The wait is over: six years after Disney Animation Studios’ Frozen took the world by (ice) storm in a way that no one, not even the studio, saw coming, the adventures of royal sisters Elsa and Anna continue in Frozen II.
Loosely inspired by a story from fairy tale master Hans Christian Andersen, Frozen was instantly acclaimed as one of the best Disney animated features of all time. Its subtle subversion of “princess” tropes, along with its moving dynamic between the two sisters, dazzling imagery, humor, and masterful songs–highlighted by the iconic “Let It Go”–also made it into the highest grossing animated film of all time and a staple for children all over the globe.
The question of how to follow up such a phenomenon didn’t just weigh on directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay for both), but was the main subject of a press conference in Los Angeles recently. It was there that Lee, Buck, producer Peter Del Vecho, composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and stars Idina Menzel (Elsa), Kristen Bell (Anna), Josh Gad (Olaf), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), and Evan Rachel Wood (Queen Iduna) gathered to discuss the film prior to its premiere.
“I think it really started about a year after the first film came out,” Lee said about the journey of Frozen II. “We did a small short [“Frozen Fever“] and when we saw the characters animated again, we got emotional because we missed them. Peter had been traveling around the world, and this one question kept coming up, which was: Why does Elsa have powers? Then there were more questions: What the girls were meant to do with their lives? They’re on the precipice. They finally got together. What happened? Where were their parents really going?”
She continued, “It just kept rolling, and we realized that we had those questions, so we naively said, ‘We have more story to tell, and we’re not ready to leave this world. We love this world.’ There’s never been a musical sequel to a feature film, so we were going into the unknown, completely. We just knew that we loved the characters and we wanted to be with them again, and we couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen to them.”
For Menzel, who is best known as a singer and stage actress, voicing Elsa put her on a different trajectory entirely–one that never stopped even years after the first film came out. “There’s the macro and the micro,” said Menzel about returning to the role. “There’s returning to this family and this beautiful film and this project that’s gifted us with so much joy in our lives, where I get to connect with another human being like Kristen, who’s this sister, and make beautiful art, which is something that we’re proud of.”
She added, “Then there’s taking that out into the world. It never really ended because I’m singing the music from it all the time, all over the world, and looking out to an audience and seeing people of all ages, really singing this music and reminding me how they’ve been touched by it, and how they’ve learned to celebrate that thing inside of them that makes them feel extraordinary in the world.”
Bell could concur that the power of Frozen never left her life.
Said Bell, “It definitely never really ended. I’m very similar to Anna. I try to infuse a ton of me into this character, maybe more so than I’ve ever done. Even though we’re roughly the same age, since my early 20s, I have been living for Idina. She was on Broadway very young and just blew up, and I remember when I was studying in New York and watching her onstage. She’s my idol. It was very cool and terrifying to be told by Disney, ‘Maybe go to Idina’s house, before this table read, and prepare a song, just so we can hear what you guys sound like together.’ So I drove to her house, stood by a piano, and was terrified. My palms were sweating. But it was almost immediate, this genuine sisterly bond.”
The chemistry between Menzel and Bell was palpable to all when the first Frozen was made, and played a role in altering the early character of Elsa from a villain into a much more complicated and empathetic creation–a transformation represented by the classic “Let It Go.” When it came time for a follow-up to that song–a new anthem for Frozen II–the Lopezes created the inspiring “Into the Unknown,” another rousing song to describe Elsa’s state of mind in the new story.
Nevertheless, Menzel said she never felt any pressure to repeat the performance she gave on “Let It Go” when performing “Into the Unknown.”
“Kristen and Bobby can write such memorable, impactful melodies,” Menzel said, “but also tell a story and involve your character, through all of that, which is quite a gift. I can just go in there and have fun. The only thing that I do is that I warm up a lot because I know that they’re going to push me to hit the tops of my range. And on a good day, I do. I’m like, ‘Let’s go for some of these high notes.’ And then, when I’m out in the middle of Amsterdam on a tour and I have a cold, I have to take it down a key because they’re really challenging songs.”
“With Idina, if you’re given a Stradivarius, you write to a Stradivarius,” said Anderson-Lopez. “I danced around to Rent in my apartment and even auditioned for Maureen [Menzel’s breakout Rent role] a couple of times when I was a mediocre actress. So I knew Idina’s voice. When you hear it, it feels like a warm hug. She has this warmth and this vulnerability down low. And then, as you bring her higher and higher, she gets stronger and stronger, and more powerful. She just reaches into your soul when she’s singing these big, giant songs. I really truly think that we are the lucky ones to get to write for her.”
In addition to “Into the Unknown,” one of Frozen II’s showstopping numbers is “Lost in the Woods,” in which Kristoff sings of his love for Anna in the style of a 1980s power ballad–complete with music video. “I couldn’t even pinpoint whose idea it was,” said Anderson-Lopez about the song’s genesis. “I definitely remember breaking up with my eighth grade boyfriend and just listening to Bryan Adams’ ‘Heaven,’ over and over again. You want to wallow and feel it.”
Robert Lopez added, “The competing idea lost by a landslide. I just remember that we had it down to two ideas, but the other one was a Snow White-type ‘I’m Wishing’ song.”
“The truth is that Bobby and I adore ‘80s music,” continued Anderson-Lopez. “The melodies are really complex. And most importantly, it’s very hard to have a man sit down and sing, ‘Here is who I am, here is what I want’…So in order to thread the needle of allowing us to do that, it needed to be a fun moment. We’ve been in the woods. We’ve learned some really heavy things. We’ve just seen terribly scary earth giants go by. We needed to have a moment of fun. But we also didn’t want to lose the tether to real emotion and real problems of transformation that are happening in the woods.”
Each of the characters gets a moment to shine in Frozen II, including Olaf, the magically living snowman who no longer wants to just innocently melt in the sun.
“Right around the time that we were going into production, I told [the filmmakers] a story about when my oldest child was about five-years-old,” says Josh Gad. “She was sitting at the table and laughing and, all of a sudden, tears started streaming down her face. She looked at me and my wife and went, ‘What if I don’t wanna grow up?’ It was so unbelievable. We all have had that experience, as kids, but it’s so traumatic that you just forget about it.
“That’s the way I feel about Olaf,” Gad continued. “In the first movie, he was this innocent ball of naiveté who was willing to go out into the summer sun because he didn’t know any better. In this movie, he’s almost gone from toddler to fully grown child, where now he’s starting to ask those questions that don’t always have easy answers. From a comedic perspective, that gave me so much to play with. But more importantly, from an emotional arc, it was just such a beautiful journey of that moment in life when you start to realize that maybe the world isn’t just raindrops and lollipops, and roses.”
If that sounds like Frozen II is perhaps a somewhat darker movie that its predecessor, Jennifer Lee agrees that this is the case. “Sometimes we forget, but if you go back to old traditional fairy tales, they always have a moment that gets a little scary,” she explained. “That’s part of what fairy tales are for. They’re so that you, as a child and as a person in your life, can experience things, safely in the seat. Then it helps you cope with life. I think that’s really important . . . we’ve had incredible responses from kids going through those moments and just coming out the other side with triumph. For us, we grew up in those fairy tales, and we didn’t want to be afraid of it.”
Bell agreed with Lee that fairy tales like the Frozen movies can challenge kids even while entertaining them. “I have two little girls,” she said. “The more that I’ve thought about it, and then having shown it to them, my conclusion is that we don’t give kids enough credit. They’re projections of us and we want them to be happy because we want ourselves to be happy all the time. We don’t give them enough credit for their ability to digest complex situations and trauma and struggle, and I think that’s why the first one hit.” She added, “I actually think that it’s great for kids to be a little bit on the edge of their seats because it’s a safe environment to try on those emotions.”
As for what she wants audiences to feel as they leave Frozen II, Bell remarked, “There are a few times in life where you get this paradox of feelings. One of them, which is my very favorite, is the moment when you wake up from a nap, and you know you don’t have to get up and you’re still in dreamland, and you can just stay there for a while, but you’re awake. The other one is when you have the feeling that you are ultimately fulfilled because all of these different types of love that we’ve explored–self-love, familial love, romantic love–are all full, and you feel like you’re capable of going out in the world and accomplishing things. It’s that feeling between purpose and fulfillment and drive. So I hope that when people leave, they feel fulfilled, but they also feel like stepping into the unknown might be exciting.”
Frozen II is out in theaters Friday, Nov. 22.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye