How Frozen II Continues the Story of Elsa and Anna

Frozen II directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee tell us how they followed up the biggest animated film in history.

Frozen II
Disney

No one could have predicted in 2013 that Frozen, a charming tale from Disney Animation about two princess sisters — one with magical powers to control ice, snow and cold — would become the biggest animated movie of all time, grossing over one billion dollars and making Elsa, Anna and the song “Let It Go” an almost inescapable part of the cultural lexicon.

The incredible success of Frozen put unusual pressure on its filmmakers — co-directors and co-writers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee — when it came time to create the inevitable sequel. A short film, 2015’s Frozen Fever, was a lark more than an indication of the way forward, but it was the first trailers for Frozen II that gripped the public’s imaginations.

The trailers hinted at a deeper, richer, perhaps darker story, as Elsa and Anna (voiced again by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell), joined by friends Kristoff, Sven and Olaf, venture beyond Arendelle into the enchanted forests and dark seas outside the kingdom. Elsa is drawn there by a mysterious voice that promises to answer the question of just why she has her powers and how she got them.

Disney recently invited members of the press to its animation headquarters in Burbank, California for an early look at the story concepts, production design and other thematic and visual elements that have been deployed to create Frozen II (although the complete film itself has not yet been shown). While there, Den of Geek had a chance to sit with Buck, Lee and producer Peter Del Vecho to discuss how Frozen II was conceived, the challenge of following up a modern animation classic and more.

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Den of Geek: What’s your perspective now on how the first movie took the world so powerfully, and how did that perspective shape your views towards making a second one?

Chris Buck: Well, it threw us all for a loop, the success. As filmmakers, you obviously want a movie that will connect with an audience, but we had no idea it would connect the way it did. Then social media and all the videos that people did, they made it kind of their own. They really embraced it and embraced the characters. And that, for us, was a wonderful thing. And then that kind of propelled us into the next one. We love these characters just as much as the fans do. So then we started working on the short, fell in love with them all over again, and that’s when we talked: “We’ve got more story to tell for these guys. There’s so much more, there’s so much deeper stuff that we can get into with all of them.”

read more: Frozen — A Whole New World for Disney

Did you go through a lot of ideas about what would be the next story?

Jennifer Lee: Yeah, I mean all the way until a month ago. What we knew is there was more story to tell. Why Elsa had powers hadn’t come into play much in Frozen because the biggest thing we were looking at was how she was — her story was about being different and being accepted for who you are. So then once she was accepted and she’s queen of this land going, but why? We didn’t know if we’d ever answer that, so I was like, I really want to know.

If I look back on that, the journey that we now have, we could never have imagined it. It was a good year of a lot of just “why not” inspiration. I’m feeling this, this feels exciting. The research trip, there were these huge epiphanies along the way. And we joke now, that you look at it, we say it does feel like one complete journey that’s always been there, from Frozen I to Frozen II, even for us.

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Someone said it felt like that journey was always there, we just had to find it. But yet, when I look at how we did all that, it’s like, oh no.

Peter Del Vecho: We did have an idea of where we were going and where we were ending, but it was a question of how to get there, how to earn it, how to feel it.

Lee: Yeah. There are universal things in stories and universal themes, and it’s how you build that, but also the literal pieces of where are they walking, what is the challenge in front of them, who is standing there? All of that was not in front of us when we started. And now it’s almost behind us.

Was it a challenge to find the right balance of forging new ground for the characters and even the look of the film, while making sure that fans know this is still the world of Frozen they know and love?

Buck: It was. It was a challenge, to be honest, to find that balance, because we were excited with the new possibilities and what we did with that, but there was also that sense of “Okay, we have to be true.” It wasn’t necessarily for the audience so much as it was be true to the characters, and make sure that we were letting them be, letting them grow, but letting them stay who they were. And there were times that we would either write things or storyboard things where we let them grow, but it didn’t feel like them anymore. Suddenly, they were different characters. We had to rein it back and go, no, no, no.

(Jennifer was) so great about always saying, “I’m not feeling this…This isn’t Elsa right now.” But we were very aware of also, trying to match the tone of the first one, or at least the balance of it, with the humor and the emotion of the first one.

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Lee: For me there was no reason to do a sequel unless we were going somewhere bigger, new, different, because Frozen‘s a fairy tale. It’s comedic and it has that balance. We have that same balance. But it’s not a comedy that is just new antics with our friends again. We did this short, which was so much fun, but they weren’t going anywhere differently, and there’s no reason to ever do that again, for me, as emotionally, I couldn’t connect with it. That was just a really fun thing to do, just to get acquainted with them again.

But when we saw this deeper story, we were chasing that. And because it was emotional for us, I was thrilled and excited, and we pushed ourselves to go really as far as we needed to go, knowing there would be moments it could get darker. When you look at the first film versus the second, it has that same balance where we still structure it as a myth and fairy tale like we did the first.

read more: Why Beauty and the Beast Remains Disney’s Best Animated Film

So when we stay true to that, it still feels like Frozen. You’re not shocked that they’re going to the forest. You’re not shocked at how they look or how they behave. You’re just amazed at the choices they continue to make. And the obstacles put in their way are surprising, but you believe it, in that world. And that’s the tug of war. You do it with every scene, every shot.

You’re really expanding the world. It seems like we’re going to see a lot of places that we didn’t see before.

Buck: We talked about what is beyond the ice palace. Because that is pretty much as far as we went in the first one. So what’s beyond there? Have our characters ever experienced that? That was the exciting part, is that sort of voyage into the unknown. What is the unknown for our characters?

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One thing we did, too, which is a nice thing visually, is have the same team from the first one, which was incredible. Everybody has a shorthand with everyone. Everybody knew the first film’s world. So now it’s exploring that and still keeping the look, so we have that consistency. But one thing we did talk about was, we would love it if you could look at one frame of Frozen I, and realize it was the first movie, then also look at one frame of Frozen II, and know that’s Frozen II. As opposed to just going, “Oh, which movie is which?”

The technology has changed so fast, are you able to do things six years later that you didn’t dream of?

Del Vecho: On so many levels. Not only is the technology improving, but our artists, every film, improve. They’re getting better at their craft. The toolsets are getting better, the speed of computers is getting better. But what I still love is ultimately, it is art-directed in a way that supports the film. Everything that they do is there for a reason.

read more: Frozen II Soundtrack Details Revealed

Lee: What’s always been so great about them, is that still, a giant percentage of everything in the movie, they didn’t have a way to do it before we showed them the script. And that’s what they love. So a lot of it was built just for Frozen for the first time. Just like the first one with snow, we have some I can’t mention, because you haven’t met them yet.

Buck: But even though some of our things may look realistic, we’re never striving for realism, we’re always striving for believability, and believability of our characters living in that world. That’s our goal in the art direction. It’s always heading towards that.

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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