Let It Go: How Frozen II Moved Beyond Disney’s Biggest Hit

Frozen II

by Ben Travis |
Updated on

How do you solve a problem like ‘Let It Go’? When Disney broke tradition and announced a theatrical sequel to its 52nd Animated Classic, the billion-dollar box office behemoth Frozen, returning directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck didn’t just have to move beyond the first film’s Happily Ever After – they had to reckon with that global generation-defining hit, a literal power-ballad of epic proportions that came from seemingly nowhere and became nigh-on inescapable for years.

In Frozen II, which in turn became its own billion-dollar box office behemoth, the solution came in not one but two new ElsaBangers™ – a pair of distinct anthems about self-discovery and self-actualisation for snow queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) to belt at the top of her lungs. The first, ‘Into The Unknown’, arrives early on in the film, kicking the plot into gear and shaking up the equilibrium re-established at the end of Frozen. Now settled in Arendelle and living alongside her sister Queen Anna (Kristen Bell), sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), and Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling her from afar – one she can’t help but be drawn to.

If facing up to ‘Let It Go’ was in many ways daunting (“We tried to keep that pressure out of the room,” says producer Peter Del Vecho, “because if you really think about it you start to make decisions for the wrong reasons”), from a storytelling and characterisation perspective there was plenty of room for Elsa to grow. “What I love about ‘Let It Go’ is that it’s a rebellion song,” explains Lee. “It's a moment of ‘Here I am! Of course, I'm alone and isolated in a castle, but we won't talk about that...’ In the story it's a flawed moment, a very immature moment, but in the release you're so happy for her. It's a first step.”

"It's not about being accepted. It's about, will you participate in life to the fullest that you can?"

The second step, then, was to once again challenge Elsa, who has since allowed her magic to flourish and gained some control over them. “Now you’re accepted for your powers, what are you going to do with them?” Lee queries. “Are you going to listen to this call? Are you going to serve the world with them? Are you going to serve yourself? You've got to take action and go into this unknown – do you dare?” In posing a whole new set of questions, the emotion behind ‘Into The Unknown’ proved to be quite different to ‘Let It Go’. “It's not about being accepted,” states Lee. “It's about, will you participate in life to the fullest that you can, even though you're afraid of what the consequences could be? That's what I love about it.”

If there had to be something calling out to Elsa, it took a while for the team to establish what exactly that was. “We talked about anthropomorphising the voice,” Lee recalls. “We talked at length about it being the memory of her mother – there was something about the idea that emotionally your mom gives you these tools and supports you even when you don't know it. The past is calling her, justice is calling her, everything that her powers could be is calling her.” In the end, it was musical theatre logic that prevailed. “[Songwriters] Bobby and Kristen [Anderson-Lopez] just said, 'It's a voice – this is a musical, the best way to symbolically handle a calling is to literally hear a calling.' It was perfect.”

Frozen II

The voice not only held multiple thematic meanings for Frozen II’s tale of historic colonialist crimes and the secrets of Anna and Elsa’s family – in that moment of the story, it presents myriad possibilities for Elsa herself. “She’s thinking, is the voice somebody like me? Is there somebody out there that says it's OK to be who I am, or can give me guidance as to what to do with these powers?” explains Buck. It’s a tantalising notion, one that grows stronger over the course of the song. “She resists it at first. ‘No no no, I just want status quo’. But then it becomes, ‘Wait, I cannot resist. I have to go, I have to follow this voice that's calling.’” While the song begins with Elsa indoors, its arc means that mere minutes later our hero is physically grasping for the possibilities that lie ahead. “She is feeling really connected. By the end she's reaching off the edge of that cliff like, ‘I need to go with you’,” says Lee.

And the transformation isn’t just emotional – the sequence sees Elsa’s ice abilities begin to spark in all-new ways too, conjuring images of the past and hints of things to come in the form of dazzling light displays, climaxing in an explosion of crystals across Arendelle. “Her powers are growing during the song,” explains Buck. “They start morphing, showing her images of what she is about to encounter – the spirits of nature – and what she's connecting with, who she is.”

Frozen II

If the real joy of ‘Let It Go’ was the sheer outpouring of Elsa’s pent-up emotion, ‘Into The Unknown’ found a different way to scratch a similarly relatable itch. “That calling seems so universal to everyone,” Buck says. “No matter what age you are, there's always something that's calling you, and it's scary to take that step. That propelled us forward.” And it propels the movie too, sparking Elsa and Anna’s forthcoming journey to the Enchanted Forest and beyond. “It gives Elsa the confidence in the next scene to say to Anna, ‘I know whoever's calling me is good, because my magic tells me’,” says Lee. “It's the confession of, ‘I don't know what this is, but it speaks to my identity. I don't know why, but I have this passion’. It could seem absurd to others, but it's about listening to that.”


Where ‘Let It Go’ set Elsa free and ‘Into The Unknown’ pushed her to seek the truth, the final instalment of Elsa’s song trilogy had to bring answers: Who is she, really? Is she alone? What do her powers mean? And who is the voice? Those answers finally come in Frozen II’s penultimate number, ‘Show Yourself’ – but it took time to find them. “‘Show Yourself’ was probably the most difficult song to land,” admits Del Vecho. “It comes at the end of act two, so it's carrying all the weight of not only the first two acts, but also the first movie. It has to be a culmination of the 'why' for all of Elsa’s stories.”

At the conclusion of Elsa’s journey (literally and metaphorically), she finds herself at Ahtohallan – the ‘river full of memories’, which, of course, this being Frozen, turns out to be a glacier. As she steps foot inside its icy halls, timidly at first, her magic leads her further inside – and before long she’s bounding through the place that will unlock everything that was already inside her that she was always looking for, but never knew was there. The setting was inspired by a research trip to the glaciers of Iceland which provided a perfect thematic link to the story’s ruminations on uncovering the past. “We kept saying, 'Wow, what would it be like for Elsa to be here and connect with ice?'” recalls Del Vecho. “We learned that glaciers hold memories – we can dig down into them and find out what the atmosphere was like thousands of years ago. What would that be like for Elsa? Perhaps this is her purpose in life, to be the keeper of all these memories.”

‘Show Yourself’ begins quietly as Elsa rides the final stretch towards Ahtohallan – but when she gets there, the melodies start to soar. “We really loved this idea that the minute she arrives at this glacier, she feels at one,” says Lee. “You go, of course this is where she belongs. And as she wakes it up, it responds back to her.” Travelling through the crystalline caverns of the glacier (“It took so long to render all that ice,” says Del Vecho. “We actually rendered part of it in the cloud with Google to get it finished in time.”), Elsa’s powers kick into a new gear – and in its central chamber, she finally gets the answers she seeks.

"Her mom is saying, ‘You've finally arrived, this is who you are, this is who you're meant to be’"

“It's her mother that keeps calling and calling,” confirms Buck. But while the voice is Elsa’s mother Iduna (performed by Evan Rachel Wood, who’s co-credited as a singer on ‘Show Yourself’), the ‘answer’ to the riddle of who Elsa has been looking for, the person who can validate her existence and show her how to be her authentic self, turns out to be… herself. “It's a memory of her mother, but really it's coming from herself and her magic connecting,” Lee explains. “It's showing Elsa her connection to nature, and saying 'You are the answer, just you in and of yourself.' So it's an abstract song, emotional versus concrete. That's what was challenging.”

If cracking ‘Show Yourself’ was tricky, connecting the song back to Iduna made everything fall into place. “We weren't sure right away if it should be her. We kept going back and forth,” admits Buck. “Finally the idea came to use mom’s lullaby, to nail that this is the mother calling her, saying ‘You’ve arrived’. Then it started to really sing. Emotionally that was it.” With that revelation, Elsa finds herself surrounded by echoes of the past, including a flashback to the film’s opening scene, in which Iduna sings Ahtohallan-centric lullaby ‘All Is Found’ to her as a child – and now, adult Elsa sings back to her. “Elsa gets to have a conversation with mom again, even though her mom is gone,” says Buck. “And her mom is saying, ‘You've finally arrived, this is who you are, this is who you're meant to be’.”

Frozen II

With that, it all clicked – providing an even greater closure for Elsa’s story than a mooted reprise of ‘Let It Go’. “It was emotional, but it didn't quite have the impact,” says Buck of the idea. “It didn't connect with the beginning.” Where that would have taken Elsa back to her more immature past, ‘Show Yourself’ instead opens up her future. “It’s a further evolution of her character, accepting why she has her powers and what she's meant to do with them in the world,” says Del Vecho. “It seemed like a really good conclusion to that journey.” And with the emotional resolution comes a physical transformation, Elsa’s magic conjuring a flowing snow-white (not that one) dress – her true final form. “It's a different kind of triumph,” smiles Lee, “the arrival of Elsa in her true skin.”

The first Frozen was defined by three words: ‘Let It Go’. But the evolution of Elsa in Frozen II, through ‘Into The Unknown’ and ‘Show Yourself’, can be defined by the latter song’s biggest crescendo – three new words that hold even more power: “I am found.”

Frozen II

Frozen II is out now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.

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