The secret storyline of "Frozen II" has been carefully kept on ice. But at last it's time to let it go.
Walt Disney Animation invited the press into its offices to unthaw some of key details surrounding the highly anticipated sequel to one of the company's most beloved and successful animated films of all time, 2013's "Frozen." As the film's Nov. 22 release date looms ever never, co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee (who wrote the screenplay along with "Hidden Figures" scribe Allison Schroder, and also serves as the company's Chief Creative Officer) and producer Peter del Vecho convened to warm some of the frost that has obscured where "Frozen II" takes sisters Elsa and Anna and their friends.
"It's an incredibly exciting time for us," said Del Vehco. "Over the last several years the cast, the crew, everyone has really been pouring their heart and soul into the making of this film…At Disney Animation we never make sequels unless the filmmakers themselves have an idea for a film and a desire to tell it. That's why even though 'Frozen II' is our 58th animated feature, it is only our fourth sequel – and it's the first animated musical sequel that we have made, at that."
Almost immediately in the wake of the first film's release, the filmmakers had routinely fielded inquiries from fans that largely focused on the hows and whys of Elsa's extranormal abilities. "There were still a lot of questions from the first film that were unanswered, and one of them was why does Elsa have icy powers?" said Lee. "How have they grown since Anna saved Elsa's life? Why was Anna born the way she was? Where were the parents going when their ship went down? And is there really such a thing as happily ever after?"
"We realized that there was more story to tell," Del Vecho said. "'Frozen's' ending was really just the beginning for Anna and Elsa, newly reunited as sisters. So we began early work on 'Frozen II.'"
Key to the development of the story were a pair of research trip to Norway, Finland and Iceland, where the filmmakers and animation artists sought inspiration in the types of surroundings that Elsa and Anna inhabit. "We were deeply inspired by the beauty of these places," said Del Vecho. "The Fall colors of Norway, the waterfalls, the stark beauty of Iceland."
"It was kind of a stark contrast between Norway and Iceland that framed the concept for us," said Buck. "Anna felt at home in Norway with its fairytale settings, but Elsa felt strangely at home in this dark, mythic Iceland."
"We realized on this trip is that Anna is your perfect fairytale character: she's an ordinary hero, not magical; she's optimistic," explained Lee. "Whereas Elsa is the perfect mythic character: mythic characters are magical; they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. In fact, the mythic characters often meet a tragic fate, and we realized we had two stories going together: mythic story and a fairytale story. In the mythic aspect of it, the fear of that tragic fate is something that Anna's been worrying about, and thus protecting her sister from."
"In 'Frozen 1,' Elsa would have had a tragic fate, and so would the world have," said Lee. "Imagine if Hans had killed her and the storm raged on. That would have been the mythic version. But the fairytale of Anna came in and saved the day. And the power of the two of those tug-of-warring together was the biggest discovery. And that really came from the research about the difference between a myth and a fairytale."
From that overarching concept, a story emerged, beginning with a glimpse into the past in which the sisters, as young girls, are told a story by their father, King Agnarr, about an enchanted forest he reveals he'd visited himself as a boy. "It's a forest ruled by the magical spirits of nature, namely of air, fire, water and earth," said Buck. "And just like in nature, sometimes these spirits can be enchanting, and at other times they can be dangerous. So on that visit something went very wrong and enraged the spirits – Agnarr barely survived. He doesn't know who saved him, only that a haunting voice cried out and a magical mist enveloped the forest shoving everyone out."
"The girls are fascinated by the story, if not a little concerned, because their father does warn them, the forest may wake again and they must be prepared for whatever danger it may bring," added Lee. "The girls, of course, have so many questions and none of which there are answers to…To settle them, their mother sings a lullaby that was sung to her as a child about a place that has all of the answers to everything you could ever want to know."
In keeping with the high vocal caliber, both in acting and singing, that Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell bring to Elsa and Anna, respectively, their mother also required a keen casting touch: Evan Rachel Wood lends her voice to Queen Iduna.
"We actually had to fire the original actress who played Iduna from Frozen, because she just couldn't cut it…it was me!" laughed Lee. "It turns out for this one you actually have to act and sing so, yeah, Peter fired me. But Evan is amazing and her singing voice sits beautifully between Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel in terms of its parent sweetness, and that was an amazing discovery as we get to hear her sing."
In the present day, things appear quite idyllic in the kingdom of Arendelle – almost. "Anna has her sister back, she has Olaf, Kristoff and Sven, the gates are opened wide and she's never been happier in her life," said Lee. "Elsa's happy that she's been reunited with her sister and serving as queen of her beloved Arendelle. But she's beginning to hear a voice. A voice that's a distant cry that only she can hear, and it's one that we as the audience recognize from that Enchanted Forest that day long ago. And it continues to call to her, even on family game night."
As Elsa both resists and is drawn to the alluring voice – a push-pull that lends itself to a showstopping musical moment – she sets in motion a dangerous scenario that imperils Arendelle. "To save her kingdom she must go to that enchanted forest, find a way in, find that voice who's calling her," said Lee. "Elsa and Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven embark on this dangerous journey. Together they head to a place beyond Arendelle, beyond the ice palace, further than they've ever gone before…After Anna puts herself at risk too many times for her sister, Elsa realizes she must face the greatest dangers ahead alone. Anna always wanted to be by her sister's side. She fears that Elsa may go too far and that she is risking too much."
"Elsa alone will face the tremendous power of the Dark Sea – it's within this dark sea that Elsa encounters a majestic and foreboding creature, a water spirit called the Nokk," said Lee of one of the mythic creatures Elsa must contend with, who have their origin in actual Nordic lore. "I read a lot books, went back to Hans Christian Andersen, but even deeper into some of the even deeper, older folklore, and some of the song stories that were indigenous to Scandinavia. And interestingly, because Iceland was mostly founded by Scandinavian folks, there's a bit of a bridge…The Nokk stood out a bit because the Nokk had come from old Norse myths."
Another crucial element of the original film was its top-quality songs, considered some of the finest in the Disney animated canon. "When it came to music we again collaborated with our original song writers and that's Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez," said Buck. "These Oscar-winning songwriters brought so much to Frozen and we're thrilled to work with them again on 'Frozen II.'"0comments
"They delivered seven amazing songs that we can't wait to share," agreed Lee, who noted that each musical number grew organically out of the tale being told, rather than structured to directly mirror the song styles and placements of the first film. "We made a pact that we would build the second one the same way as the first, and not let that pressure into the story room, because every song has to come from the story, just like it did before. Every moment has to be true."
Lee said the filmmakers had to let the movie find itself in its making, just as the first film had done. "In many ways at the end of the day, we didn't know what the world would think of 'Frozen,'" she revealed. "We can't know, but we can know that we did build this the way we believed in, and there's a lot of real emotion and real sharing of experience and real sort of story that was driven the way the first one was."