The world beyond Arendelle is calling to Elsa through a haunting aria that only she can hear. On November 22nd, audiences will be beckoned back to movie theaters to watch Elsa answer the call on a brand-new adventure “Into the Unknown” in Frozen II. I recently had the rare opportunity to visit Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California, to traverse the very halls the magic makers passed through every day for four years to bring this new film to life.
“At Disney Animation, we never make sequels unless the filmmakers themselves have an idea for a film and a desire to tell it,” Producer Peter Del Vecho told us as we were welcomed into the same hallowed halls where films like Tarzan, Tangled, and the first Frozen were made. “That’s why even though Frozen II is our fifty-eighth animated feature, it’s only our fourth sequel and it’s the first animated musical sequel at that.”
With the worldwide success of the first film, a sequel would seem like a no-brainer to any money-minded executive. But the spirit of Disney Animation has always been, will always be, story. “There were a lot of questions that were unanswered from the first film,” explained Co-Director Chris Buck. “One of them was why does Elsa have icy powers? How have they grown since Anna saved Elsa’s life? Why was Anna born the way she was? Where were their parents going when their ship went down? And is there really such a thing as happily ever after?”
To help answer those questions, a new research trip was arranged that would bring the creative team back to Norway, in addition to Finland and Iceland. Since writing and co-directing the first Frozen, Jennifer Lee has also risen through the ranks to become Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. She was unable to join the research trip on the original film, so exploring the lands and cultures that inspired the story uncovered a new layer that influenced the direction for the sequel.
“What we realized on this trip is that Anna is your perfect fairytale character,” Jennifer Lee shared. “She’s an ordinary hero, non-magical, she’s optimistic. Whereas Elsa is your perfect mythic character, mythic characters are magical; they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. In fact… mythic characters often meet a tragic fate. And we realized we have two stories going together, a mythic story and a fairytale story. In the mythic aspect of it, the fear of that tragic fate is something Anna’s been worried about and vows to protect her sister from.”
Jennifer elaborated about another aspect of the trip that helped answer one of the unresolved questions that sparked the sequel. “We were doing research into old Norse myths and folklore of Scandinavia and thinking of Elsa’s powers as of nature. Going on this research trip, we had very different experiences that helped us a lot but in Norway and Finland we did a 10K hike through a forest that was very much feeling like it was coming alive as we went with all the tales. Those rocks were thrown by giants, there’s hidden folk underneath those rocks, you have to ask the spirits if you want to do something and they’ll answer. And the joke of it was they didn’t seem to like me in the Norwegian forest. I ripped my pants falling down, everything went wrong for me in Norway. Chris was just skipping along.”
“I had a great time in Norway,” Chris replied. “Norway and Finland feel like this fairytale world and its very cozy and warm and wonderful. Of course, we were there in fall so it was very beautiful and we compared our stories.”
“So we go to Iceland and I’m not a great flier,” Jennifer mused. “I get afraid of things and here was this incredible land that is alive, it can kill you at any turn, like the land is in charge and I was like ‘I’m home. I’m completely fine with this, I will go into the volcano, I will walk on the glacier, yeah I know you can slip and die if you fall in that crevice, I don’t care, I’m here.’”
Despite Jennifer’s usual timidity and Chris’ typical fearlessness, the lands of Norway and Iceland brought out the opposite qualities in them. “I love adventurous things but I don’t know, when every second you feel like you’re going to die I’d rather take that fairytale place,” Chris joked. “So we realized we were like Anna and Elsa on the trip,” Jennifer added. “A lot of the story in terms of Elsa’s story came out of that trip.”
When you’re creating a follow-up to an animated musical that against all odds became a global phenomenon and became a multi-billion-dollar franchise for Disney, you can imagine the pressure of creating a worthy follow up. “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 as it did before,” Jennifer shared, referring to the runaway success of the award-winning music from the first film. “Every moment has to be true and anytime one of us got nervous… we would just ground each other. And I think we had to or it wouldn’t be an authentic story.”
As the countdown to November 22nd gets closer, I will have more to share about what I learned about Frozen II during my visit to Walt Disney Animation Studios. Seeing select scenes from the upcoming film and talking with these masters of modern animation made me more excited for Frozen II than I thought possible. I can’t wait to watch Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf trespass into an enchanted forest to find the answers to the filmmaker’s questions when the film glides and pivots into theaters this holiday season.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.