Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf will soon be returning to the silver screen in the creatively titled FROZEN II. The sequel to the silver screen sensation directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck revolves around the further adventures of the beloved gang as their limits are tested by forces outside their control. Months ahead of its debut, we’ve learned quite a few things about the animated feature from the creatives that worked their magic to create another classic Disney adventure.
In addition to our earlier piece on the creation of one of the film’s stunning musical sequences, “Into the Unknown,” there’s a slew of awesome details that were revealed at the film’s long lead press day held at Disney Studios in Burbank.
FROZEN II themes revolve around fairy tale and myth
It was on their research trip for the second chapter in the ongoing saga of Elsa and Anna that director of story Marc Smith said, “We started developing these themes of fairytale and myth. We had a writer who said that fairytales don’t tell you that dragons don’t exist. Dragons do exist. Fairytales tell you that you can slay the dragon. And we’re like, that’s Anna; She is so positive. She believes in a happy ending. She’s such a fairytale character. Whereas in the mythic stories, the characters in those stories always have the weight of the world sort of on their shoulders. They’re always working toward some destiny or purpose. Those are all big themes of mythic stories. And when we start this movie, that’s a big question for Elsa is like, ‘I was born with these ice powers. Why? What’s the purpose? What am I supposed to do with that?’ It was really pivotal, this discovery because it really gave us our two main characters that have these complete opposing worldviews. That really helped us to start cracking the story.” Director, writer, and Disney Feature Animation chief creative officer Jennifer Lee augmented those statements. “In fact, the mythic characters often meet a tragic fate and we realized we had two stories going together, mythic story and a fairytale 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.”
Anna and Elsa experience a role reversal in FROZEN II
Animation supervisor Hyun-Min Lee explained, “In the first film, Anna was the fearless one who was forging ahead. This time, Elsa’s being called into the unknown and Anna is very much nervous and worried for her sister’s safety.” The stakes are raised for Anna as compared to the first film. “Anna is not alone anymore and she feels like she has everything she could ever need. She has her whole family with her, Arendelle, and all the people she loves and that’s the source of her strength and her optimism. She definitely doesn’t want to lose this current state of bliss. And, as the winds of change are coming, Anna is very protective of her clan, of her people, all of her loved ones. And she’ll do anything to do the right thing for them, including kicking their butts and getting rid of the bad guys. Anna is that kind of strength and positive energy as part of her big charm and we were trying to find fun moments where we could push that part of her a little further.” They are also paired on screen much more frequently this go-around. “One of the big things is that there’s a lot more scenes of Anna and Elsa together in this film compared to the first film. They were very much separate and trying to get together and now they’re together and there’s a lot more interaction.”
Elsa’s magical nature has matured in FROZEN II
Wayne Unten, the animation supervisor on Elsa, mentioned that Elsa’s powers have matured greatly in the sequel. “Elsa’s magical power has also grown in this film.” Head of effects animation Marlon West concurred, “In this film, she’s owning every aspect of her magic, the scariness, the power, the grace.” Unten was instructed by Jennifer Lee to look at reference footage of Martha Graham for inspiration on Elsa’s movements. “To help with the language of Elsa’s magic, Jen Lee asked us to look to Martha Graham and modern dance for inspiration. We didn’t want it to look like a dance but there’s power in Martha Graham technique such as spiral, grounding the character. She has this connection with nature. She’s grounded and then a flow of energy from inside to out. We tried to incorporate these things into casting her magic.”
Olaf now has “permafrost.”
According to co-director Chris Buck, “Thanks to Elsa, Olaf now has a permafrost that allows him to fully enjoy Summer and his new passion – reading.”
There’s no snow to be found in Arendelle in FROZEN II
With no white blanket of snow to hide the village underneath, the crafts team was able to create a whole new look. “Color in FROZEN was pretty much anything we needed it to be, that we had designed, because we were putting it to a white canvas,” said co-production designer Lisa Keene. Head of environments Sean Jenkins added, “We effectively start out with just a blank slate. Like an empty sound stage in the computer.”
FROZEN II takes place in the fall
A new color story had to be told, which meant creating new environments for the townspeople to roam. Keene stated, “Fall has very specific use to it. We had to pay attention to that and adhere to it. How are we going to get our world, and our characters, to live in that very colorful palette?” One of those challenges was making sure the beloved characters would read over the new color palette. She continued, “In FROZEN, our winter palette [was] a jeweled palette. You have beautiful emeralds, you have cranberries, and magentas, and teals, and black. We needed to take all of that and move it into our fall palette. Things that fell away were brilliant oranges, and really saturated yellows. We tailored the yellows a little bit. Our reds skewed into a cranberry, or a more of a winter red, and our teals. We still stayed with the jewel palette, but we just did it in different proportions for the fall.”
All hail FROZEN II’s cute superstar, Bruni the Salamander!
There are breakout characters in every Disney animated film that find their cult followings easily. But then there are the ones who break the mold. Bruni the Salamander has cuteness and charisma on lock. Animation Supervisor Trent Correy said, “We looked at all sorts of salamander and lizard references, concept art to infuse real physics and personality. The key here was, How do we make this guy as adorable as possible?”
The Earth Giants characters have a little bit of FROZEN’s Troll DNA in them.
Software Engineer Hannah Swan introduced them by discussing their massive size and movement, “The Earth Giants are made of rock and asymmetrical which affects the way they move. Their size and their weight has to be conveyed through the animation.” Director of Characters Bill Schwab said, “The director asked me to think about trying to infuse some of the troll DNA from the first film as well as keeping this scale, which resulted in these giant rock creatures.” Head of Animation Tony Smeed explained that showing them breathing was a challenge to animate. “Our Supervising Animator Wayne Unten, along with our Rigging Supervisor, Chris Pedersen, had to collaborate to find ways in the rigging to bend the arm. You don’t want to rock to bend – so instead they slid rocks around and went through great lengths to keep them from going through each other, they slide over or under each other.”
The Enchanted Forest
Director Chris Buck said this magical place isn’t like others. “It’s a forest ruled by the magical spirits of nature, namely of air, fire, water and earth. And just like in nature, sometimes these spirits can be enchanting and at other times they can be dangerous. So on that visit something went very wrong and enraged the spirits. King Agnarr [Anna and Elsa’s father] barely survived. He doesn’t know who saved him, only that a haunting voice cried out and a magical mist enveloped the forest shoving everyone out.” Lee added, “Their father does warn them, the forest may wake again and they must be prepared for whatever danger it may bring.”
Keene said the aesthetics were inspired by the works of Eyvind Earle. “He had a real eye for being able to take a group of trees, and turn them into a designed space.” It was in these referenced groupings where they were able to layer in further detail. “We really researched and referenced this when they had chosen the trees and the foliage that we had decided we were going to use. We have specific plants and trees that we’re going to be using.” They spoke with a Norwegian botanist to figure out what specific type of trees in the Northern part of Scandinavia would grow – even in a magical forest. Art director of environments David Womersley said, “We chose trees particularly for the contrast in shapes, that we could use different shapes to create these interesting looking collections of trees, if you could.”
Don’t look for fantastical flora in the Enchanted Forest
It won’t be there, says Keene. “We had to adhere to some of the language in FROZEN. So, we knew we couldn’t deviate too far away from that. There’s a certain amount of respect that we had to have for that film. There’s a lot of enchantment going on that you will experience, but if everything is in enchanted, and everything is speaking to you on that level, then you don’t get to appreciate the stuff you need to narratively. This world is a backdrop. It’s not necessarily the main story.”
Who does Sterling K. Brown play and what’s his deal?!
The THIS IS US actor voices Lieutenant Mattias. According to Lee, “He’s actually a character who’s been trapped in Enchanted Forest since a fierce battle broke out over thirty years ago, when Anna and Elsa’s grandfather was king.” If this is a rescue mission led by Anna and Elsa, that remains to be seen.
Arendelle will be featured more than in the original
Jenkins alluded, “There’s a song set in the village, which takes place across multiple areas. The points where you were in the village [the original film] were much more isolated – they were little areas that you were in. We’re going to be spending, and traveling through the village a whole lot more. We had to do a little bit of civic planning.” Womersley assured, “We made it more of a real place, pulled things together, made them all rational and kind of a lot more urban logic going on.”
There’s a nature spirit named “Gale”
Animating it was one of the biggest challenges for the environments team. Keene mentioned, “As you can imagine, you’ve got a character who is using nature’s elements to describe itself. How do you get that character to read over the environment that we are using as a construct to see it? How do you get Gale, who’s made up of something that is in that environment, to show off of the same environment? That that’s where we were splitting hairs often, hue wise, to get that character to perform so that we as an audience could see it.” Schwab said the first question he had to ask himself was how does wind represent itself. “We started to explore what might Gale move around: Leaves, sticks, debris and even thinking about Gale taking the form of an active character, using the environment to create that and also interaction with our character – even imitating our character. [Artist] Annette Marnat really explored this idea of lighting and how to make Gale more magical, beautiful. Griselda Sastrawinata explored this idea of patterning, color variation and again, different ways to bring Gale to life.” One of the characters Gale plays with is Olaf. Correy said, “One of the sketches Bill had done early on was Olaf getting rearranged and I love that idea so the first test we tried was with Gale and Olaf.” Smeed mentioned that Gale also interacts with Elsa in a fun way. “They had Gale as sort of this ethereal being. Jennifer Lee had written this little bit into a sequence where Gale interacts with Elsa and it’s this very small interaction between the two of them, very personal.”
The Dark Sea provides another environment that Elsa ventures into. And it’s there where she meets a mythical sea horse, named “the Nokk.” There’s a magical beauty to this shapeshifting spirit inspired by folklore and mythology from the Nordic region. “The mane and the tail felt natural places to really describe the water movement of this character,” said Schwab. Directors Buck and Lee wanted it to remain as realistic in design as possible so the animators travelled to the Equestrian Center in Burbank to study horses anatomy and movement. Animation Supervisor Svetla Radivoeva spoke with trainers as well. “The trainer told us that horses are very peaceful animals and in the Dark Sea, the Nokk is a warrior. It’s the protector of the Dark Sea and it will allow only someone that is worthy to pass by so we thought of the Nokk as a wild Stallion that that has not been tamed.”
There are personal moments built into FROZEN II
There’s a flashback with young Anna and Elsa where their mother Queen Iduna (voiced by Evan Rachel Wood) sings them a lullaby as they settle into sleep. The personal touch was added when the queen strokes Anna’s nose during the song. Head of animation Becky Bresee elucidated on this tender moment. “Chris Buck that brought that up. Chris used to do that with his kids.”
“Into The Unknown” might not be Elsa’s only power ballad
Disney Executive Music Producer Tom MacDougall said, “There’s seven songs total. Elsa has two that are her own.” And those who lobbied for Kristoff to get to sing an entire song will be pleased. Buck mentioned, “Kristoff does get a whole song this time.”
FROZEN II opens on November 22.