Frozen 2: From feminist frontwomen to sell-out merch, how the Disney franchise became a phenomenon

Katie Strick
·7-min read

They may have told us to let it go, but we never truly did. Finally — six (long) years later — Anna, Elsa, Kristoff and the rest of their icy gang are returning to the big screen for the most hyped film release of the festive season: Frozen II.

The sequel to Disney’s 2013 smash-hit princess movie has been a long time coming — double a lifetime, for some (young) superfans. Over that period, the animated fairytale about sisterly love has become a record-scorching, cross-generational hit, earning itself two Oscar wins and leading to a Broadway musical, which is set to arrive in the West End next year.

According to latest box office figures, it’s now the second highest-grossing animated film of all time, behind this year’s Lion King remake.

But will the second instalment live up to the hype? We’ll find out when it lands in cinemas tomorrow. Retailers are already reporting a new opening record in ticket presales — higher than that of Toy Story 4 — and analysts predict a $100 million (£77 million) debut.

From the explosion of the Frozen franchise to the quest for a successor to Let It Go, this is an (almost) spoiler-free guide to this magical release.

Ice, ice, baby: Anna and Olaf in the new movie
Ice, ice, baby: Anna and Olaf in the new movie

The Frozen machine

Do you want to build a franchise? It’s probably worth taking some (slippery) leaves out of directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s book. Their original film was released to a record-breaking $1.29 billion (£1.1 billion) and quickly became a culture-shaping phenomenon, inspiring theme park attractions, video games, a Disney On Ice show and two short animated films.

Its power ballad, Let It Go, has become a legend in itself, metamorphosing into epic metal covers and tribal African takes.

“Frozen is no longer a movie,” TheStreet wrote in 2014. “It’s a global brand, a larger-than-life franchise built around products, theme parks and sequels that could last into the next century.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the first teaser trailer for Frozen II sent fans into meltdown. The clip, released in February, gained 116.4 million views in its first 24 hours, making it the most viewed animation trailer ever.

Second time’s a charm

The decision to make a sequel to one of the biggest animated films of all time might seem like a no-brainer, but Disney sequels, as a rule, have never been a huge success. They’re mostly deemed desperate, direct-to-DVD cash-grabs (see: Cinderella II, The Lion King II and Aladdin: The Return Of Jafar).

So why did Disney choose to go beyond the happily-ever-after of its beloved Frozen? Answer: it acquired Pixar, a team that knows how to do a sequel (see: Toy Story 2, Incredibles 2). That, coupled with Frozen’s record-melting powers, stood the franchise in good stead for a second instalment.

The idea was largely inspired by curiosity from fans. “There were some questions people had that we wanted to answer,” writer and co-director Lee recently revealed. “For me, particularly, in terms of understanding the parents a little more and what motivated the girls emotionally as children.”

Let it grow: The sequel builds on the themes of the first movie
Let it grow: The sequel builds on the themes of the first movie

Plans for Frozen II were hatched in 2015, and visiting the countries that inspired the story became a priority. Lee and the team spent several weeks in Norway, Finland and Iceland as part of the production process.

“There were just stunning moments of standing behind a waterfall, inside the volcano,” she recalled in a recent interview. “There was one on a glacier and in the forest when I fell under the rocks, being with wild reindeer.

“Each time there were moments that you see that are in the film because they created such an emotional experience.”

Snow stars

Superfans, rejoice: all the major stars from the first film are set to return — Idina Menzel as ice princess Elsa, Kristen Bell as her sister Anna, Jonathan Groff as Kristoff the iceman, and Josh Gad as ultra-positive snowman Olaf.

There are also some big names joining the gang: Black Panther actor Sterling K Brown plays new character Lieutenant Destin Mattias, and Westworld’s Evan Rachel Wood lends her voice to Elsa and Anna’s mother Queen Iduna.

What’s the story?

Last time we saw Elsa on the big screen she had made peace with her ice powers, discovering that the key to it all was love. We meet her this time in the peaceful kingdom of Arendelle: Kristoff is planning to propose to Anna, Olaf is enjoying life in the sun, and Elsa is happy in her role as queen — until a mysterious female voice calls her out into the wilderness.

Sisterhood is still the theme of the day — alongside a more “mature” storyline to match the audience, critics have teased — and the trailer hints that the second adventure may be a little darker. Elsa and her motley crew are seen preparing to delve into secrets from their past and find answers in an enchanted forest.

A modern romance

A water horse isn’t the only new character teased in the trailer: cinema-goers will also be introduced to Honeymaren (voiced by Batwoman actress Rachel Matthews) and fans quickly began speculating that she’ll be Elsa’s girlfriend.

“Gays, our time has come,” one tweeted, while another said: “Elsa literally has TWO lesbian love ballads in the Frozen II soundtrack. This movie is about to be the gay movie of the year.” So far, the cast have been tight-lipped. Menzel previously told PrideSource: “I can’t promise anybody that’s what’s going to happen ... But deep down, am I really happy that it’s causing people to talk about it and have these kinds of conversations? Yeah, I am.”

Let It Go 2.0

Let It Go became the anthem of a generation and the first original Disney song to reach the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 since 1995, so the question on fans’ lips is: will there be another belter to match?

The answer is yes, if you’re most film critics. The winning tune? A catchy (not-so) little number called Into The Unknown, sung by Menzel, which will get into your head just as easily as the original Frozen classic — perhaps even more so, according to CNET critic Patricia Puentes. “It’ll probably earn songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez another Oscar, or at the very least a nomination,” she predicts.

The songwriters also introduce 11 glittering songs into the Frozen repertoire with their second soundtrack, which most critics deemed “just as fun” as the original, if not more. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has called the score “gorgeous” and actor Groff admitted one solo track by co-star Bell left him in a “total puddle” of tears.

“There’s a really beautiful, profound maturity to the writing,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s a grief storyline that I don’t know any Disney movie has really explored.”

Prepare for an emotional rollercoaster.

Got the t-shirt (and the PJs)

Frozen’s November release date is no accident: Disney’s merch collection is set to boast some of the hottest items to feature on Christmas lists this festive season — and not just for the under-10s.

Selfridges is doing a roaring trade in crystal sets; Pandora has Frozen-inspired “inner strength” charms; and Amazon and Etsy are selling ice-blue leggings inspired by Elsa’s gown-free look in scenes of the new film — a first for a Disney princess.

Other stocking-fillers include Olaf baubles, a £130 5ft-tall Arendelle Castle dolls’ house, and a doll advent calendar that is sure to be a cult favourite — if the Elsa dolls from the last film are anything to go by.

But you’ll need to act fast: the Toy Retailers Association has named Frozen II’s shiny new Elsa doll as one of the top 12 toys most likely to sell out this Christmas.