From directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and with new songs from songwriting duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, Frozen II, the highly anticipated sequel to the highest-grossing animated film of all time in worldwide box office, sees Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff), Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad) and Sven setting out on a dangerous journey to discover the answers to why Elsa was born with magical powers. On their journey to learn whether those powers are enough to ensure their survival, they will have to look into the unknown and face truths about the past, as they’re tested in ways they never could have imagined.
During a conference at the film’s press day, co-stars Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, and Jonathan Groff, along with Jennifer Lee and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez, talked about the journey to getting this sequel made, returning to these characters, what it was like the first time that Bell and Menzel sang together, the evolution of Olaf, Kristoff’s ‘80s power ballad, the new song “Into The Unknown,” why it was okay to go darker with the story, Anna’s fate, and what they hope audiences will take from watching the film.
Question: What’s one word that you feel describes Frozen II?
JENNIFER LEE: Change.
KRISTEN BELL: Adventure.
IDINA MENZEL: Soulful.
JOSH GAD: Residuals. Also, I guess growth.
JONATHAN GROFF: Epic.
KRISTEN ANDERSON-LOPEZ: Resilience.
BOBBY LOPEZ: Music.
What was the journey towards making Frozen II like, with your trips abroad for inspiration and the conversations about the direction that you wanted to take this in, in order to get to this final place?
LEE: Wow. I think it really started about a year after the first film came out. We did a small short, and when we saw the characters animated again, we got emotional because we missed them. And then, Peter had been traveling and meeting with artists, around the world, and this one question kept coming up, which was, why does Elsa have powers? And then, there were more questions about what the girls were meant to do with their lives? They’re on the precipice. They finally got together. What happened? Where were their parents really going? It just kept rolling, and we realized that we had those questions, so we naively said, “We have more story to tell, and we’re not ready to leave this world. We love this world.” There’s never been a musical sequel to a feature film, so we were going into the unknown, completely. We just knew that we loved the characters and we wanted to be with them again, and we couldn’t wait to find out what was gonna happen to them.
Kristen and Idina, what it was like to return to these characters, who have not only inspired an entire generation, but touched so many people?
MENZEL: Well, there’s the macro and the micro. There’s returning to this family and this beautiful film and this project that’s gifted us with so much joy in our lives, where I get to connect with another human being like Kristen, who’s this sister, and make beautiful art, which is something that we’re proud of. And then, there’s taking that out into the world. It never really ended, from Frozen 1 to 2, because I’m singing the music from it, all the time, all over the world, and looking out to an audience and seeing people, of all ages, really singing this music and reminding me how they’ve been touched by it, and how they’ve learned to celebrate that thing inside of them, that makes them feel extraordinary in the world.
BELL: It definitely never really ended. I’m very similar to Anna. I try to infuse a ton of me into this character, maybe more so than I’ve ever done. Even though we’re roughly the same age, since my early 20s, I have been living for Idina. She was on Broadway very young and just blew up, and I remember when I was studying in New York and watching her on stage. She’s my idol. It was very cool and terrifying to be told by Disney, “Maybe go to Idina’s house, before this table read, and prepare a song, just so we can hear what you guys sound like together.” And I was like, “Okay.” So, I drove to her house, stood by a piano, and was terrified. My palms were sweating. But it was almost immediate, this genuine sisterly bond. I remember she just put her hands on my shoulders and was like, “You sound so beautiful. This is gonna be great.” And I just melted.
What song did you prepare?
MENZEL: A duet of “Wind beneath My Wings,” because the music wasn’t written yet.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: They sang it in harmony, at the first read-through.
LEE: I was there, but I wasn’t on the film yet. There was a script, but it was a loose script. The whole thing moved up a year, based on the two of them singing together.
BELL: We were in a tight little board room, sitting at a desk, just looking at each other, going, “This is the weirdest thing that we’ve ever done.”
MENZEL: As a testament to Bobby and Kristen, Elsa was written more as your quintessential Disney nemesis, and they wrote this complicated, beautiful, passionate song, called “Let It Go” that informed that there was a complicated young woman here, and we didn’t have to stereotype her and paint her into a corner.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: The irony is that the film was greenlit based on these two women singing together, and they only actually sing together in the films for about two minutes, when they’re yelling at each other in the Ice Palace. There would be no complicated character like Elsa, had we not had Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck in the story room, inspiring us. We were talking so deeply, in a way that I never really talked about songs and characters before. It was the story of the emotion between these two sisters, and Jennifer has specifically been talking about her own sisters. Everyone was talking about their own sisters and that’s what really made us think, Elsa is not a villain and we needed to go deeper than that. So, “Let It Go” wasn’t just in a vacuum. It was really all about story and character, inspired by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and the story team, making us think about a more complicated, more layered sisterhood story.
Josh, what was it like for you, once you got involved?
GAD: I remember seeing Idina in Rent when I was in high school, and I fell madly in love. I was just like, “Who is this? She’s incredible.” And then, in college, I saw her in Wicked and was like, “This girl is one of the most talented human beings alive. I’m just obsessed with her. I’m either going to marry her, or do an animated franchise with her. The coolest part about watching Frozen and now Frozen 2 with my daughters is that they have these guys as their role models. That is just the most incredible part of this journey. I get to share this with two girls who get to look up to two fiercely independent Disney princesses who are changing the way we view what a princess is, and I love that. To me, the greatest part of this journey is that it has a personal touch to it.
How do you feel about Olaf’s evolution?
GAD: He got a license. He took out an insurance policy. He’s done a lot of growth. Right around the time that we were going into production, I told them a story about when my oldest child was about five years old, and she was sitting at the table and laughing and, all of a sudden, tears started streaming down her face. She looked at me and my wife and went, “What if I don’t wanna grow up?” She was crying, and it was so unbelievable. We all have had that experience, as kids, but it’s so traumatic that you just forget about it.
That’s the way I feel about Olaf. In the first movie, he was this innocent ball of naiveté, who was willing to go out into the summer sun because he didn’t know any better. And in this movie, he’s almost gone from toddler to fully grown child, where now he’s starting to ask those questions that don’t always have easy answers. From a comedic perspective, that gave me so much to play with. But more importantly, from an emotional arc, it was just such a beautiful journey of that moment in life, when you start to realize that maybe the world isn’t just raindrops and lollipops and roses. That is such a beautiful thing to play.
Kristen, your minor criticism of the first film was that Jonathan Groff didn’t get to sing.
BELL: That was baloney, and I’m glad you’re bringing that up. They knew he was talented. That was my one criticism of the first one. I was like, “Look, it’s an excellent film, but Jonathan Groff doesn’t sing, so that’s how it fails.” But this time, everybody knew what to do, and Jonathan has dare I say, one of the top three moments of the film.
GAD: I have to say, I think it’s the funniest song in Disney animation history, period.
LOPEZ: But, we were trying to go for tragic.
GROFF: We were completely genuine when we were making that song. There was nothing funny about it, at all. And then, the animators did some crazy take.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: I remember that we had candles in the studio. We were like, “Jonathan, just find it. Breathe in, breathe out. Think back to all of the heartbreak you’ve been through.”
GROFF: I was wearing a long wig and there was that wind machine. It was really powerful. It was such an amazing experience. Bobby and Kristen, as well as Jen and Chris, had said to me, “We want Kristoff to have a song.” And I thought that was so sweet of them to say, but how does a mountain man break into song? I would so much rather hear Idina sing an eighth ballad.
BELL: We talk about female empowerment, and how the film is led by two women, but I personally think that the representation that Jonathan gives for the guys is out of this world. It’s so subliminal, I don’t even know if people will pick up on it. There’s one moment where Anna is in distress, and he swoops in and picks her up, in the midst of battle. He doesn’t say, “I’ve got you,” and start taking over. He swoops her up and very quickly looks at her and he says, “I’m here. What do you need?” It’s mind-blowing. And then, when Anna apologizes to him for something, she says, “I’m sorry.” And he says, “My love is not fragile.” That example of ego-less love is just really profound. I think people are gonna be excited as to how the men are represented.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: When magical fantasy Sven says, “You feel what you feel, and your feelings are real,” if that one message comes across to boys, and boys get to feel empowered to feel their feelings, big or small, but hopefully in a big ‘80s power ballad kind of way, then we’ve done a little bit in the war against toxic masculinity.
How did Kristoff’s ‘80s power ballad come about? Did it start out that way, or did it evolve into that from something else?
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: It’s funny, because we work so closely with Jen and Chris and Peter, I couldn’t even pinpoint whose idea it was. I definitely remember breaking up with my eighth-grade boyfriend and just listening to Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” over and over again. You want to wallow and feel it. Sergio is gay and lives in Amsterdam now. I’m sure he’s seen Idina perform.
LOPEZ: The competing idea lost by a landslide. I just remember that we had it down to two ideas, but the other one was a Snow White “I’m Wishing” song.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: The truth is that Bobby and I adore ‘80s music. The melodies and the courtships are really complex. And most importantly, it’s very hard to have a man sit down and sing, “Here is who I am, here is what I want.” We deal with that, all of the time.
LOPEZ: It ties in with why kids get bullied. It’s very sad.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: It is very sad. So, in order to thread the needle of allowing us to do that, it needed to be a fun moment. We’ve been in the woods. We’ve learned some really heavy things. We’ve just seen terribly scary earth giants go by. We needed to have a moment of fun. But we also didn’t want to lose the tether to real emotion and real problems of transformation that are happening in the woods. So, what is the best way to have some fun, in the same way that when we sing any song, when we’re doing karaoke, we’re having fun. You have to really feel those feelings.
LEE: I think what’s amazing is that we will forever ask ourselves why people embrace the film, and we’ll always be trying to figure it out. The fact that people wanted to go on another journey with these sisters and with this family, means everything to us. We are so excited about where we’re taking them. I don’t think we knew where they were going, and they showed us that they had far more in them than we knew.
The new song, “Into The Unknown,” is cathartic, emotional, empowering, and made for giant stadiums. Idina, what was it like to know that would be your follow-up to “Let It Go”?
MENZEL: I never feel that way. I don’t know. I’m so trusting of the situation and this creative process. Whatever we’re doing, whether it’s singing or doing dialogue, they so have our backs. They’ve gotten to know us, as people and as singers, and that makes our lives easier. Kristen and Bobby can write such memorable, impactful melodies, but also tell a story and involve your character, through all of that, which is quite a gift. I can just go in there and have fun. The only thing that I do is that I warm up a lot because I know that they’re going to push me to hit the tops of my range. And on a good day, I do. I’m like, “Let’s go for some of these high notes.” And then, when I’m out in the middle of Amsterdam on a tour and I have a cold, I just wanna go home. I have to take it down a key because they’re really challenging songs.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: With Idina, if you’re given a Stratovarius, you write to a Stratovarius. I danced around to Rent in my apartment, and even auditioned for Maureen, a couple of times, when I was a mediocre actress. So, I knew Idina’s voice. When you hear it, it feels like a warm hug. She has this warmth and this vulnerability, down low. And then, as you bring her higher and higher, she gets stronger and stronger, and more powerful. She just reaches into your soul, when she’s singing these big, giant songs. I really truly think that we are the lucky ones to get to write for her. I don’t know that “Let It Go” or “Into The Unknown” would be a hit without Idina, honestly. She’s our muse. She’s the one that inspires us to write these songs for that instrument.
LOPEZ: We never think about hits, or anything like that. The reason for that is because Jen and Chris and Peter, when they first began this project, didn’t think about trying to top the first one. They just thought about the characters and the story. They pitched just this bit of an idea that they had, and it gave us chills. We all fell in love with this continuation of the story and the characters that we all loved. Every day, we would talk to them on the phone and these moments came up for songs, but we were thinking about story, the whole time. That’s what was so great about this.
ANDERSON-LOPEZ: There’s never a song without beautiful pages and a fascinating story that makes us go, “Oh, my gosh, can we hang up the phone right now and please go write it, and we’ll get it back to you in a day or two?” That’s the best feeling. You’re thinking about pressure or following up, when you’re so excited because their story has inspired you to go rush to the piano and figure out how to nail that story point.
What made you decide to go a bit darker with this story?
LEE: Sometimes we forget, but if you go back to old traditional fairy tales, they always have a moment that gets a little scary. That’s part of what fairy tales are for. They’re so that you, as a child and as a person in your life, can experience things, safely in the seat. And then, it helps you cope with life. I think that’s really important. We didn’t go into the characters being full of fear and violence, in that way. We went to those things and knew that they were evocative. They’re mythic, and they are fairy tales. Like Pinocchio, Bambi, and Dumbo, this is part of fairy tale land. But we’ve had incredible response from kids going through those moments and just coming out the other side with the triumph. For us, we grew up in those fairy tales, and we didn’t want to be afraid of it.
BELL: I have two little girls, and I know exactly the feeling that you’re talking about. The more that I’ve thought about it, and then having shown it to them, my conclusion is that we don’t give kids enough credit. They’re projections of us and we want them to be happy because we want ourselves to be happy all the time. We don’t give them enough credit for their ability to digest complex situations and trauma and struggle, and I think that’s why the first one hit. This character identified in kids, what do you do when you feel like two different things? When you feel shy and vulnerable and incredibly powerful? And in this second one, that’s the power of story. You don’t have to tell them that the world is a scary place, even though it really is, but you can let them see a story that has a resolution. When toddlers have tantrums, they’re trying on all of these emotions that don’t yet fit because they’re practicing. It’s the same reason puppies play fight. They want to feel adrenaline and cortisol, so they know how to handle it when they’re older. I actually think that it’s great for kids to be a little bit on the edge of their seats because it’s a safe environment to try on those emotions.
Kristen, the ending of this movie is very pivotal for Anna. What was your initial reaction, when you first heard about the fate of Anna?
BELL: It was very pivotal. I remember the moment that I found out that scene was written. I couldn’t believe it, and yet it felt exactly right, and the way that it felt right was so perfect. If we had written it where she had wanted that, it would not have worked. That’s not Anna. Because Anna, the whole movie, is working on her co-dependency. She doesn’t know what to do when she’s alone, and I know that feeling, very well. It’s real easy to live for other people. And then, when you’re alone in a house, you’re like, what do I do? I literally go, what do I do? But the fact that they wrote it as Elsa’s idea was this beautiful gift that just matched Ana’s belief and drive.
LEE: There’s a moment for a big sister and little sister, where your big sister sees the whole person with potential that the little sister has risen up to and says, “I see your power.” Anna is a leader, and she’s the best kind of leader because of how nurturing and giving she is. She’s the one who lifts people up. Kristen brought that to Anna, from the very beginning. She just didn’t know it. She was growing and learning.
Why do you think this generation is so obsessed with origin stories and finding the background behind characters that we already love?
BELL: One of the things that I love about this film so much is that it puts this very complex idea in front of kids, in a totally simple way, which is “Hey, have you ever thought about the fact that maybe past generations didn’t behave that great? That they could have done it better? That’s called learning from the past. That’s called evolving.” It’s that idea. And this generation, because of our social connectivity and this online community that is the internet, is able to talk about things, feel our feelings, and collectively decide that evolving is a pretty cool thing. In order to evolve, you have to learn from history, and in order to learn from history, you have to know it. So, that subliminal current of wanting to know origin stories comes from wanting a betterment for humanity, by learning from the past.
How do you want audiences to feel when they leave Frozen II?
BELL: There are a few times in life where you get this paradox of feelings. One of them, which is my very favorite, is the moment when you wake up from a nap, and you know you don’t have to get up and you’re still in dreamland, and you can just stay there for a while, but you’re awake. The other one is when you have the feeling that you are ultimately fulfilled because all of these different types of love that we’ve explored – self-love, familial love, romantic love – are all full, and you feel like you’re capable of going out in the world and accomplishing things. It’s that feeling between purpose and fulfillment and drive. So, I hope that when people leave, they feel fulfilled, but they also feel like stepping into their unknown might be exciting.
Why do you think it’s important for younger audiences to see that overcoming their fear with love is really important?
GROFF: Oftentimes, it’s girls that are singing about pining after a man and the frustration of not being able to express it, or the man has left and now they’re alone and singing about it. Both the first Frozen and this Frozen inverts that. And so, here is a man pining after a woman, trying to come to terms with his emotions and sing about it. And making the true love in the first film be about familial love, and making the center of the story these two sisters, is part of what Frozen does. It just continues to challenge your expectations of what stories are. And for Kristoff, you feel what you feel, and your feelings are real, so go for it. Let down your hair and express yourself. I dressed up as Mary Poppins. My mom allowed me, when I was three, to go in full drag. I had great parents, in that way. So, I hope that kids come and see this movie and have the opportunity to really feel like they can express themselves.
Frozen II opens in theaters on November 22nd.