work with water, and it's very appealingly wet and tangibly ice-cold; it's also not nearly as impressive, either dramatically or realistically, as the torrent that opened Pixar's latest), but taken on its own terms, the film does phenomenal work making the woods feel damp and heavy and enormously present, without sacrificing fairy-tale haziness.

When the film finally decides to start working, midway through, it's largely by orienting all of its plot around this sense of atmosphere. The first altogether great scene in the movie (and, when all is said and done, it's finest scene) plunges Elsa into pitch-black sea, as a spectral horse made of water rushes towards her from the impenetrable murk. It's an unexpected and effective introduction of horror, suffused with the creepiness of folklore ghosts and spectres, and it's the point where the visual solemnity of the whole movie finally feels like it's working with the plot, not as a highlight reel of what Disney's computers are capable of rendering here in 2019. From this point forward, Frozen II works more than it doesn't: the denouement is complete nonsense and unsurprisingly finds the filmmakers walking back every interesting thing they've done throughout the movie, but most of the path towards that denouement does something with the mythic grandeur and gravity that has been hovering in the background.

At its best, this is an unsatisfying follow-up to Frozen, already the least artistically successful of Disney's 21st Century princess musicals (the others being 2009's The Princess and the Frog, 2010's Tangled, and 2016's Moana). It's an impressive technical achievement, but not a surprising one, and the flat songs mean that it can't cheat its way to being a fun spectacle. But given how viciously, transparently mercenary the whole affair is, it's impressive how much of Frozen II ends up working - particularly given what a terrible start it gets off to. We're a long way from Disney's heights, or even its upper-middles, but this is a definite rebound from a pretty dire low, and given the state of that corporation's output in 2019, that really is the most I feel like I could possibly have asked for.