While the enormous success of the 2013 animated film Frozen all but guaranteed a sequel, the filmmakers said they weren’t under pressure from the studio to deliver one until they had a story they felt needed to be told.
“The nice thing about the studio is it really is a filmmaker-driven studio,” said producer Peter Del Vecho during an event Jan. 28 at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, Calif., to promote the Frozen II home video release. “We only do sequels if the original filmmakers have an idea that they think is worthy of telling. And I think that is in essence to protect what’s valuable about the property.”
Disney will release Frozen II through digital retailers Feb. 11, and on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD Feb. 25.
The first Frozen told the story of Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), the queen of Arendelle who possesses powers to control ice, and her sister, Princess Anna (Kristen Bell). They are joined by Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and the living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) on an adventure to save the kingdom from perpetual winter.
The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, and while fans enjoyed the movie and its songs, the story nonetheless raised a few questions that the filmmakers felt should be addressed in the new film.
“Why does Elsa have powers? The sisters had just found each other, but what was in store for them? All of those things were haunting us so we felt like there was more to do,” said Jennifer Lee, Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer, and co-writer and co-director of Frozen II.
In the sequel, Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf visit a mysterious enchanted forest to learn the secrets of the Northuldra tribe, their magical mastery of Earth’s elements, and the role they played in the history of Arendelle and their connection to Anna and Elsa’s ancestry.
“We tried to make Frozen 1 and Frozen 2 really feel sort of like one piece,” said co-director Chris Buck. “Because they’re both musicals, and Frozen 1 was kind of act one of a Broadway musical, and Frozen 2 was act two, so we tried to weave the stories together.”
The team hasn’t yet started developing story ideas for a potential third film, Lee said. The second film has earned $1.4 billion at the domestic box office, the highest-grossing non-photorealistic animated film in history.
Disney also created a VR animated short film, Myth: A Frozen Tale, which delves into the mythology of the Northuldra, and is looking at expanding distribution of the short in the coming months.
The idea of exploring the family tree of Anna and Elsa was also the subject of a story arc on “Once Upon a Time,” the ABC series about a fictional town in Maine where all the fairy tale characters lived. However, the events depicted on the series were not considered by the filmmakers when crafting their own sequel.
“We did meet with them, which was lovely, to talk about the characters, and they were wonderfully receptive,” Lee said. “But we knew it wasn’t part of our canon. Part of me didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want to be influenced.”
The new film contains a number of surprise revelations about Elsa, her family’s history, and its impact on the future of Arendelle.
“It was almost torture because we had some inside information and it was so exciting to be among the first people who heard it. And then not allowed to tell anybody about it,” said Jason Ritter, who provides the voice of Ryder, a new character introduced as a member of the Northuldra.
Rachel Matthews, who voices Ryder’s sister, Honeymaren, said she was a massive fan of the first film in college, and was excited by the prospect of joining the franchise.
“I was just soaking up every second of the opportunity to be at Disney animation studios,” Matthews said.
Her favorite scene, she said, involved Olaf retelling the story of the first film.
“That had me hysterically laughing,” Matthews said.
Matthews also related a story about the film’s impact on a younger audience. She said that at the film’s premiere she sat behind actor Jeremy Sisto, who plays Anna and Elsa’s grandfather, a former king of Arendelle who leads an attack on the Northuldra.
“His little boy kept looking at him throughout the movie and was like, ‘Bad Dad! Bad Dad! Mean Dad!” Matthews said. “He was so mad at him. It was amazing. ‘Now Dad, you should not have done that! He was actually mad at his dad.”
For the songs, the award-winning husband-and-wife songwriting team of Bobby and Kristen Lopez explored a number of musical styles for the film.
“Jen and Chris gave us this insight into the characters early on that Elsa is a mythic character and Anna is a fairy tale character,” Bobby said. “They’re two different kinds of heroines, and I think in terms of their songs, and they’re really the two main characters, Elsa’s style reaches for that pop opera — mythic, epic contemporary feel. And instead of going for fairytale princess for Anna, this time, because it felt like in Frozen 1, Anna had already gone through her big lesson, we really went more for a folk rock influence in this one.”
Another goal for the pair was finding a song for Groff, since Kristoff wasn’t featured much in the music from the first film. The result was “Lost in the Woods,” presented in the style of a 1980s power ballad. In addition to the main lyrics, Groff also provides 18 background vocals for the song.
“That also was one of the things, not only getting to hear Jonathan getting to sing this ’80s ballad, but 18 of himself in harmony too,” said Kristen Lopez. “We were like, we’re going to give them so much Jonathan we’re going to make up for not giving him a song in the last movie.”
The duo won an Oscar for writing “Let It Go” for the first film, and are nominated for the song “Into the Unknown” from the second film. They also won an Oscar for the song “Remember Me” from Coco. Bobby Lopez is also the youngest person to record the EGOT (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) and the only person so far to double-EGOT (winning each award more than once).
“The score has to tell the story, obviously, that’s the function of it, but it also has to work almost as a cast album,” Bobby said. “It has to feel like a good sequence of songs because it progresses almost as a concert at the same time, so one way of doing that is by reaching for different styles and different tropes.”
The advantage of a sequel, they said, was their familiarity with the actors who would ultimately be singing the songs they wrote, particularly Broadway star Menzel.
“Knowing her voice and knowing that down low she can sound really vulnerable and intimate and fragile, and the higher you take her, the more powerful she gets, and the way that sort of is similar to what Elsa can do, that she’s fragile and vulnerable and so strong at the same time,” said Kristen Lopez.
“I’m hearing a lot that ‘The Next Right Thing,’ Anna’s song, is really connecting with people, and helping people through some tough times,” said co-director Buck. “I’ve always loved that song, I knew it had such strength to it, it’s inspiring, so it’s interesting to see the impact that it is having right now.”
The Lopezes described the process of crafting the songs as a constant give-and-take to figure out what helps make the story work.
“People assume we just show up and the script is done, and they tell us we need this song and this song and this song, but that’s now how it works,” Kristen said. “We talk and we talk and we talk about theme about what we want to do with these characters, then we start outlining, and we imagine, oh we can put this song here and this song there, and then we get a script, and then we write like one or two or three songs. And there’s a screening, and then out of that the story totally changes and at least two songs fall on the floor. And you do it again. It’s almost like layers upon layers, and you hope each time that at least one or two songs stick. And by the end you have seven songs but you will have written 20 songs for six different scripts.”
Two deleted songs are presented with the home video version of the film. Other extras include a “Sing-Along” mode, outtakes, deleted scenes, music videos and several behind-the-scenes featurettes.
For Lee, a couple of songs that stand out to her are the ones that convey the story arc of Elsa.
“I’ll watch ‘Into the Unknown’ and then ‘Show Yourself’; there’s just something about seeing how far Elsa gets on her journey,” Lee said. “What I’ll have to do now is watch ‘Let it Go,’ then ‘Into the Unknown,’ then ‘Show Yourself’; now that we have the DVD, I can put them all together, so I will do that.”