There are a lot of questions the kids of the world—and their parents and their babysitters and childless adults who just like a good animated movie—have about Disney’s Frozen II, hitting theaters in North America on November 22. Will it replicate the charm and resonant message of the original? Has snow queen Elsa truly come to terms with her ice powers? Are we ever going to find out what happened to Anna and Elsa’s parents, who mysteriously disappeared when the sisters were young?
And, most importantly: Will there be another “Let It Go”–style earworm?
At the Frozen II press day, held in Los Angeles in early September, the movie’s team was understandably close-lipped about many of the specifics. Still, there were hints to be found. Frozen II sees Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, reindeer Sven, and walking, talking snowman Olaf take to an enchanted forest to—just maaaybe—discover the source of Elsa’s ice powers. Along the way, they’ll meet several new characters, one of whom (voiced by Sterling K. Brown) will possibly provide insight into the childhood of Anna and Elsa’s father.
Another newcomer to the franchise, “Westworld” star Evan Rachel Wood, voices Anna and Elsa’s mother in a flashback. Co-director Jennifer Lee played that role in the first film, delivering Queen Iduna’s only line—“She’s ice cold”—with … let’s just say, reasonable competence. Jokes Lee about not being recast: “It’s the first time I’d ever been fired.”
As for the “Let It Go” question: Frozen II sees the return of the Frozen songwriting duo of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. And one of the musical numbers shown at the press day—Idina Menzel as Elsa belting out “Into the Unknown,” a classic Disney “I want” number—was stuck in my head for a few days. So … make your own guesses, but prepare to add another song to your karaoke repertoire just to be safe.
(Another note for the musical hounds among Boxoffice Pro’s readership—Frozen’s filmmakers, despite casting Broadway star Jonathan Groff as Kristoff, didn’t actually have him sing. This time around, Lee assures, he’ll get to show off his pipes.)
Explains Frozen II producer Peter Del Vecho—whose other credits with Disney include The Princess and the Frog, Winnie the Pooh, and the first Frozen—Disney “never makes sequels unless the filmmakers have a story to tell and a desire to tell it.” Frozen may have made over a billion dollars at the worldwide box office—one of only nine animated films to do so—but the existence of a sequel depended on Lee and co-director Chris Buck wanting another spin on the ice.
“The funny thing is, when we finished Frozen, we were like, ‘We’re done!’” recalls Lee. Then came the 2015 short film Frozen Fever, which played in theaters alongside Disney’s live-action Cinderella remake. And all of a sudden, Lee and Buck found that they couldn’t quite “let it go” after all.
Watching the animation dailies for Frozen Fever, Buck recalls, “was the first time we saw our characters moving again. It probably had been at least eight months or so. Almost a year. Just seeing them again, it was like seeing old friends. So we went, ‘Oh my gosh, I love these characters.’ We were also starting to think about what would be next for our characters. What would be true to these characters? What would be the next journey?”
Buck’s and Lee’s own lives played a role in answering those questions. Both are parents dealing with the inevitability of children growing up, going to college, and venturing out into the world. “As you grow up, things get thrown your way. Life isn’t as easy as it used to be. The first film wasn’t that easy for any of them!” Buck admits. “But this time, we went back to our kids. We were inspired by that. It’s that time of your life where you go, ‘OK, now what? What is the world going to offer me? What do I have to offer the world?’ The world gets a little more complex. There are a lot more questions for them as they go.”
The development of the characters’ emotional maturity can be seen in Frozen II’s color palette, which has graduated from the ice blues and jewel tones of the first film to a more autumnal look.
Hints of Anna and Elsa’s evolution can be found in a bit of character theory that the Frozen II team kept coming back to over the course of the press day. Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), the young, peppy, optimistic girl surrounded by supernatural goings-on, is the archetypal fairy tale heroine. Elsa, on the other hand—whose ice powers are both a gift and an enormous responsibility—is a mythichero. “We had just come back to our research trip” to Norway, Iceland, and Finland, Lee recalls. “I happened to be in England and had a book on myths that I’d started reading. And [Chris and I] called each other and said, ‘Oh my gosh. Something’s coming to light.’”
Elsa “carries a special power that can also be dangerous for her,” Lee says. “She will always be different.” As Elsa wrestles with her abilities, sister Anna “wants [Elsa] to be everything she deserves to be and wants her to be OK and not carry all the burdens of the world on her shoulders.”
Frozen and Frozen II are Lee’s first and second films as a director—she wrote Frozen as well—and it’s her sureness about the inner lives of her characters that made jumping into the hot seat relatively seamless. “I want to say, when you were directing, how quickly you picked that up,” Del Vecho tells Lee. “I know you went to school for it, but it was a really natural fit between [Lee and Buck]. It was a good balance.”
Explains Lee: “What I was very anxious about—but at least felt secure about—is that Chris, as a veteran in animation, would know how to speak to all the production departments.” (Buck previously contributed Tarzan to the Disney canon in addition to doing animation and design work on Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, and more.) “He would know how to speak to all the production departments. And I felt concerned. Would I come in and know what to say, to contribute? And I realized, one of the things [animators] rarely get is the writer in the room. And so I could always bring that point of view of what’s going on in [the characters’] heads. I never had to tell an animator what to do. My job was to say, ‘Here’s what the character is feeling.’ And we would talk about it so much that if [Chris] couldn’t be in the room I was OK, and vice versa, because we stayed connected.”
Picking up the technical side of things “became much more intuitive, because you realize you’re working with the best in the world at their jobs. And your job is to make sure the vision of the film is clear and give them room and inspire them. [Chris] taught me that. I didn’t have to come into the room with all the technical knowledge. Over time, you start to know what artists can do and how to push.”
As Elsa, Anna, and their crew venture out in search of answers, Buck notes, “an epic mystery starts to unfold.” All told, it’s a “bigger and more epic” experience than the first film. “We’re working on sound design right now, and you want to feel it,” adds Lee. “I want the seat to shake! Being immersed in the theater experience—certainly we’re aiming for that.”