Disney seamlessly blends high-tech special effects into ‘Frozen’ musical


Like a sprinkling of Disney’s trademark magic, the hidden-in-plain-sight high-tech special effects in the new “Frozen” musical at Disney California Adventure weave seamlessly and effortlessly into the production at the Hyperion Theater.

Disney turned to a team of special effects wizards to deliver Elsa’s snow- and ice-wielding magical powers in the retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” The new DCA musical is based on the hit 2013 animated movie that follows the story of Princess Anna and her estranged sister, Elsa, the exiled queen of Arendelle who has inadvertently trapped her kingdom in an eternal winter.

Throughout the 45-minute show now playing at the Anaheim theme park, behind-the-scenes technicians use a massive video wall, projection mapping, Wi-Fi-controlled set pieces, a motion-capture suit, a motion simulator sleigh and eight snow machines to propel the storytelling and make Elsa’s wintery powers visual and believable.


Before the show even begins, the audience watches an animated painting on a 2,200-square-foot video screen of the waterfront Arendelle castle, nestled against a hillside with a cascading waterfall. Lighting effects stretch the water of the bay across the stage and into the audience. Eight high-definition projectors extend the hills on the video screen backdrop to the 8,000-square-foot “aurora borealis” curtains flanking the stage and surrounding the audience. As the show begins, the wrap-around projection soars over the sun-dappled hills and into the snow-covered mountains.

The highlight of the show occurs when Elsa ascends an automated ice staircase that swings out over the first few rows of the audience as the ice queen belts out “Let It Go.” At several points during the production, Elsa’s frosty emotions trigger 36 ice spikes that explode from the steps leading to the stage. During a chase scene, Elsa flees her pursuers on a turntable hidden in the stage that replicates a swirling snowstorm. Twenty plumes of CO2 along with liquid nitrogen make it snow on stage and in the theater.

One of the most unique visual effects in the show employs motion-capture technology and video projections during the moment when Elsa freezes Anna. The actress’ costume is rigged with hidden LED diodes that allow video projections to map her body and follow her movements.

A dramatic wolf chase combines practical, digital and special effects. Anna and love interest Kristoff flee in a motion-simulator sleigh that tilts forward, backward and side to side as performers in wolf costumes on the stage and a digital wolf pack on the video screen give chase.

During the upbeat “In Summer” production number, wirelessly controlled snow mounds using laser scanners and reflectors as guides move autonomously across the stage as dancers in sparkling red and white sequined sailor outfits throw beach balls.


Perhaps the most curious high-tech moment of the show occurs when a remote-controlled rock reminiscent of “Star Wars” droid BB-8 rolls on stage before the mystical gnomes break into “Fixer Upper.”

Equally enjoyable are the low-tech yet cleverly animated puppets that provide much of the humor in the story. Olaf the Snowman and Sven the Reindeer, created by puppet designer Michael Curry, who won a Tony Award for his work on the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” move in harmony with their puppeteers whose feet are connected to their puppeted characters.

As far as the show goes, I found the “Frozen” musical to be good with the potential to get better over the next few weeks as the performers more fully inhabit their characters. I attended a media preview that was the cast’s first performance in front of an audience. I look forward to checking back in on the show in the weeks and months to come as the production becomes more seasoned.

Disney has gone to great lengths to make the “Frozen” musical more than a typical theme park show. While I would not compare “The Book of Mormon” to “Hamilton” if I saw them both at the Pantages, it was hard for me to sit in the Hyperion Theater and not compare “Frozen” to “Aladdin,” which previously occupied the space for 13 years. In time, “Aladdin” will further fade from memory and I will be able to assess “Frozen” on its own merits. For now, the comparisons are inevitable and “Frozen” will simply never possess the spectacle and pageantry of “Aladdin,” hands-down the best theatrical production I’ve ever seen in a theme park.

Unlike the movie that focuses more on Elsa’s struggles, the DCA musical is Anna’s story. Anna gets many of the laughs, and it’s her journey we follow. As the actresses who play Anna grow familiar with the role they will be able to find the rhythm of the show and allow for the extra beat or two for the audience to fill the theater with laughter.

Like the movie, Olaf essentially doesn’t show up until the middle of the musical. When the beloved character does finally appear, the audience explodes with a long-anticipated burst of applause and cheer. Olaf clearly has the potential to become to the “Frozen” musical what the Genie was to “Aladdin” — a show-stopping, laugh-a-minute, joke-making machine. We’ll have to see if the showrunners go that route. At least in the first performance, the villainous and somewhat inept Duke of Weselton was cast in the role of clown and jester, constantly playing to the audience for laughs with over-the-top mannerisms designed to reach the back of the house.

On the dramatic side, it will likely take the cast of 107 (about 24 per show) a few weeks to settle into the story and feel confident enough for a full-throated delivery of the songs and dialogue. No doubt some of the performers are hoping to make the leap to Broadway when a full-length version of “Frozen” debuts in 2018, and the leads and a few of the cast show the potential to make the jump. “Aladdin” followed a similar theme park to Broadway route, with the Tony-nominated story of a street rat who finds a magical lamp opening at the New Amsterdam Theatre in 2014.

I’m anxious to watch the “Frozen” musical with a theater full of kids and their parents. I saw the world premiere with a bunch of jaded journalists, Disney suits and a throng of earnest cast members. I expect the experience will be far different if 2,000 kids and their parents, having watched the movie dozens and dare I say hundreds of times on DVD, were to sing along with the six songs and parrot all the actors’ lines.

The general consensus among the people I spoke to after the show was that the first five to seven minutes of the musical dragged as the backstory was established. Some tightening and tweaking by the production team should fix the problem.

So will “Frozen” enjoy a 13-year run like “Aladdin” did at the Hyperion? I predict “Frozen” will stick around DCA for three to four seasons before the musical opens on Broadway and Disney uses the Hyperion as a proving ground for yet another musical production.


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