'Frozen 2' Filmmakers Reveal New Details About The Sequel [Set Visit]

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Walt Disney Animation in Burbank to take an early look at some footage from Frozen II, the highly-anticipated sequel to the 2013 mega-hit. Returning directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck and their team spent the last four years making this film, which is only the fourth sequel in Disney Animation history (not counting direct-to-video movies). Read on to discover what we learned about the film's story, its new characters, the changes to Arendelle since the original movie, and much, much more.

As producer Peter Del Vecho was traveling the world, he kept hearing the same question over and over: Where did Elsa get her icy powers? In an early morning presentation, Buck told us that he and the other filmmakers realized there were many other questions left unanswered by the first film: How have Elsa's powers grown? Why was Anna born the way she was? Where were their parents going when their ship went down? Is there really such a thing as happily ever after?

On the first Frozen, Lee, Buck, and Del Vecho were so busy breaking the story that they didn't have time to go on the artist research trip to Norway. But for this film, they (and several artists) visited Norway, Finland, and Iceland and were inspired by the natural beauty of those places. Not only did the trip result in more distinct details being worked into the locations in this movie, but it inspired a key story element as well: providing a stark difference between Anna and Elsa. "Anna felt at home in Norway with its fairy tale settings, but Elsa felt strangely at home in the stark, mythic Iceland," Buck explained.

Lee elaborated:

"I think that concept for us, of the fairy tale and the myth, became very strong. Anna is the perfect fairy tale character: she is non-magical, human in a non-magical world. She's very optimistic and courageous. Whereas Elsa is the perfect mythic character. Mythic characters are often magical in a world they are different from, and they take on the weight of the world on their own shoulders and they do what others can't. But in fact, mythic characters' fates are often tragic...But there's something for Anna that she will always fear and always want to do, to protect her sister from that mythic side of herself."

The filmmakers again collaborated with Oscar-winning songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who crafted seven new songs for this movie, and while the core voice cast from the first film is also back, they brought in some new talent as well. Evan Rachel Wood plays Queen Iduna, the girls' parents, taking over the role from Jennifer Lee herself, who performed that character's single line in the first movie. ("She's ice cold.") And Sterling K. Brown is also on board as Lt. Mattias, "a soldier who's been trapped in an enchanted forest since a fierce battle broke out over thirty years ago when Anna and Elsa's grandfather was actually king."

The Story

The footage presentation began with the opening scene of the movie, in which Young Anna and Elsa are being told a true tale by their father, King Agnarr. He tells them about a real enchanted forest that he got to visit once as a boy, a forest ruled by the magical spirits of nature: air, fire, water, and earth. On that visit, something went very wrong and enraged the spirits, and Agnarr barely survived. He's not sure who saved his life, but a haunting voice called out and a magical mist enveloped the forest, blocking everyone out. So he warns the girls that the forest may one day wake again, and they must be prepared for whatever danger it may bring. In lieu of answering the daughters' myriad questions, their mother sings them a lullaby about a place that has all of the answers.

Then the film jumps ahead to present day in Arendelle. About three years have elapsed since the ending of the first movie, the gates of the kingdom are open wide, the whole gang is together, and Anna has never been happier. Thanks to Elsa, Olaf now has a permafrost, which lets him enjoy the summer that he loves so much without melting. He also has a new passion in this movie: reading. Kristoff is deeply in love with Anna, and early in the movie, after he's alone with Anna following a (very funny) game of charades with the whole group, he tries to propose – but she doesn't notice, because she's distracted by Elsa's behavior.

"As you got a hint of with Kristoff, it may not be so easy to get the relationship to the next step," Lee told us. "I can't say more [about that character's arc] without giving more away, but it may end up involving a really fantastic song by Jonathan Groff finally getting to sing."  And for fans who were hoping to see Elsa in a gay relationship in this sequel, Lee has some disappointing news. "In terms of Elsa, she's not going to have a romantic relationship in this like she didn't in the first one. This is a woman carrying the weight of the kingdom on her shoulders. The heart of it is about her family, her sister, and her having to wrestle with her power as it grows."

So what exactly distracted Anna from Kristoff's proposal? Well, she's noticed that something's up with her sister. Elsa has started to hear that same haunted voice her father heard long ago, leading into the song "Into the Unknown" (which appears to be this movie's version of a belting, "Let It Go"-style song for her). But Elsa's burst of ice powers at the end of the song unwittingly awakens the spirits, and the four elements are unleashed upon the kingdom, causing residents to flee their homes. Elsa knows that to save the kingdom, she must go to the enchanted forest and find the voice calling out to her. The trolls tell her that she'll be challenged every step of the way, but Anna is determined not to let anything happen to her sister – not now, not after all they've been through. So they all set out on a journey across Arendelle, far past any place they've ever been.

They finally arrive at the edge of a forest, where a wall of mist parts and they find themselves sucked inside. Olaf is separated from the group and encounters mysterious forces in the forest, where he sings a funny song about how all of the dangerous and scary things he's witnessing will probably make sense one day (he still has the comprehension of a child, but he's familiar with the phrase "everything will make sense when you're older"). Elsa realizes that she has to traverse the most dangerous part of this journey alone, so she leaves Anna behind and visits the Dark Sea, where she meets a water spirit called the Nokk, which practically kicks her ass in an intense underwater sequence.

New Characters

During small group presentations with some of the film's animation supervisors, they revealed several new characters who will be added into this sequel. The one most people are going to be super excited about is Bruni, a salamander who was specifically made to be "as adorable as possible." If you've seen Tangled (and you should, because it's very good) and remember her chameleon pal Pascal, Bruni has a similar kind of vibe – although he seems to be way speedier. The filmmakers were all very tight-lipped about the role Bruni plays in the movie, but you can see him briefly in the latest trailer.

Then there are the Earth Giants, a massive race made of rock who live in the enchanted forest. They're huge creatures who kind of look like a cross between the trolls from the first movie and the massive Rockbiter from The NeverEnding Story, and the animators showed us how the rocks that make up the characters' bodies slide on top of one another to simulate breathing. You can see a good example of them in action at the 1:29 mark of the trailer.

There's also Gale, an invisible wind spirit who provided quite the challenge for the animators. After all, how do you draw something that isn't actually there? The solution was to use debris and the surrounding environment to indicate how Gale was moving, and by controlling the speed and direction of her movements, they could imbue her with a sense of personality. (At one point in the movie, this invisible wind spirit gives Elsa a hug.) The animation team had to collaborate with colleagues across multiple departments – effects, tech animation, lighting, etc. – many of which normally pick up the baton much later in the process, to ensure that there were enough leaves and pieces of environment for Gale to traverse, making it clear where she was at all times. Gale's ultimate role in the story wasn't shared with us, so it's unclear if Gale might actually be a spirit of one of Elsa's loved ones or a wholly separate character.

Frozen II Nokk and Elsa

We also heard a bit about the Nokk. In Nordic mythology and folklore, the Nokk is a shapeshifter, but in this movie, the directors decided to keep it in the shape of a horse made of water who inhabits the Dark Sea, where Elsa jumps into the waves in that first teaser trailer. "Our horse, our Nokk, is actually a warrior and protector of the Dark Sea," said animation supervisor Svetla Radivoeva. "We thought of it as a wild stallion that just hasn't been yet tamed." As you might expect, the team had to figure out how much definition needed to be visible for audiences to be able to track a character who is completely made of water, so noticeable parts like the tail and mane became especially important in drawing the eye and crafting the design. Plus, they had to make sure that its emotions could translate properly, so they keyed in on its ear movements to hint at the creature's mood.

Effects Supervisor Erin Ramos also explained the big differences between how the water worked in Disney Animation's Moana versus how it's being used here:

"We had to make these huge, breaking waves that are fully simulated. So, it was definitely a step above where we were with Moana. I think Moana, the challenge was just getting the water to feel very gentle. It's actually pretty hard to tame simulations. But then for [Frozen II], just getting the right size of these waves, getting the scale actually, nailing that was the big challenge here. And also, honestly, the interaction with [the] animation [department], just the back and forth that we had to do that was the biggest challenge for this movie...like, when a boat's cutting through the water, it's one thing. But when [Elsa's] feet have to register on the surface of the water, on a surface that's simulated...you don't know what you're gonna get. You run a simulation, and it comes out like, 'All right, that looks cool.' And you run it again, you might get something completely different. Her footstep could've worked with one time, and then the next time it didn't work."

So as you can see, we learned about the spirits of Earth (the giants), air (Gale), and water (the Nokk), but the filmmakers were quiet about whether or not there is a spirit of fire that we might see in the movie, which seems like a distinct possibility.

New Locations (And Some Touch-Ups to Familiar Ones)

This movie's color palette is completely different from the cool, icy blues of the original movie. This film takes place during the fall, a season that represents change and is a reflection of the maturation of the film's protagonists. That idea extended to the village in Arendelle, where the designers actually repainted all of its buildings to match the new autumnal color scheme. As head of environments Sean Jenkins explained:

"Early on, we knew that we were going to have a song in the village. And we knew that the song was going to be the characters traveling through the village. So where a lot of the original movie took place in isolation. This was a point where we were really going to have to fill in all of the rest of Arendelle. And make sense of some of the icons that we had seen before, say like the clock tower and the port but really give it an overall consistency, a sense of history, a sense of place."

They showed us how they used the bird's eye view of a virtual drone flying over the village to get an idea of how it should be properly laid out as a functioning village, connecting all of the disparate pieces into one fluid location. They used the VR version of Arendelle not only to scout potential camera angles, but also to get a better sense themselves of just how towering the fjords are that surround the castle, which gave them a better perspective on the kingdom overall. (I asked if there were any plans to release the VR version of Arendelle for consumers to be able to explore on their own, and while the production designers seemed in favor of it, there aren't any official plans along those lines yet.)

As the characters move away from the castle and out into the forests, the designers were inspired by the work of Eyvind Earle, best known for the distinctive aesthetic of Sleeping Beauty. Forests can be difficult to create in a film like this because of their size and density, and the filmmakers wanted to make sure that the audience didn't get lost in an overwhelming, unfamiliar environment. So the designers built between a dozen and twenty unique mini-islands, grouping combinations of trees, bushes, boulders, and hills together to form a small piece that could be slotted into a larger landscape. Accuracy was important, too – the plants and trees and moss you see all actually grow in those parts of the world. They brought in a botanist from Norway, and added tens of thousands of hand-placed trees into the world of the film, using mist to form a sort of back wall in several of the shots so the image doesn't seem to continue on forever. The result is a stylized naturalism that makes the forest feel like a real place while simultaneously giving it a touch of Frozen-esque otherworldliness.

As someone who was so put off by the trailers for the first movie that I almost skipped the movie entirely, I'm very impressed with what Frozen II seems to be offering. It looks incredible from a technical perspective, and the story seems like an organic continuation of the first movie instead of a forced return to these characters. Now we just have to wait until the movie actually arrives to see if the rest of the film lives up to the potential of what we saw in this early look.

Frozen II hits theaters on November 22, 2019. Keep an eye out later next month for our entire exclusive interview with director Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, and Peter Del Vecho.