The Oscar-winning filmmakers behind ‘Frozen,’ Disney’s highest grossing animated feature film of all time, team up again on the long-awaited sequel.
The wait is almost over… Frozen 2, the highly anticipated sequel to Disney’s enormously successful, Oscar-winning 2013 animated musical adventure, Frozen, hits theatres this coming November 22. Powered by the Oscar-winning song, “Let It Go,” with music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Frozen broke numerous box office records on its way to becoming the highest grossing animated feature of all time, generating just under $1.3 billion worldwide.
Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, took home Oscars, Annies and numerous other industry awards for their work on the film, which introduced the world to the snowy kingdom of Arendelle’s two resilient and determined royal sisters, Elsa and Anna, their unassuming mountain man friend, Kristoff, his trusted reindeer companion Sven, and a magical though someone shrill and obnoxious carrot-nosed snowman sidekick, Olaf.
Six years later, the sisters and their friends are back in a brand-new adventure. In Frozen 2, Elsa travels far beyond the gates of Arendelle on a dangerous and difficult journey to a mysterious enchanted forest. She learns of its historical curse as she seeks the source of a mystical voice that calls out to her while also putting her kingdom in jeopardy. Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad return as the voices of Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf, while Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld) joins the cast as Queen Iduna, Anna and Elsa’s mother, and Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us, Black Panther) portrays Lieutenant Destin Mattias.
Much has happened at Disney since I last spoke to Lee, Buck and Del Vecho, including Frozen’s immensely successful run and entertainment franchise expansion, the Fox studio purchase, the creation of Disney+, which launches November 12, and of course, the upheaval surrounding the departure of the legendary John Lasseter. In June 2018, Lee, Disney’s first female animated feature film director, took over as Disney Feature Animation’s chief creative officer after Lasseter left the studio. So, while we’re taught never to say never, it’s highly likely these three may never again helm a film together in quite the same manner.
Just recently, I had the opportunity to sit down once more with the trio, who though clearly tired from a string of long days spent finishing up their film, shared their obvious love for a set of vibrant, non-traditional fairy tale characters they created, that once again, they get to share with eager audiences around the world.
Dan Sarto: Since the last time the three of us talked, there have been many big changes, both for you guys personally, as well as for Disney. What does that mean for you? Is this your last film together? Is it possible to balance your studio roles with hands-on filmmaking? It's tough enough to make a film, let alone handle all these other duties. What is that going to mean?
Jennifer Lee: Well, for me, I will say that the writing process, and animation, is so intense that I'm fine with taking a little break. I don't know if I'll take a rest and be recharged as a writer. What I'm looking forward to is getting to help our filmmakers with their vision, based on all the experience we've had. And it's fun to come into the room, give the notes and not have to then go home and get up at 5:00 in the morning and execute them. I'm enjoying that [laughs].
Working with new filmmakers, working with filmmakers I know and love, whom I've gotten to be with for 10 years, I'm looking forward to that. All of us have been juggling Frozen 2 with all the changes [here at Disney], so it's nice to be here… we lock lighting tomorrow and it feels great.
Chris Buck: I don't think it will really hit me until we're done with the mix. Usually when we get to the mix and we see the final version, we go, "Oh, okay... we finished." Because you know, in animation, it's a marathon. With any of these movies, you do have to pace yourself. You always keep chugging. And when it's over, that's when you have to sort of go back to being a human again. It's like, "Oh, this is my real life.”
JL: Do some errands. Grocery shop. Yeah.
CB: ... and you get to rejoin the rest of us. Amy [Astley, VP, Communications and Publicity, Walt Disney Animation Studios] jokes about it, but she saw me after we’d finished Frozen and I had actually gotten to go out for lunch from 12:00 to 1:00 and do an errand. And I was so excited. I was like, "I got to do an errand!" So, we'll see. Maybe I'll get to doing an errand after this one’s done.
Peter Del Vecho: I think, like Jen, there's another part of the job that I'd like to focus on, but I can't imagine being very far from the filmmaking process, because that's what we do, that's what we love.
JL: That's part of why filmmakers are in these roles, because we understand.
DS: Putting filmmakers in senior leadership roles is critical because ultimately, it's all about these films. It's all about that hour and a half interaction with an audience. And if that's not working, nothing else matters.
JL: You said it beautifully. That's exactly right.
DS: Frozen, I think it's safe to say, was successful at a level that I think took everyone by surprise.
PDV: Including us.
DS: You guys don’t make many sequels. Is there more pressure on you the second time around? With so many places where such a property can plant seeds within the Disney media empire, does that mean more pressure for you to deliver on such an important film?
JL: That's a great question. When we talked about doing a sequel, we all, including Bobby and Kristin, made a pact that we would not let each other worry about the pressure. Otherwise, we couldn’t build the story with the authenticity we needed. And for the most part we did just that throughout the process. I think we did a good job grounding each other. But as we were starting to hand it over, show material, there was always that excitement and nervousness, because the biggest thing is you are handing it over to the world.
With Frozen, we felt excited about what we had. We felt connected to it, and we knew there was something special about it. We just didn't know if anyone would come and see it. And so, now, the second time, you realize the relationships now. We have a relationship with these characters, but so do a lot of people out there. And it's going to be a new experience. You put this new film out and its scary, but exciting…
PDV: The audience knows these characters. That was the key to us… making sure that everything we did was authentic to Anna and Elsa…
JL: To who they are. That was the greatest challenge though. But with the studio’s support for the new film, it was always, “When it's ready, when it's right, it'll go out. You keep working on it.” There was always support for making it the best story we could. The best creative work you can do, that’s always the focus, versus, “Wouldn't it be great if we could make a giant ride based on that?” There's never that conversation. It's always, “How does it make me feel? Does it feel authentic?” As you said, it’s all about, is this the best story we can tell? It's what we do with everything.
CB: And the pressure, actually... the external pressure, I didn't even think about it to be honest. The pressure was amongst ourselves. Jen would bring in pages and we'd talk about the scenes and ask, “Is this true to Anna? Is this a moment that feels real and believable?” Same with Elsa. Same with Olaf. All of them. We were always putting pressure on each other to say, "This movie, or this moment can be better and more true." And so, for me it wasn't even the world. It was really us. It's what we've always done and what we'll continue to do.
DS: I’m sure the high bar you set for yourselves is pressure enough.
JL: Yeah. Very true.
DS: Concerning a sequel, you have a relationship with fans, and you have established characters and storylines to work from. But you also have expectations to fulfill. You need to include just enough of where you've already been to make people feel you're taking them somewhere they want to go. But, you’ve got to bring them somewhere new or they’ll feel, "We've already seen this." From a storytelling standpoint, is that more challenging than just coming up with something brand new?
JL: Yes, it is. The good thing for us was, and we had the same thing in Frozen, we knew our ending from an emotional standpoint. We always knew where we wanted to go and why. But yes, you could feel the greatest challenge of a sequel is, while you know these characters, which should make it easier, the concept of how you grow from here, how you take them into new places but also places that feel true, that tug of war and that juggle, and then you add music onto that, it’s really difficult. All of those things are why, I mean… it's been a four year journey and over 85% of that time, we were still working the story. In fact, the pencils were finally set down only about a month ago. You don't stop until everything feels there. Or if Peter finally goes, "Hey!" No, I'm kidding. Actually, that's not true. When he says, "Hey,” you blow past that date by five or six weeks.
PDV: Well, I actually know you're going to blow past it.
JL: Yeah, I mean, we work it to the very end.
PDV: To that point, truthfully, it's not just me, it's the whole crew. Everyone, when they see the changes that we want to make, even in the late stages, when they see the movie getting better, they will bend over backwards. Because if the crew believes in the movie, then they really help you get it up on the screen.
DS: Frozen introduced non-traditional princess characters. Female characters who didn’t just play to the traditional princess true love happily ever after trope. And it has become more and more important in entertainment and media to tell stories that don’t just play up the same old tired plotlines. Elsa and Anna are not traditional fairy tale characters, even though they feel so familiar to us now. How do you push out and expand upon the issue of female empowerment in the new film?
CB: It's interesting. Let me back up a little bit in that the original concept with these two women, was that we wanted to try something different. There are many forms of true love. And we wanted to try something that was not a kiss from the prince that would save the day.
And so, when the two became sisters, which was not our original plan [in Frozen] it was all about the strength of that relationship, that bond and true love between them, that saved the day. Anna's true love for Elsa.
JL: Familial love.
CB: It was familial love. And we continue that in Frozen 2. The strength of Anna and Elsa… we would always come back to them… they'd be our true North. Anytime our story would stray a little bit, we're like, “What are they feeling right now? What's the tension between them?” We’d go back to that true familial love between those two. In the new film, we stuck to that, only we go deeper with it this time.
JL: We used to joke a little about how being a princess was always the happily ever after thing. The princess life is the decadent life, or the “no more worries” life. And that was symbolic and meant a sort of happily ever after feeling. But in terms of the stakes of Frozen, which is carried into Frozen 2, what was more exciting was the idea of the responsibility that you have as the leader of a kingdom. And we hadn't looked at it from that angle, particularly with female characters.
And we continue to do that. These two women carry responsibility. They carry burdens that cause tug of wars. They carry deep respect and love for one another. They are protective of one another. And you pull on that and push on that, and it feels like life. It feels authentic.
What I love about these characters, and it was built sort of from the inside out, was the fact that… we all make huge mistakes in life but we persevere through. And we are grounded by our moral compass. And we put them in the active role to do those things, to make those mistakes but also have triumphs… to have strong will. In building these types of characters, my hope was always that it doesn't matter if they're female or male, you’d want to go on a journey with any characters like that. So, having them be women didn't matter. You'd go whether you're a man, a woman, a boy or a girl.
CB: One of the most satisfying things for me has been that men and boys love Anna and Elsa, and love their journey. And love a strong woman.
JL: We met a father who had just recently seen Frozen and was saying, “And Anna, you know, she's fearless and she loves her sister so much, almost to a fault at times. And that thing, you know, you're going to worry, is that going to pull them apart? And when she makes that decision... " And to hear him know Anna as well as we do, to be invested in her, is one of the most ... that was an extremely emotional moment for me.
DS: Last thing. Besides the story, is there anything you can point to that kept you up at night on this film?
CB: Well, the size of the story.
JL: It's always the story.
CB: It really is, I mean, because we have such an amazing team of artists. I don't worry about any of that.
JL: Those are the parts of the production you look forward to. You're like, "Oh good, I get to go into animation." Then you’re like, “Ohhhh, I have to go into story…” And it’s the truth. You love those story artists because they help you solve the problems. It's not them. It's just the fact that you're still always trying to correct something in the story.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.