THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Frozen II’

The one that strengthened a phenomenon.

After 2013’s Frozen became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, a genuine cultural phenomenon, the calls for a seemingly inevitable sequel began to grow. Fellow animation studios like Pixar and DreamWorks had been crafting successful follow-ups to their most popular animated films for years, but Disney had long resisted the urge to greenlight theatrical sequels for any of their 21st-century films, namely due to the mistakes of the past.

In the 90s and early 00s, Disney had actually been consistently churning out sequels to their successful animated titles, which were handled by the studio’s straight-to-video department, DisneyToon Studios. Produced inexpensively with less extravagant animation and simplistic narratives, hugely popular films like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, and Bambi were given subpar sequels released directly to VHS and DVD.

While these releases often performed well, particularly around the holiday retail period, many animators and fans felt their existence ultimately cheapened the legacy of the original films. When Pixar executives Ed Catmull and John Lasseter took creative control of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006, they were concerned the cheap sequels were undercutting the value of the studio’s major releases. As such, Catmull and Lasseter cancelled all DisneyToon projects currently in development, including sequels to Dumbo, Chicken Little, The Aristocats, and Pinocchio, and the studio instead focused on spinoffs projects such as Tinker Bell and Planes.

Despite the unprecedented success of Frozen, Disney was still reluctant to leap into a sequel, with CEO Bob Iger refusing to simply mandate a follow-up and force the filmmakers to craft a story for financial reasons. However, the studio was happy to mine the brand for all it was worth, with a seemingly endless line of merchandise, theme park appearances, a Broadway musical adaptation, and two short animated films, Frozen Fever and Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, which were shown in theatres before the live-action remake of Cinderella and Pixar’s Coco respectively.

During the production of Frozen Fever in late 2014, directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee realised how much they had missed the characters and began initial story discussions for a sequel. It was during this preliminary planning stage that Buck and Lee agreed how they wanted the second film to end, with Anna as *spoiler alert* the new queen of Arendelle and Elsa free from the constraints of royal duty. Now they just needed to determine a satisfying journey to reach this intended conclusion.

Buck and Lee were keenly aware fans of the original film were left with numerous unanswered questions the sequel must address, namely surrounding the mysterious origins of Elsa’s magical powers and where her parents, King Agnarr and Queen Iduna were heading when their ship tragically sank. With this intention in mind, the directors crafted an outline that explored Arendelle’s past and how the mistakes made by the town’s ancestors were affecting the future of the kingdom.

The sequel would also focus on the concept of the four elemental spirits of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air, who resided in the mysterious Enchanted Forest, which has been shrouded in a thick, impenetrable fog for several decades. When Elsa begins hearing an ethereal voice calling to her from the forest, she unwittingly awakens the seemingly angry spirits, leading to a hasty evacuation of Arendelle.

After consulting with the wise Trolls leader, Grand Pabbie, Elsa accepts she must journey into the mist to confront what lies beyond the fog and uncover the truth about Arendelle’s checkered past. While Elsa initially insists on taking the voyage alone, she can’t stop her faithful sister Anna from tagging along for support. And, naturally, that means the faithful snowman Olaf, Anna’s doting boyfriend Kristoff, and his trusty steed Sven are along for the adventure as well.

The production of Frozen II hit a snag in late 2017 when the viral #MeToo movement uncovered sexual misconduct allegations against Lasseter. The alleged misconduct included unwanted grabbing, kissing, and making inappropriate comments about the physical attributes of numerous female employees. According to various reports, Lasseter’s behaviour became so well known that, at various times, Pixar had minders who were tasked with reining in his impulses. On November 21, Disney announced Lasseter would be taking a six-month leave of absence after acknowledging certain “missteps” in his behaviour with employees. As the #MeToo movement became larger, the calls to remove Lasseter grew louder. On June 8, 2018, the studio announced Lasseter would leave both Disney and Pixar at the end of the year and would only take on a consultant role until then.

This decision affected Frozen II when Lee was chosen as Lasseter’s replacement as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios on June 19. While Lee would remain as the film’s co-director and co-writer, she enlisted Oscar-nominated screenwriter Allison Schroeder to assist with writing the screenplay. Schroeder was tasked with fleshing out the new supporting characters of the sequel, including Mattias, the leader of a group of Arendelle soldiers, and Yelena, the leader of the Northuldra tribe, while also expanding the roles of both King Agnarr and Queen Iduna.

As expected, Disney enlisted original cast members Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, and Josh Gad to reprise their roles of Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf respectively, with each receiving a major boost in their salaries from the first film. Emmy Award-winner Sterling K. Brown was cast as Mattias, while veteran actor Alfred Molina was chosen for the role of King Agnarr. After auditioning several actors, the filmmakers selected Evan Rachel Wood for the role of Queen Iduna after noting her warm, inviting voice echoed the voices of both Menzel and Bell.

Before the daunting task of animating Frozen II began, key members of the production spent three weeks in the wilderness of Norway, Iceland, and Finland to experience both the natural environments and the local culture. The team also documented their entire trip to create a “home movie” to inspire the entire team, while also taking photos and sketches to serve as reference points for the animation. While on their research trip, the filmmakers studied the landscape and the culture and even stood on a glacier to intimately understand how sequences featuring Elsa’s interacting with ice would be animated. They also worked with a botanist to determine what trees and plants would realistically grow in the area.

For sequences involving water, the animation team utilised the software program Splash, which was created during the production of Moana. During production, Buck and Lee felt certain water elements were so photorealistic, they felt inconsistent next to animated characters. While these sequences were visually impressive, they asked the animators to slightly scale back the animation to appear more stylistic. The Dark Sea setting of Elsa’s chaotic interactions with The Water Nøkk was inspired by Reynisfjara, a black-sand beach on the southern coast of Iceland.

To create The Water Nøkk, animators spent time with a horse trainer and closely studied horse anatomy to design the final horse-like creature made entirely of water, mist, and ice. The character is devoid of eyes, making it difficult to convey the horse’s emotions. Instead, the animators relied on the Nøkk’s ears to portray the creature’s mood. The animation of the Nøkk required collaborations between several animation departments, artists, and technicians, and ultimately took over eight months to create.

To design the invisible wind spirit Gale, the engineering team created a new software tool, appropriately called Swoop, which also required the collaboration of several different departments within the animation team. During the digital animation process, Swoop allowed a wind rig simulator to run alongside any scene, which enabled the animators to manipulate Gale’s size, speed, and trajectory. By the end of the process of making Frozen II, approximately 800 people had worked on the film, including 80 animators, making the film the largest production in Disney’s history.

Oscar-winning composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez returned to write new original songs for Frozen II, with the songwriting couple again working closely with Buck and Lee on the film’s script to allow their compositions to flow organically throughout the narrative. Anderson-Lopez and Lopez would again rely on the musical theatre sensibilities to allow their songs to forward the story, with each track thematically link to the film’s overarching theme of change.

The duo created seven original songs for the film, including two big belter numbers for Elsa in the form of “Into the Unknown” and “Show Yourself,” a rock-balled for Kristoff entitled “Lost in the Woods,” an “all hope seems lost” number for Anna called “The Next Right Thing,” and another playful track for Olaf titled “When I Am Older.” For the ethereal voice of the woods featured throughout the film and on the song “Into the Unknown,” Anderson-Lopez and Lopez enlisted Norwegian AURORA, whose angelic pitch perfectly complimented the tone of the film.

Frozen II was released on November 22, 2019, to generally positive reviews from film critics. The Hollywood Reporter felt the sequel “has everything you would expect – catchy new songs, more time with easy-to-like characters, striking backdrops, cute little jokes, a voyage of discovery plot and female empowerment galore,” while the New York Post raved “Disney has done the impossible: it’s made a terrific animated-musical sequel.” However, USA Today thought the film lacked “the same pizzazz as the original.”

While Disney was understandably nervous the sequel may not match its predecessor’s staggering box office figures, Frozen II proved to be an even bigger hit than the original film. The sequel grossed $477.4 million in the U.S. and a further $972.7 million international for a record-breaking worldwide total of $1.45 billion, an increase of $160 million from Frozen. This made Frozen II the highest-grossing animated film of all time (Disney does not consider The Lion King remake an “animated film” and neither should you) and the tenth-highest-grossing film in history. However, Frozen II was shockingly snubbed for a nomination for Best Animated Film at the 92nd Academy Award, though Anderson-Lopez and Lopez did receive a nomination for Best Original Song for “Into the Unknown,” which lost to “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman.

It’s little wonder it took Buck and Lee six years to create Frozen II. It must have been quite a daunting task to create a sequel to one of the most popular films in history. How do you possibly top the highest-grossing animated film of all time and one of the biggest pop culture zeitgeist moments of the 21st century? We all knew they had to. There’s more money to be made from this valuable brand. Thankfully, the end result is rather sensational. Yes, Disney achieved the seemingly impossible.

While Frozen II may not quite reach the grand heights of its predecessor, it still stands as an entirely worthy follow-up that offers everything a sequel should. Frozen II expands on what came before, while still delivering everything that made the original such a success, namely stunning animation, plenty of fun, flashy musical numbers, and a handful of tear-inducing moments. Its narrative plays it all a little too safe, but when the storyline is so utterly entertaining, it’s easily permissible.

By leaving Arendelle behind, Frozen II succeeds as a necessary sequel by expanding on the origins of its tale and filling in the gaps its predecessor left behind. Even if this sequel was somewhat financially motivated, Lee’s screenplay refused to fall into the trap of just rehashing everything previously seen, delivering a new chapter that never once feels anything but a natural and earnest evolution and continuation.

Disney remained coy on the budget of Frozen II (it was estimated to be between $150-$175 million), it’s clear from the utterly sensational animation they’ve invested more cash in crafting this sequel. Whether it’s the stunning water rendering or the gorgeous landscapes, the animation reaches new heights for the studio, offering a sumptuous treat that’s visually dazzling and downright beautiful to behold.

With a cavalcade of spectacular visuals, a wildly entertaining narrative, and all the uplifting moments Disney do so well, Frozen II is a terrific follow-up well worth the six-year wait. For all the anticipation and hype, this could have been a total disaster, so kudos has to be given to Lee and Buck for actually making this work. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll love revisiting the majesty of this unstoppable franchise. And just try to leave the cinema without wanting to belt out, “Into the unknoooooown.”

Is Frozen II a Disney Classic? This sequel easily could have been a total disaster, but Disney rightly refused to rush into producing a follow-up that existed as nothing more than a cash grab. Frozen II is a natural evolution of its predecessor, which deftly proved a sequel was entirely necessary. However, it’s barely been six months since the film’s initial release, so we’re not exactly in Disney Classic territory quite yet. If nothing else, Frozen II proved the mighty strength of this franchise shows no signs of diminishing any time soon.

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