Film reviews: Frozen II | 21 Bridges | The Amazing Johnathan Documentary | Blue Story

Frozen is back with a convoluted origins story reminiscent of The Phantom Menace, writes Alistair Harkness, but the animation is gorgeous to look at and the songs are pretty good too

A still from Frozen II PIC: Disney
A still from Frozen II PIC: Disney

A genuine phenomenon upon its release in 2013, Frozen quickly became one of Disney’s most beloved animated films – a billion-grossing behemoth that achieved a pop-culture reach equivalent to (if not greater than) The Lion King 20 years earlier. Not only did its showstopper songs – especially Let it Go – reinvigorate the animated musical (long considered passé in the age of Pixar), its smart script slyly overturned the stodgy gender politics of Disney’s own fairytale back-catalogue by proving it was possible to make a film about mythical princesses in which true love’s kiss didn’t have to involve them idly waiting around for a noble prince. Now orphaned siblings Elsa and Anna are back, in a belated sequel that compliments the first film but never feels entirely essential.

Kicking off with a prologue that flashes back to their childhoods in order to set up a mythology expanding story involving an enchanted forest, Frozen II finds Elsa (Idina Menzel) haunted by a mysterious force that threatens to disrupt the happy-ever-after stability of the kingdom of Arendelle that she protects and rules with her now-under-control ice powers and the help and counsel of Anna (Kristen Bell), who is so scared of losing her sister again she barely notices dopey love interest Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) sweet-natured efforts to propose to her. In keeping with the enlightened sensibility of the first film, the new movie (once again co-written and co-directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck) uses the threat at the centre of it to interrogate the aforementioned happy-ever-after trope: the ensuing plot pretty much revolves around the need to make amends for historic injustices and the sacrifices this requires – a sophisticated theme that gives rise to some wild, Studio Ghibli-inspired visuals as Elsa starts to discover the true source of her power.

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It’s gorgeous to look at (and the accompanying songs are pretty good too), though some of the narrative convolutions that follow end up being a little Phantom Menace-esque in their determination to over-explain things that previously had an elegant simplicity to them. Mercifully, comic relief comes once again in the mighty form of Olaf (Josh Gad), the wonderfully guileless snowman from the first film, who this time out is wrestling with the existential dread of time’s passage now that his perma-frosted state has made him less vulnerable to seasonal changes. He remains a beacon of brilliance as the film ties itself in knots trying to justify its own existence.

Starring Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman and produced by Avengers Infinity War/Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo, high-concept thriller 21 Bridges eschews the superhero theatrics of those films with the story of a New York detective (Boseman) who puts the city on lockdown to track down a pair of cop killers. With the titular bridges the only way in or out of Manhattan, the film uses this Escape From New York-esque detail to ratchet up tension by limiting the geography and time-frame of the action as Boseman’s character, Andre Davis, hunts the trigger-happy drug dealers responsible for slaughtering a slew of cops in what should have been a random bust. Partnered up with Sienna Miller’s narcotics agent, Andre is presented as a bit of a Serpico-like figure, albeit one whose apparent righteousness is complicated by the reputation he’s acquired for exercising deadly force – a character trait tied to his childhood and presumably meant to create an air of ambivalence around him. Frustratingly, the film owes more to Tony Scott than Sidney Lumet, so while Boseman could certainly have created a more complex and nuanced character, the film, directed by TV veteran Brian Kirk, undercuts any possibility for this with a series of glaringly obvious plot twists that ensure Boseman’s character is always a few steps behind the audience. But if it’s unlikely to surprise anyone not weened exclusively on Marvel product, it’s slickly enough made to work as a more stripped-down form of blockbuster distraction – and Boseman (every inch the movie star) is a magnetic screen presence.

The ethics of documentary filmmaking become the de facto theme of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary as first-time filmmaker Benjamin Berman reckons with his own failure to nail down his subject, the stand-up comic and shock magician John Edward Szeles. Diagnosed with a terminal heart condition in 2014, Szeles announced a farewell tour and Berman, sensing a hook but not really examining his own motivations for wanting to make a film about him, swooped in hoping to document it. But he got more than he bargained for as Szeles – an illusionist by trade, and a habitual meth addict – proved not just unwilling to play ball, but repeatedly tried to change the rules of the game altogether. Neither filmmaker nor subject comes out particularly well here, but the battle of wills that ensues takes the film in some entertainingly oddball directions.

Better known as Rapman, British rapper-turned-director Andrew Onwubolu scored a YouTube hit with his three-part hip-hop musical, Shiro’s Story, but his semi-autobiographical cinematic debut, Blue Story, struggles to expand that format into a compelling big screen experience. Revolving around a smart kid (Stephen Odubola) gradually drawn into a gangland turf war on the streets of South London, the film plays like an awkward musical mash-up of Boyz n the Hood and Kidulthood. The melodramatic script and am-dram acting provide little real insight into the knife-and-gun-crime headlines from which the story has been ripped. ■