Lee concedes they did not know “what the journey would be, a journey Disney animation doesn’t usually do. There’s never been a second musical [sequel] to a feature film. So we were going into the unknown completely. We just knew that we loved them and we wanted to be with them again.”
The scary part is yes, change comes for you at any point. What matters is how you cope with that change.
The trailer for the sequel also promises something unusual in a Disney film: a story with higher stakes and a darker tone. In it, Pabbie (Ciaran Hinds) warns: “We have always feared Elsa’s powers were too much for this world, now we must hope they are enough.”
“Sometimes we forget, we go back to old traditional fairy tales, they always have a moment that gets a little scary,” Lee says. “That’s part of what fairy tales are for. They’re so that you as a child can experience things and go, oh, and you’re safely in the seat. And then it helps you cope with life. I think those [moment] are really important.
“We went to those things and knew that they were evocative, they’re mythic, and they are fairy tales,” Lee adds. “We’ve had incredible response of kids going through those moments and just coming out the other side with the triumph. We grew up in those fairy tales and we didn’t want to be afraid of it. We do often underestimate how [kids] reach up and want to be inspired instead of mirrored.”
Frozen II is set three years after the first film and opens as Elsa begins to hear a haunting song coming from the north of Arendelle, sending Elsa (Idina Menzel), Anna (Kristen Bell), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Olaf (Josh Gad) on an adventure in which they discover the Northuldra people and their leader Yelana (Martha Plimpton), as well as the final fate of their parents, King Agnarr (Alfred Molina) and Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood).
Transformation sits at the heart of many Disney stories, but perhaps never more centrally than it does in Frozen. In meeting the Northuldra people, and unravelling the secrets of the history between Northuldra and Arendelle, each of the film’s characters will finish the film profoundly changed.
“We’ve done a lot of films, people transform, and there’s happily ever after,” Lee says. “We all know that’s not life. The scary part is yes, change comes for you at any point. What matters is how you cope with that change. But also, transformation happens constantly in your life and you grow and you mature.”
There is a moment in the film, Lee says, in which Elsa nearly reconnects to the first Frozen film’s musical masterpiece Let It Go “and you can feel already how far she’s come from that moment. You are ever evolving. Dare to step into the unknown. Persevere on the moments you feel hopeless. Life hopefully is long and big and can be scary, but go act, participate, stick with it. It’s a different kind of transformation. It’s one that sort of demands you participate.”
In many ways the narrative of Frozen is a young girl’s journey, told through the siblings Elsa and Anna. But around that is woven a boy’s narrative – Kristoff’s – which pays off in Frozen II with a musical solo of a very specific and thrilling kind. What makes Kristoff unique is that his journey does not detract from that of Elsa and Anna, and the language around his relationship with Anna is carefully chosen: when she goes to apologise for leaving him behind, for example, he reminds her that his love is not fragile.
“I think Kristoff’s pretty heroic through this, but his heroism is different,” Lee says. “We know the heroism of, I’ve got this, and the guy’s take. Kristoff has faith and trust in the woman he loves and he is above anything petty, his love isn’t fragile. He will do anything for her. He will put aside even the moment he was left behind. As the trolls say in the first movie, he’s the honest goods.
“I love to see as a woman, and for my daughter or anyone looking into relationships, that he’s the kind of guy who helps,” Lee adds. “He’s strong and you are stronger with him. That is very positive. So for me, there’s that that I love, and yet I find him quite heroic throughout. He’s a noble character and that means a lot to me.”
The centrepiece of the film remains its score. Let It Go has been let go, but in its place are the equally anthemic Into The Unknown, the thrilling Show Yourself and the haunting lullaby that Iduna sings to her children, All is Found.
The soundtrack to the first Frozen was inelegantly described in various ways as a kind of “cinematic crack for kids”. Its power is self-evident to anyone who watched a small child mesmerised in front of it. And yet there is no acoustic algorithm to unlock here, Lee says. No one seems able to find the words to explain why the songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are so hypnotic.
“What Bob and Kristen do really well – Let It Go and Into the Unknown and Show Yourself, The Next Right Thing – all of them are very specific to the story and the character, but they also are evocative to moments in our lives,” Lee says. “It’s like stepping into the unknown. Being able to relate that personally to yourself connects you to the character but also inspires you to do it for yourself.”
Frozen II is now screening.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.