The idea of making a sequel to one of the biggest animated films of all time somehow seems more than just “obvious.” “Essential” is likely a better word. And yet, the filmmakers behind Frozen and the upcoming Frozen II say making a sequel wasn’t their first instinct and the road to get there was more than a little bumpy.
“We hadn’t been talking about [a sequel] at all,” Frozen II writer and co-director Jennifer Lee told Gizmodo at a recent press day. “[But] by the time we started talking about it all we had to say was ‘We actually have an idea for Frozen...’ [and they interrupted us] ‘What do you need? Go ahead. Spend some time in the story room. Take a month. Just enjoy yourselves.’ So we had no plans at all.”
Six years after the release of the first Frozen, the film has become a part of our cultural DNA. The characters, the songs, many of us know them as well as we know ourselves. Because of that, it’s easy to forget that when the movie came out in 2013, it wasn’t instantly a hit. It didn’t even win the box office in either of its first two weekends (one limited, one wide).
But word got around, the buzz grew, “Let It Go” played everywhere, and the film stayed in the top 10 for 18 consecutive weeks of an unheard-of, 35-week theatrical run.
It ultimately became the highest-grossing animated film worldwide... that is, until Disney’s own remake of The Lion King took the spot this past year.
Let’s be honest, with that kind of success, Disney probably would have made a Frozen sequel no matter who was involved. Thankfully, before that could happen, Lee and her co-director Chris Buck’s faint first ideas were enough. Those ideas came from Buck and Lee continuing to think about the characters long after the movie was released and was successful.
“It was really just pressure on ourselves,” Buck told Gizmodo about building up to making the sequel. “It was more about [us] falling in love with the characters when we did the short and then realising there’s so much more story to tell. These characters are just starting their lives.”
The first Frozen ended with Elsa, the woman with magical ice powers, becoming the queen of Arendelle after her love saved her sister, Anna, from being an icicle. And while that’s an ending, the filmmakers realised it was also a beginning.
“Now that Elsa is back, she’s the queen of Arendelle, but what does that mean?” Buck continued. “She’s always been hiding, or in fear of, that. Now people have accepted her. Great. So what’s next. We went from there”
While making the first film, Lee, who is now also the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, said she never could have anticipated how big of an impact Anna and Elsa would have on people. Those reactions also became part of the formula that inspired the sequel.
“We kept hearing people related to [Elsa] a lot and for all different reasons,” Lee said. “Some of that is she would carry a lot of people who feel high expectations or felt different... Then it would always be followed up with, ‘Why does she have powers?’ I’d never thought past her being different and that, in the end, she could be accepted for who she was. But she’s never been able to live with herself, accept herself. What is her destiny? What is she meant to do? And all of those things were spinning.”
And so, in early 2015, the then jumbled collection of broad ideas known as Frozen II, was officially in the works. Things really began to come into focus, though, when the research began. On the first film, Lee and Buck were so crunched for time (a year of their production schedule was trimmed off at one point and Lee was only on the film for the final 18 months) they never got to go to the countries that inspired their story: Norway, Finland, and Iceland. That became a priority for the sequel and the trip happened in 2016. However, they never could have guessed just how important the trip would be.
“It was shocking for me when I look back on my notes,” Lee said. “I have literal documentation of the moments we have breakthroughs in the story. We [came] back with the main arc of our story and we [stayed] with it.”
Frozen II begins with a flashback of Anna and Elsa as young girls as we finally get to spend time with their parents (their mother is voiced by Westworld star Evan Rachel Wood).
The story then shifts three years after the end of the first film when everything seems to be going fine for the sisters, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf. That is until Elsa begins to hear a voice in her head. Something calling her “Into the Unknown,” as an early song is titled.
Turns out that voice ties into the trip Anna and Elsa’s parents were on when they perished in the first film. Eventually, it also takes them deep into an enchanted forest, far away from Arendelle, where questions about Elsa’s destiny will be answered.
Where the first Frozen was all cold, like winter, Frozen II is warmer, like autumn. Mythology plays an even bigger role this time around, especially with new creatures like a water horse called the Nokk and a wind character named Gale. Those ideas of a forest setting, of it taking place in the autumn, of bringing in even more mythology, all of that came from the filmmakers spending several weeks immersing themselves in Norway, Finland and Iceland.
“There were just stunning moments of standing behind a waterfall, inside the volcano. There was one on a glacier and in the forest when I fell under the rocks, being with wild reindeer. Each time there were moments that you see that are in the film because they created such an emotional experience,” Lee said.
Stepping back even further, Buck added that the general environments of the countries spoke to the differences between the sisters. “It was kind of a stark contrast between Norway and Iceland that framed the concept for us,” he said. Anna felt at home in Norway with its fairytale settings, but Elsa felt strangely at home in this dark, mythic Iceland.”
That juxtaposition of dark, mythic stories, personified by Elsa, versus the simpler, fairytale life, personified by Anna, also became a through-line in the film, though the filmmakers were quiet on specifics of how it plays out. It will likely, however, have to do with exploring some of those unanswered questions from the first film.
“There were some questions people had that we wanted to answer,” Lee said. “For me, particularly, in terms of understanding the parents a little more and what motivated the girls emotionally as children. I love to ask those questions and [had] them myself.”
Finding the answers to those questions meant the filmmakers began to look at Frozen and Frozen II as two parts of a single story. A second chapter needed to be told to complete the first. It seems like, if they hadn’t come to that realisation, Frozen II may not have ever happened. At least not with Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck at the helm.
“It was a breakthrough,” producer Peter Del Vecho told Gizmodo. “That idea of Frozen II to Frozen one making it one journey. Seeing parts of Frozen one from a different vantage point...” and, just like the song from the first movie said, Buck stepped in to finish his producer’s sentence sandwich.
“It was exciting to us as filmmakers,” he said, of melding the movies.
Frozen II opens November 28 and we’ll have much more on the film in the coming weeks.