Because audiences just couldn’t let it go, Jennifer Lee spent her days on a 'Frozen' sequel, even as she settled into her new job as Disney Animation's chief creative.
It seems fitting that Frozen 2 is a film about change. As the animated sequel was being made, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and especially Jennifer Lee — who directed the original and sequel with Chris Buck and also wrote both screenplays — were going through some pretty big metamorphoses of their own.
The Oscar-winning 2013 musical Frozen, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, followed the tale of two princess sisters, Elsa and Anna, forced to grow up isolated from each other and the world because of Elsa's potentially dangerous magic ability to conjure ice. The film grossed a whopping $1.27 billion worldwide, and fans were so charmed by the characters — voiced by Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell — that they weren't able to "Let It Go" (the catchy power ballad that earned songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez an Oscar), making a sequel all but inevitable.
But where to go with the story? When last we saw the sisters at the conclusion of Frozen, they were back in their home of Arendelle, celebrating the return of spring with Anna's love interest Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad). Lee and Buck, who stayed onboard for the sequel, as did producer Peter Del Vecho and many other collaborators, thought long and hard, ultimately deciding to go where few fairy tales have gone before: into adulthood.
"What we really wanted to look at was change and maturity as you go through life," notes Lee. "We didn't want to stay in the same place and repeat ourselves. It's an evolution with the characters and thematically looking at love and fear and family from the point of view of change."
Frozen 2 takes place three years after the events in the original and begins with one simple question: Why does Elsa have powers? To discover the answer, she leaves Arendelle, joined by Anna, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf, on a quest. Explains Lee: "One of the things we'd heard a lot in response to Frozen — particularly Elsa and 'Let It Go' — [is that] it set [the audience] free from something that was really weighing on them — some aspect of themselves they couldn't release into the world or the pressure they feel [of] high expectations, which a lot of kids feel."
The filmmakers started by going back to basics and studying ancient myths and archetypes. "The mythic figure, who's usually magical, carries the weight of the world on their shoulders," Lee says. "They usually end up sacrificing for us, carrying our wounds, and that was fascinating because it really felt like Elsa. We realized it was only through Anna [that] a tragic fate didn't happen to her. Anna fights to be the optimist to get through everything. We knew this is how they'd go through their journey. It wasn't sisters against each other, which is more of a cliche to me, but really two women who are on each other's side. And yet life challenges us so much, and it's hard at moments to know when to protect and when to let go."
As a new story expanded the scope of Elsa and Anna's journey, the voice cast expanded as well, with Evan Rachel Wood signing on as the sisters' mother, Queen Iduna (in flashbacks), and Sterling K. Brown as kindly new character Lieutenant Mattias, whom the sisters meet in an enchanted forest. There's also a water creature, Earth Giants and a fire-breathing salamander (more about them later).
Of course, music is every bit as important to a Frozen movie as its archetypes. And the seven new original songs in the sequel are once again penned and composed by husband-wife duo Lopez and Anderson-Lopez. Christophe Beck, who scored the first Frozen, also was brought back for the second, while country singer Kacey Musgraves, '90s alt-rock band Weezer and pop-punk band Panic! at the Disco contribute tunes to the end credits.
Menzel's Queen Elsa, who made "Let It Go" a feminist anthem to millions of girls around the globe, gets two featured songs in the new movie, the first being "Into the Unknown," in which she decides that she must follow a mysterious voice calling to her. Anderson-Lopez says that discussions with Lee, Buck and the story team inspired the song, which also features a mysterious ethereal voice (belonging to Norwegian artist Aurora). "That voice is a metaphor for the voice inside of us that really seeks to find where you belong in the world, and your purpose, which to me is the most exciting thing about why we did Frozen 2 — to tell the story of a woman who has to learn to listen to her gut and find where she belongs in the world," says Anderson-Lopez. "The idea was that this voice was calling Elsa away from comfort and Arendelle." She adds that they took some inspiration for the number from a herding song used in parts of Norway and Sweden to call livestock. "It's a beautiful sound, so we adapted it to a duet with Elsa," Anderson-Lopez explains.
Reflecting their growth and seriousness, the filmmakers traded in the princess ball gowns for autumn travel attire. Anna was given a Parisian-inspired black dress, and, for a pop of color, the inner lining of her burgundy cape and the sole of her boots were magenta. Anna's new look references Christian Dior's 1947 New Look debut haute couture collection, as well as contemporary designers including Valentino, Elie Saab, Ferragamo, Louis Vuitton and Manolo Blahnik. Her cape is embellished with designs drawn from Norway's traditional folk Bunad costumes.
For magical queen Elsa, visual development artist Brittney Lee explains that she wanted "to celebrate that she is of snow and ice."
"We decided to open up the back of her coat to have a peek-a-boo back with a snowflake emblem encrusted on it," she adds. The cape has strong shoulders to "feel a little militaristic and like this is a bit of her queen uniform."
Along with these new looks came fresh locations. Production designer Michael Giaimo notes that a September 2016 research trip brought the filmmakers back to Norway as well as to Finland and Iceland. An 8-mile hike in Finnish forests to Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church gave them plenty of ideas for the enchanted forest where Anna and Elsa begin their quest. "Our fall palette is basically oranges, orange red, to red violet," says Giaimo. "Very narrow. We don't have a lot of yellow — a little bit of it. But in narrowing that red, we can focus on the characters and create special palettes for them. We noticed on the hike this incredible ground cover that was turning from green to rust to reds. Most of it was bearberry; there were also crowberry plants. They just created beautiful fall carpet." It also steered the art department toward tree varieties including aspens, alders and birch.
During the journey, Elsa finally must leave Anna behind because she can't protect her sister in the Dark Sea, where she meets the mythical water spirit, the Nokk, a creature made of water that takes the form of a horse.
The sequence proved to be the most challenging for VFX supervisor Steve Goldberg. "We wanted to make sure it didn't end up with the appearance of a glass horse or a crystal horse, so [the water visible inside the horse is] always dynamic and moving, as is the mane and the tail," Goldberg says. "What we also wanted to do was support the amount of ripple, which really had to do with the horse's mental state."
When the horse was underwater, the challenge was to distinguish the Nokk from the sea water. "If it's made of water and it's in water, what are we seeing?" Goldberg says. The mane and tail were given a gentle flow, "almost like a sea grass or a kelp, like hair underwater," he explains.
The Nokk isn't the only mythical character that the ragtag adventurers meet on their journey. There's the wind spirit Gale, visualized as a force of energy made up of fall leaves, darting and dancing between the characters. The massive Earth Giants are made up of rock formations — with some set in the riverbank while others are animated to walk through the enchanted forest — and then there's the adorable fire spirit Bruni, a pale blue baby salamander that spits fire.
"They spent a lot of time coming up with the right technology, called Swoop, that allowed them to turn the wind into a character and show some personality," explains producer Del Vecho. "But each one of those, in and of itself, is a technical challenge. I think this whole movie is probably one of the more technically complicated movies that we've ever attempted to make."
During the middle of production, however, Jennifer Lee — and Disney — went through some growing pains of their own, when, in spring 2018, chief creative officer John Lasseter exited Disney following misconduct allegations. Lee was promoted to chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios but kept working on Frozen 2 despite the bigger job. "It was a struggle a little with my schedule," she says. "But as a studio, we all rally together on films in production anyway. I was writing [script revisions] early in the morning, and we just stayed very connected."
Meanwhile, as Lee and the team put the final touches on the film, Disney fired up its marketing snow blowers, with a blizzard of publicity that included a global tour — with premieres in Los Angeles and London — as well as the launching of a whole new wave of Frozen toys just in time for Christmas.
And, as with all the best fairy tales, even the sequels, there's a happy ending, at least for Disney, Lee and Buck. Since its Nov. 22 release, Frozen 2's box office has been piling up higher than the snows of the northern realm, soaring toward $1 billion.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.