Just six years after the Disney film Frozen unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace the soaring power ballad "Let It Go" — a song that proved no mere harmless earworm, but instead a devastatingly memetic musico-epidemiological event, a tuneful tapeworm that proceeded to infect the world's theater auditions, cabaret acts, drag repertoires and (especially) car rides to and from your kids' swim lessons — its sequel Frozen II now lies in wait, gestating in its bowels another song of similar belty pandemic virulence that, this coming weekend, will secure itself a billion or so fresh hosts.
The new song is called "Into the Unknown," which suggests it speaks to the mysterious, the uncertain, the uncanny. That's certainly the pitch it tries to make, though it must be said there's very little mystery to be mined from a song as clearly and rigorously and calculatingly focus-grouped to target precisely the same brain pleasure-centers that "Let It Go" first burrowed its hooks into, back in 2013.
Like "Let It Go," it's sung by Queen Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), the ruler of the fairy-tale Scandinavian land of Arendelle. Unlike "Let It Go," which came at that first film's second-act turn and was at least a defiant if haltingly quasi-feminist anthem about shrugging off society's rigid expectations to claim one's power for oneself (albeit doing so in a pretty sparkly gown, with a waist the circumference of a Swedish krona), "Into the Unknown" comes earlier in the sequel; it's Frozen II's "I Want" song — and what Elsa wants, she sings, is: something else.
Life in Arendelle, post-Frozen, is going ... fine. Elsa's doing a good job ruling, though between her ice magic and general otherworldliness she often seems distracted, even aloof. Her more fully blooded, love-drunk and, let's face it, comparatively basic sister Anna (Kristen Bell) is happily canoodling with her musk-scented mimbo Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). The animated snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is also hanging around, providing commentary that often proves meta-, and relief that only intermittently proves comic.
But back to "Into the Unknown." It takes the form of call-and-response — Elsa hears an otherworldly voice calling to her out of the North, and sings back a song of, at once, defiance and of doubling down on the status quo:
I'm sorry, secret siren, but I'm blocking out your calls
I've had my adventure, I don't need something new
I'm afraid of what I'm risking if I follow you
If she stuck to her guns, there, there'd be no movie. So of course, over the course of the song, she wavers and accepts that she must venture out once again.
But here's the important thing about "Into the Unknown," the only thing about "Into the Unknown" that truly matters.
The chorus consists of Menzel belting out the title, three times.
Into the unknowwwwwwwwn
... and you think, sure. Yes. Good; makes sense.
Then Menzel digs a little deeper, and sends her voice hopping up and down a short staircase:
Into the unknOWWwwwnnn
... and you think, this also. Yes. This as well. Sure.
But then Menzel belts out a melisma that begins on a note so high and pure and loud that it sounds nothing less than ... unhinged:
Into the unKNOWWWWW-OWWWWW-OWWWW-OWWNNNN
Now. You hear that note, and you think — no, you feel, you know, with an inviolate, bedrock conviction:
Karaoke nights just got ... so. Much. Worse.
Let's stipulate: Karaoke's already a pretty miserable affair to begin with, but now? Once this song is out there? There's no turning back. Around the world, drunk tax lawyers and office managers and grocery clerks and grad students and dental hygienists will stumble to the mic and hurl themselves at that crazy, hilarious, ridiculous note like so many starlings at a picture window, and they will promptly, inevitably face-plant. If we could but harness the ensuing misery, the collective, empathetic cringing that will soon wash over the dingy back rooms and musty dive bars of the world, we could light up the Eastern Seaboard.
Because face it: Everyone thinks they're Idina Menzel. But most of us are Adele Dazeem.
Your kids will attempt to scream that unreachable, bananapants note, too, on their little moppet playgrounds. They will fail, spectacularly. In a month or two, school nurses searching for "vocal nodes treatment" will strain the Google servers.
And while "Into the Unknown" will shortly be everywhere, I think it's unlikely to knock "Let It Go" off of its cultural perch, due to its status as a song about feeling restless and unfinished (a la "How Far I'll Go"), instead of powerful and complete. But then, much of Frozen II seems engineered to give expression to young children's conflicted relationship with the world around them. While "Into the Unknown" articulates a longing for adventure, the unexceptionally catchy ditty "Some Things Never Change," for example, finds the cast expressing a profoundly boring, basic, bougie (and very first-act-of-a-musical, it must be said) yearning for stasis.
The filmmakers keep the songs coming, at least in the early going, loaded up with plenty of jokes for the parents. Olaf's "When I am Older" finds the snowman convinced that the world will start making sense once he reaches adulthood, a sentiment meant to leave kids reassured and parents knowingly wistful. And then there's Kristoff's "Lost in the Woods," an I Love the '80s hair ballad complete with fuzzy guitar riffs and cheap network-variety-show split-screen cinematography that will leave kids — and parents younger than 40 — scratching their heads.
This shotgun-blast gambit — the themes-for-kids, jokes-for-parents (and showtunes-for-gay-uncles) approach that Dreamworks trafficked in, but that Disney, historically at least, felt beneath it — makes the film feel unfocused. But at least it's bracingly honest that the audience its broadly eager-to-please nature most seeks to please is Disney shareholders, looking to bag another four-quadrant hit.
The storyline of Frozen II falls into the trap too many sequels do these days — a desire to interrogate the first film's unquestioned story points and turn them into fresh fodder that only results in overcomplication: We learn more about Elsa and Anna's parents, and about the source of Elsa's magic, which involves some hand-waving about the four elements, and their attendant spirits. This is all meant to advance Elsa's sense that she hasn't yet found her true home, but in practice it loads down the proceedings with that most hopelessly nerdy of story elements: extra lore to keep track of.
Much more evocative are the story's darker themes of encroaching adulthood, of first brushes with guilt and grief, and of the looming threat of responsibility. There are sins of the past to be redressed and certain baseline familial assumptions to call into question. There's also, not for nothing, a striking autumnal color palette, and enough jokes, set pieces and songs to enable this film to justify its existence, above and beyond the needs of Disney's accounting ledgers.
Also: With Frozen II, Disney seems determined to at least attempt to course-correct for its ignominious role in loosing upon the world the pernicious princess-worship phenomenon that's been the company's stock-and-trade for 82 years now, ever since Snow White first warbled to the local wildlife that the arrival of some doofy prince would somehow complete her.
Yes, Anna is still man-crazy. But like a handful of more recent Disney princesses like Moana, Elsa learns that the thing for which she yearns resides within herself. She learned much this same lesson in the first film, too, of course. But that time, she just switched into another, flashier princess gown, so it didn't take.
This time, the revelation inspires her to magic herself up a smart but eminently practical pantsuit. So now it's bound to sink in.