Set a few years after a supposed “happily ever after,” “Frozen 2" sees royal sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) embarking on personal, existential journeys, battling not any standard Disney villain but simply the often bristling path to adulthood.
Already a blockbuster, and clearly aimed at families, the largely well-received sequel — which set a domestic box-office record for animated films opening outside of summer and has made close to $300 million in the U.S. through two weekends — doesn’t shy away from difficult and rather mature subject matter. (Note for those who haven’t seen the film yet: this is a spoiler-heavy story.)
The standout musical numbers dial in on the challenges of growing up, and of finding and maintaining a sense of self amid moments of severe change. Arguably the most sophisticated of the songs, “The Next Right Thing,” sung by Bell’s Anna, touches on grief and how to battle through near-crippling depression.
But the story also nods to worldly topics including man-made environmental disasters and colonialism, which become more evident inrepeated viewings.
While the lyrics sung by Elsa, Anna, Olaf and Kristoff focus more on detailing the characters’ inner thoughts, that’s not to say the other subjects weren’t on the mind of composer/lyricist duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. It’s just that, as Anderson-Lopez notes, “You wouldn’t want to hear a big song about water rights,” a key plot point that teaches the characters the world is less hospitable than they once imagined.
For all the film’s action and myth-like lore, some of which may feel overly expository at first, “Frozen 2" is ultimately balanced between the songs’ intimate exploration of mourning and personal insecurities and the story’s broader, and very topical, themes. In “Frozen 2,” the antagonist can be anyone or anything from the difficulty of having to change to confronting the mistakes of prior generations.
“They gave us this playground,” said Anderson-Lopez of directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, “that on one hand it could be this crazy action and political movie, if you want to look at that way. But they gave us enough internal stakes for our characters to truly still have a musical.... The villain of this movie is change.”
Practically preceding the “OK, boomer” meme with prescience, one of the key developments in “Frozen 2" reveals how Anna and Elsa’s elders made a mess of the environment, more or less relegating a magical forest to doom in favor of greed-driven self-interests. What happened wasn’t the fault of an entire kingdom but instead resulted from the pivotal choices made by those in power. Anna and Elsa are forced to grapple with the realization that those they have long admired opted to do what was best for the few in the present rather than what was right for the many for decades to come.
“What we talk about with ‘Frozen’ is that it’s a reflection of growing up and becoming adults in the world,” says screenwriter and co-director Lee, who now leads Walt Disney Animation. “We think particularly of kids today, they’re wrestling with so much. It’s really about reflecting on all the issues that we’re facing rather than telling you how to face them. Anna and Elsa make their own choices, and I commend Anna for her ability to face a hard past and realize she has to do what’s right for everyone. What courage that takes. It’s an admittance of how hard it is to navigate this world.
“We all sit here with the stakes of our families, the stakes of our community, the stakes of our environment, the stakes of our world, and we wrestle with it,” Lee continues. “So with this, we wanted to touch on all the parts of growing up that are extraordinarily hard to navigate.”
The songs of “Frozen 2" are driven by introspection, be it Elsa’s leap to self-confidence (“Show Yourself”) or Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) expression of relationship insecurities (“Lost in the Woods”). An outtake from the film’s soundtrack, “I Seek the Truth,” more explicitly references the themes of navigating maturity.
Time was also spent attempting to construct a song around the film’s tribe of magic users known as the Northuldra, specifically how one of the characters dreams of someday seeing an unblemished horizon. Yet it was left somewhere in the drafting stage, depriving “Frozen 2" of a song that would directly address climate change.
“We had written a song for the soldiers and the Northuldra called ‘See the Sky’ and it was a big number about how they had never seen a clear sky,” says Robert Lopez. “But because you could replace that song with one line, there was no need to sit there for three minutes listening to them sing.”
The challenge for Lee and co-director Chris Buck was to find a way to make a global issue feel personal, allowing for the characters’ leaps into maturity. Part of the solution came in having Anna and Elsa realize that it was the actions of their grandfather that threw the world into peril. But the story also utilizes one of the key questions remaining after the original film — how did Elsa get her powers — as a way to explore Elsa’s balance between becoming a woman and responding to the world around her.
“The part we really wanted to tackle was Elsa having to confront participating in the world with her gift, not just being accepted for it,” Lee says.
Such explorations could feel a little abstract — the songs, in fact, are full of metaphors — and Anderson-Lopez jokes that she called upon her psychology studies in college to craft the lyrics, noting that they essentially seek to answer the sort of questions people may ask in therapy.
Never is this more apparent than in “The Next Right Thing,” a showcase for Bell’s Anna in which she sings “this grief has a gravity,” and the character threatens to succumb into a period of paralyzing depression. It’s a strikingly dark song about the difficulty in recovering from extreme loss, with the character even briefly wondering if she wants to recover. “That’s exactly what we were trying to convey, and having a character like Anna, who is so optimistic most of the time, you just think it comes easy to her,” Buck says.
Anderson-Lopez says Buck gave her the permission to note that the song was largely inspired by the director’s loss of his son Ryder, who was killed in a car accident while promotion for the first “Frozen” was just ramping up. “We were going through the opening of the film, and the entire awards season, with Chris taking it step by step, day by day,” she said. “I watched him work through grief, so when I wrote the lyrics I was completely thinking about him.”
Robert Lopez says that another goal with the song was to show that it’s not always clear how or when someone may be hurting. “Kristen Bell considers herself an optimist too, and she and Jen had this conversation early on about optimism, and how everyone thinks optimistic people don’t get down,” he said. “Kristen said, ‘No, it’s not that. We feel all the darkness that everyone feels, but we choose to go on. Looking on the bright side is a choice that is not easy.’ In this situation, you’re watching someone choose life.”
Animation, says Lee, is an ideal medium to explore such heady topics, allowing filmmakers and viewers to experience potentially arduous subject matter in a setting that can readily supply comfort by being removed from reality.
“There’s a way that it transports you ... into an alternate world that allows you to explore your own world,” Lee says. “Fairy tales are created for children to help them get through tough times. I think that’s best served in animation. You get to sit in the safety of your theater seat [and] go to a world that challenges you, but you come out safely again.”