For the first time in forever (or at least 6 years), audiences will be returning to the kingdom of Arendelle, when Frozen II finally hits theaters everywhere this November. The Nerds of Color was recently invited to Walt Disney Animation Studios to take part in a special day (no, not Coronation Day) of festivities and panels to get a glimpse behind the icy scenes, and see what it took to bring this highly anticipated movie to life. And so, to countdown to this Fall’s biggest movie event, every month until November we’ll be presenting special inside looks at the movie, as well as interviews with the filmmakers and artists who worked incredibly hard to reunite us with Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and, of course, Olaf.
To kick things off, we were treated to a presentation of gorgeous clips of the movie, and a special Q&A with producer Peter Del Vecho, and directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck about the origins of the sequel.
As we took our seats for the presentation, Del Vecho came out and spoke to us about the project’s humble beginnings, from the success of the first film, to the idea that there was still so much to explore in the world of Frozen. He described a research trip the filmmakers took, which would set the course for what would inspire the story for the second movie.
“A few years ago, when I was traveling around the world presenting to artists and students I kept hearing the same question over and over again. Where did Elsa get her icy powers? Well, it turned out that question was one that Jennifer and Chris were beginning to wrestle with as well. We realized that there was more story to tell. Frozen’s ending was really just the beginning for Anna and Elsa, newly reunited as sisters. So, we began early work on Frozen II. That work started with research. For the first Frozen, Jennifer, Chris, and I were so busy in story development that we weren’t able to go on the artists’ research trip to Norway. But in 2016, Jennifer, Chris, and I finally had the privilege of making our first research trip for Frozen II. Along with our artists, we traveled to Norway, Finland, and Iceland. And, we were deeply inspired by the beauty of these places.”
Del Vecho showed a video the crew took of the research trip (which instantly made me jealous). He then went into detail about the gorgeous unique environments they visited–particularly Norway and Iceland. They brought out Disney Animation Chief Creative Office, and director of the film, Jennifer Lee and co-director Chris Buck to continue. As they came out, Lee and Buck began to elaborate on how the mythical nature of Iceland, and the enchanted environments of Norway gave rise to the roots of this installment’s story:
“That was September 2016. Yeah, it’s been a few years,” Buck began. “Talking about the research trip. So, it was kind of a stark contrast between Norway and Iceland that framed the concept [of the movie] for us. Anna felt at home in Norway with its fairytale settings, but Elsa felt strangely at home in this dark, mythic Iceland.”
“What we realized on this trip is that Anna is your perfect fairytale character. She’s an ordinary hero, not magical. She’s optimistic. Whereas Elsa is the perfect mythic character,” continued Lee. “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 fairy-tale story. In the mythic aspect of it, the fear of that tragic fate is something that Anna’s been worrying about and thus protect her sister from.”
Once they cracked the basis for the story, Lee and Buck knew they had to get the original crew and cast back for the second film. They brought back the song-writing team of Bobby and Kristen Anderson-Lopez again, and revealed that Frozen II will feature seven new songs! They also described that all the original cast members from Frozen, Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, and Jonathan Groff, would be reprising their roles from the first film, but this time, would be joined by new cast members Evan Rachel Wood and Sterling K. Brown.
“So we loved working with all of our cast and one of the most exciting things for us, especially this time around, was how they all were so invested in their characters and really invested in their journeys,” Buck stated. “So there’s much of them in the story, too. They’re great.”
“As Peter said, I think we really doing this, it was sort of the end of 2014 but really more beginning of 2015,” continued Lee. “We started looking really deeply into the characters Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf, Sven. Where are they now? What’s going on with them? Where is it left to go?”
“Right. And 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?” reiterated Buck. “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?”
From the sounds of it, Lee and Buck are definitely alluding to a more mature movie that deviates from the norm of most fairy tale fantasy films that come out of Disney Animation. They informed us that the film will begin with a flashback to a time before the first film, while Anna and Elsa were still children. It will start with a bedtime story that Anna and Elsa’s mother and father are telling them about an Enchanted Forest ruled by the magical nature spirits that control fire, air, water, and earth. According to the story, their father, King Agnar, took a crew of men into that Forest, but something went wrong on their quest, which prompted the spirits to become angry. Agnar was able to barely escape their wrath, as the Forest closed itself off to the world. but may awaken again in the future.
“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,” stated Lee. “The girls, of course, have so many questions and none of which there are answers to. The mystery is great. But 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. Imagine that.”
It was revealed that Wood will be playing Queen Iduna, the mother of Elsa and Anna. Lee and Buck played a short clip of Wood as Iduna singing the aforementioned lullaby.
“So we actually had to fire the original actress who played Iduna from Frozen, because she just couldn’t cut it,” joked Lee, referencing herself, having played Iduna in the first film. “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.”
On Brown, Lee stated that he will be playing Lieutenant Mattias in the film. “He’s actually a character who’s been trapped in the Enchanted Forest since a fierce battle broke out over thirty years ago, when Anna and Elsa’s grandfather was king.”
Following the flashback sequences, the movie will cut back to the present, which is set three years after the events of the first movie. Things in Arendelle are peaceful. Olaf has a permanent freeze, so he can now enjoy summers. Anna has never been happier, having a full family, and enjoying the gates being permanently open. Kristoff is madly in love with her, and is thinking about their future. And Elsa is simply happy to have her sister back and continues ruling the kingdom justly. However, things begin to shake up when Elsa begins to hear a voice.
To showcase this, Lee and Buck treated us to a charmingly funny clip of Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf enjoying a family game night. They’re playing charades. The clip shows off a lot of comedy, particularly when it’s Olaf’s time to act out clues. He’s seen breaking the fourth wall to impersonate Elsa and Mickey Mouse at certain points, in which Kristoff is able to guess all answers.
However, when it’s Elsa’s turn to act out clues, her time is interrupted by a melodic voice calling her, distracting her away from the game (which Anna comedically mistakes as part of the game, and interprets as a clue for “distracted”). This prompts Elsa to retire to her room. However, given their newfound closeness, Anna goes to join her and comfort her, singing their mother’s lullaby to her until they both fall asleep.
Elsa’s sleep is interrupted a few hours later by the voice again. She’s conflicted, and worried she’s going crazy, but also a bit curious. That leads us into the first, of what I assume to be many, showstopping musical numbers within the film, called “Into the Unknown.”
The full clip shows a cautious Elsa singing to herself, telling herself not to jeopardize her life by chasing the voice. However, much like the signature “Let it Go” sequence in the first film, her desire gets the better of her, and her confidence and assurance in pursuing the voice builds to a booming crescendo by the end of the number, as Idina belts out another winner with her epic vocal power. The sequence ends with a mysterious force blasting fractals of diamonds with symbols on them into existence, which wakes up the rest of Arendelle, including Anna. The ground begins to quake and tremble as Elsa and Anna have to band together to evacuate the kingdom to safety.
Once the clip ended, Lee and Buck continued their synopsis of the story, as Elsa and Anna go to the trolls and Grand Pabbie. To save Arendelle, our heroes have to find the Enchanted Forest from their father and mother’s bedtime stories.
“Pabbie warns them the past is not what it seems,” Lee stated. “Arendelle is in great danger now that Elsa herself woke the forest and the spirits. Elsa knows now that to save her kingdom she must go to that enchanted forest, find a way in, find that voice who’s calling her. Pabbie warns Anna, the spirits of nature are angry and will challenge Elsa every step of the way. Anna promises she will not let anything happen to her sister. Elsa and Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven embark on this dangerous journey. Together they head to a place beyond Arendelle, it’s beyond the ice palace, further than they’ve ever gone before. The voice leads Elsa to the edge of the forest.”
Lee and Buck showed a short clip of the team making it to the entrance of the Enchanted Forest. There’s a strange mist covering everything. Its impenetrable nature prevents people from entering the forest. However, Elsa goes up to it, and it opens. She’s able to get the crew to the other side of the mist, but it closes up on all of them sealing them in, and trapping them in.
The filmmakers then showed another, lighter clip. This time, the clip centered on Olaf meeting one of the spirits of the Enchanted Forest: The Wind Spirit. Olaf starts seeing the wind as a living character, and is scared and confused, so he sings a song about it. His brief musical number about being scared, but thinking with a naive innocence that all the weirdness will eventually make sense when he’s older was charming and hilarious.
Fun comedic moments aside, Buck and Lee continued to emphasize that the events of this film were written to test and challenge the characters of Elsa and Anna, as well as the relationships all characters have with one another. The scope is much more epic and the danger is greater in this film. To illustrate this, they showed another clip.
The epic final clip they showed, starts out with the sequence many of the trailers revealed, with Elsa on a desolate beach at night, up against the violent crashing of some massive waves. She psyches herself up, and attempts to run on water by using her ice abilities to blast past the powerful, gigantic waves in her way. However, lurking in the water is another spirit — the Nokk! The spirit — a water spirit in the form of a dark aquatic horse, presents itself before Elsa and knocks (no pun intended) her down several times, putting her in imminent danger of drowning. We’ll see later how Elsa gets herself out of that one.
“Frozen II is ultimately a mythic fairy tale about home and family, self-discovery, courage and the power to never give up,” stated Lee.
“So we could never give up,” chimed Buck. “And we could never have made this film without the talented artists with whom we reteamed.”
At that point the team brought back Del Vecho, and began the Q&A portion of the presentation.
Did the symbols — Air, Fire, Earth, Water — appear in the first movie?
LEE: This film is a mystery and it will unfold. There will be things from the first movie — new discoveries things you thought you were seeing that will be different. But this part of the story is very new.
Is it safe to say this is a shade darker than the first movie?
BUCK: Well we went with the characters, and our characters are maturing and growing up. So it’s a little bit of that. As you grow up, things get thrown. Your life isn’t as easy as it used to be. The first film wasn’t that easy for any of them. But this time… we kind of went back to our kids. We were inspired by that. We all have college-aged kids or about to be college. And it’s that time in your life right out of college, where you go, “Okay. Now what. What does the world offer me or what do I have to offer the world.” And that’s where you’re sort of starting with these guys. The world gets a little more complex. There’s a lot more questions for them as they go… Even the color palate we chose was a little more mature. We chose Autumn as our color scheme. The year is maturing so our characters are maturing.
Two questions. One, what were your forest spirits on this movie? What were things that cropped up because of the success of Frozen? Two, this is maybe a silly question, but there was an entire season of Once Upon A Time that was a Frozen sequel. Was any of that canon to you?
LEE: Oh, in terms of the second question first, and then the first. No, that’s not canon. We didn’t see it. So I kinda made a point of certain things not to see so it wouldn’t affect us that way. Frozen and Frozen II to me are one complete story and that’s really where we stay. So glad they had fun with that. I think they had a lot of fun with the characters.
BUCK: Our forest spirits. That’s a tough one. I mean it’s the exciting thing about doing the sequel, though, was to be able to tell more of the story as opposed to… We didn’t wanna listen too much of what was out there in the zeitgeist of everybody, what their wishes for the next movie were. But we wanted to tell the story that was true to the characters and we dug in, and we got excited about doing the sequel when we did a short called of Frozen Fever, and we have a few months off of, you know, Frozen, and none of those characters. And when we started to see the characters alive again in animation we both went, oh my gosh, I love these. I love this world. I love these characters. So we knew we have more story to tell and we wanted to do that
Given Olaf’s lines, from what we’ve seen so far, the film has an incredible self-awareness when it comes to his thoughts on Elsa, and his thoughts on Kristoff’s stuttering. Tell us about what the difference from the first film has given you in terms of perspective and how the phenomenon around the first film informed the sequel.
LEE: Well, you mentioned Olaf. Someone asked who was the hardest character. And I realized it was Olaf, because you got very used to Olaf being out there and representing different things. And for me grounding myself in Olaf in his philosophies and what he really thinks — He’s pure innocence, and pure snow — and that’s where that constitution came from… so what I always love is how children have this strange way of cutting to the heart of the matter and expose things about you that you hadn’t thought of or want to admit. And they’re saying it without any malice. It’s the truth they see. And so grounding us in that for Olaf really helped me. And in terms of this as a film, with a change in maturity, you have to face a lot of change. And seeing his version of maturity, saying “when you’re older everything will make sense” actually turned into the most fun part of the writing. But at first was grounded to not think about the zeitgeist of Frozen or the characters at all. And then just kept going back to “how would Olaf feel or say these things.”
BUCK: And we did that with all the characters… the popularity was hard not to be influenced by that. But we pushed that away and kept going back to what’s true for the characters. We even did a psychological test as a character. Jen did a little bit of Anna and Elsa. And I did Kristoff.
LEE: It took a lot longer than I expected… But the nice thing was there was no personality stuff. There was no question about how Elsa would answer or how Anna would answer. And it would never get blurred.
BUCK: We would ask questions about the end of Frozen. How would you feel now, and what’s next for us? And that was a good springboard for us to start thinking about what is next for all the characters.
You were talking about happily ever after. That was an idea that Disney movies always sought for many, many years. And now you are doing more with how life really is. Do you think it’s not good to teach kids that living happily ever after is something that’s never gonna happen?
LEE: I don’t think that. I think it’s a combination of what the fairy tale narrative does and then how you can play with it. Fairy tales are ultimately about, well for children in the sense originally where what you do is you take an ordinary person and you put them in something crazy and unknown, in the belly of the beast, and you make great obstacles for them. But you show them how to persevere and come out the other side. And the happily ever after idea is that thing of saying you can survive anything. And I fundamentally believe in that. I think what was fun to do, though, we flip tropes a lot in Frozen, is to play with those tropes again and say, okay, well we don’t live happily ever after for the girls in that sense that they have come out the other side of some great struggle much stronger. And then we’re taking it a step further and going yeah, but they’re still here and what can life throw? But that was worth exploring as well. I think there are different things and they serve different purposes.
You talked about Elsa being a mythic character. Were there any specific folk tales or literary examples that inspired that?
LEE: Yeah, we did a lot. I mean I read a lot books, went back to Hans Christian Andersen, but even deeper into some of the old — 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. But what I discovered — and I don’t have a specific one. And then the Nokk stood out a bit because the Nokk had come from old Norse myths and the wind spirit from the Nordic region and Scandinavian culture. The fire spirit, which I can’t say what it is yet, have come from that. And then — oh what am I missing? Oh the earth. We were walking in Norway, the concept there were earth giants throwing rocks around and things like that. And so that was awe inspiring. But the big thing was the discovery. I know we joke that we knew this in Frozen, but we didn’t, which was the mythic story is a tragic story and it’s about a super, sort of superhuman character, someone with special powers who carries our sins and our flaws and our mistakes for us. And then usually has a tragic fate. And I looked at Frozen and were talking and we said in Frozen, Elsa would have had a tragic fate, and so would the world have. Imagine if Hans had killed her and the storm raged on. That would have been the mythic version. But the fairy tale 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 fairy tale.
Did you consider doing a single big bad villain?
LEE: You know, it’s interesting. We’ll let you see when you see it who you think the villains and antagonists are in this. There are certainly a lot of antagonistic forces. Frozen had a thematic villain — fear versus love. We have a lot of great Disney films and we will continue to do so, and I believe in the Disney flipping tropes in the writing, and that was important to Chris. So we can say this, in terms of obstacles, antagonism and villainous forces, we’ve got that. But we’re gonna do it the Frozen way. Put it that way.
BUCK: And one thing that first film and second film, it really boils down to Anna and Elsa and their relationship. And that real and the struggle between, you know, siblings and people who are very close. You’ve got your own sort of antagonists right there, so every time we would stray we’d always go back to Anna and Elsa and use them as the core of that.
We will have much more to cover for Frozen II as we get closer to the release date of the film, November 22, 2019, including inside looks at the environments, the visual effects, and the story challenges the incredible crew had to overcome to tell this story.
Until then, stay tuned to The Nerds of Color for more to come with Frozen II, and watch a special look at the movie below, featuring a first tease of the aforementioned show-stopper, “Into the Unknown.”
Frozen II opens in theaters everywhere November 22.