[Interview] How FROZEN 2’s power ballad “Into The Unknown” makes itself known

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

In the winter of 2013, you couldn’t go anywhere without “Let It Go” being played. The belt-riffic chart-topper from FROZEN sung by powerhouse Broadway superstar Idina Menzel was a phenomenon, inspiring memes, viral videos and more than a few parents to lose their sanity after their kids played it on repeat for weeks on end. 

So when it came to producing a new, equally character-driven poignancy through song for FROZEN 2, the creatives had to make sure the sequence would land in a similar fashion with audiences. Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck brought many of their team back on board for the highly anticipated sequel and the results are eye-popping and ear-pleasing.

“Into The Unknown,” written by Robert and Kristen Lopez, and sung once again by Menzel, has a driving force, both in sound and style. At the point in the film where the powerful song is performed, Elsa is struggling with inner conflict she’s unsure about. FROZEN 2’s head of story Normand Lemay explains,

Something is kind of gnawing at Elsa. This voice, this call that she hears – a bit eerie – no one else can hear and it’s kind of gnawing at her. She’s been hearing it a few times.

At this point in most animated musicals, there’s this moment where you finally get to hear from one of the main characters their song.  Their “I want” song.  Like, what do they want? What’s a bit different with Elsa in this, she’s sort of doing the opposite. She’s, she’s trying to not let it out. She’s shying away from what she truly feels – those deeper questions that she has.

Elsa is battling her feelings of denial throughout the song. Lemay wanted to speak to her self-reflection showing it through visuals.

This voice is trying to let her to get them out, so I used a lot of self-reflection visuals, like mirrors or water. We see an ever-present sort of invisible eye – the voice. It was a challenge to have this invisible character, or this invisible thing connecting with Elsa. We accomplished that through the idea of an invisible eye watching her in these shots. But ,  that pull is just too much. She needs to go!

The voice pulls her out onto the balcony where she belts out the song over the fjords. Elsa engages with the mysterious call to new adventure with some level of apprehension, but feels her powers speaking to her. He adds,

Her powers show an enchanted forest. We see all these animals, visions, memories that seems to strike some things that she’s heard of before, but feels brand new to her. The more [of her power] she gives out, the more she unleashes, the more the outside force and voice is showing her more things – things that are even outside of the human realm. Magical things. What’s also really interesting in this progression in this sequence is how we see her body language change, including her demeanor.

It was animator Dale Mayeda’s job to convey through character movement what the narrative and song lyrics were going to tell the audience.

At this moment, Elsa actually become surprised and intrigued when her magic is taken over by some other force. In order to help convey that story point, we started to change the direction of the snow magic, the movement, the speed and the color. It was really important to the directors that at this moment, you don’t think that Elsa is actually conjuring up any of these ice visions that she’s seeing.

Throughout this song, as some of these visions start to fade, every single time Elsa starts to inject more of her snow magic. We see the ice visions start to form this kind of mystical magical misty sort of moment, and Elsa decides to join in. It’s kind of like foreshadowing for some of the things that you’ll start to see throughout the movie as she ventures into the unknown.

As for creating the song itself, executive music producer Tom MacDougall said the challenge was in Elsa’s new situation.

We started to really circle this moment as a unique opportunity to musicalize. The process of how this works is the writer, filmmakers and the story team will come up with the literal pages that we’ll look at to see what the storytelling component of that moment is and then how to musicalize that. Then, we’ll send those pages to Robert and Kristen Lopez, our songwriters.

Since this is a force outside of Elsa, pulling her into the unknown much in the same way SLEEPING BEAUTY’s Princess Aurora was lured by a mysterious light sprite into her curse, it’s only natural to wonder if that classic animated feature was an influence. MacDougall answers,

Ironically, the voice you hear in this is Aurora [Aksnes], the singer from Norway, which will sound like I’m lying. But we didn’t specifically go back to any one movie and determine that there would be any sort of DNA or anything from that. But with, you know, with all artists, they’re inspired by different things.

In “Frozen 2,” Elsa is grateful her kingdom accepts her and she works hard to be a good queen. Deep down, she wonders why she was born with magical powers. The answers are calling her, but she’ll have to venture far from Arendelle to find them. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

It was important that aesthetically the way Elsa appears in FROZEN 2 remain consistent with the original feature, while still speaking to the changes that are on the horizon. FROZEN 2’s visual development artist Brittney Lee explains,

She’s very complex and constantly evolving, so we are really trying to help that journey along through what she is wearing, trying to infuse narrative in her costuming form the very beginning.

They outlined the basics first. Lee states,

We knew that “Into the Unknown” was going to be a sequence that takes place at night, right after the characters play charades. There’s gonna be a song. We knew that we had to design this as a nightgown. It’s a nightgown, but it’s an Elsa nightgown, so it can be pretty glamorous. We infused this costume with snowflakes because that is Elsa and we want you to know that she is her true self still. She’s still adorned with snowflakes and they’re important for her.

When we meet Elsa in “Into the Unknown,” she’s in darker colors not only to reflect the interior of the Arendelle palace, but her personality shift after what she’s already been through in the first feature. Lee elucidates,

We ultimately chose to go in this sort of magenta violet hue for her because of two reasons.  We wanted to in a little bit of a way reflect that there is some conflict in “Into the Unknown.” She is a little bit unsure about what’s going on.  She’s a little bit reserved, at least to begin with, and so a darker deeper hue hopefully helps to support that.

The fabric itself also reflects Elsa’s inner character.

Elsa is allowed to have more sheer fabrics that are more ethereal. The etherealness of the fabrics that she wears is to help support this idea that she this magical being. Where we are restricted with her is in color. She, after “Let it Go,” needs to sit on the cool side of the spectrum.

The same proved true when it came to her hairstyle. 

There was a lot of discussion about should we change up her hairstyle. Her braid is a very iconic hairstyle for Elsa and ultimately for this sequence and this scene, even though it was tempting, it wasn’t the right choice because again, we wanted you to feel familiar. This is the beginning of their journey and things may shift as you move along.

FROZEN 2 opens on November 22.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, 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.

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