When Frozen was released back in 2013, it was far from a sure thing. The marketing was awkward and clunky, hiding the fact that it was a big, Broadway-style musical like the classics from the Disney Renaissance (instead it focused mostly on snuggly snowman Olaf) and its production, which began nearly 70 years earlier when Walt Disney spit-balled ideas for a semi-animated biographical film based on the life and work of Hans Christian Andersen, was incredibly difficult. When the movie became a genuine phenomenon, everyone was caught off guard, including retailers, which turned a talking Olaf plush into the Tickle-Me Elmo of Christmas 2013.
But with Frozen 2, Disney knew they would probably have something special on their hands; the formula was proven and a hit was on the way (no hiding the songs this time). So, with a year before the sequel was released (and with a brand-new, content-hungry direct-to-consumer streaming platform on the immediate horizon), a team of documentarians led by Australian filmmaker Megan Harding, began to chronicle the homestretch of the making of Frozen 2. The resulting series, Into the Unknown: Making Frozen 2 is a thoroughly riveting and surprisingly honest look at the process of making a Disney animated feature and one of the best things currently available on Disney+.
If there are “characters” that we follow through the documentary (only the first three episodes were available for review), they are led by directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. They are the stalwart creative leaders, both veterans of the first film who found themselves shepherding an entire industry of Frozen-related products in the years since the first film’s release (short films, television specials, Broadway musicals, theme park attractions and more). They are, in essence, the co-CEOs of Frozen Inc.
Both Lee and Buck are richly sketched, here, and the documentary wisely follows them into areas of their personal lives. We see Buck and his family as they grapple with the loss of their son Ryder shortly before the first film was completed in the fall of 2013. (It’s really tragic; he was only 23 and was killed when two cars struck him on the freeway after his car had broken down. He was in recovery after a year-long battle with stage 4 testicular cancer.) And with Lee, you see her step into a leadership position at Walt Disney Animation Studios as chief creative office after the ousting of John Lasseter following allegations of sexual misconduct. (The documentary sidesteps the Lasseter of it all.) Lee is incredibly vulnerable in the documentary as well, showing the struggles of a single mother with a lot on her plate. One truly hilarious moment shows Lee scrambling to help her daughter with her homework while, you know, working on what would ultimately become the highest-grossing animated feature of all time.
These interludes not only allow us to see them as fully dimensional people, but it also deeply informs the production of Frozen 2. Buck named a character in the movie Ryder, who exhibits many of the personality traits his young son had, and “Do the Next Right Thing,” the song sung by Anna towards the end of the movie, is a metaphor for moving through the crippling depression Buck felt. The parallels between the film and Lee’s life are just as explicitly drawn: this is a movie about two female characters who battle their own insecurities and lead by example. It’s pretty profound stuff for a movie with a talking snowman.
And the actual physical production, at the end of a journey that started several years before filming began, is just as engrossing. We marvel as the songwriting team of Bobby and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are piped in from their home studio in New York (predating our own work-from-home shenanigans), watch as Josh Gad (voice of Olaf) shows his excited co-star Kristen Bell that amazing Frozen 2 teaser trailer, and sit in meetings and test screenings as the movie is rigorously honed and refined. It’s very clear that all anyone wants is to make the greatest film possible.
Not that everything goes well though. A large majority of the first three episodes have to do with the fact that “Show Yourself,” the big third act musical number sung by Elsa (Idina Menzel), simply isn’t working. Audiences are confused, the story and art department can’t quite figure out what is wrong (or how to fix it). And so much is riding on the song, too – as Lee (who also wrote Frozen 2) explains, it’s the culmination of Elsa’s entire arc across two whole movies. It has to land, especially because it serves as such a crucial moment for the character (emotionally) and the film (on a storytelling level). In devoting so much time to the “Show Yourself” problem, Harding and her collaborators wisely shed light on the fact that the rest of an animated feature could be going swimmingly but one thing like a miscalculated musical number can grind the entire production to a halt. Sure, other parts of the movie are being worked on and perfected, but in the mighty river of Frozen, this was a giant boulder diverting its stream. In a very real and raw and honest way, the hard work of countless artists, animators and technicians, are exposed, and the fragility of the entire enterprise laid bare.
For years, Disney has packaged short clips and behind-the-scenes bonus features about the making of their animated classics. They’re almost unrelentingly sunny, with the clips of recording sessions or storyboard pitches undoubtedly staged (nobody comes into a recording booth in full hair and make-up). Into the Unknown is the exact opposite. It’s unrelentingly up front, showing the filmmakers at their most vulnerable, both personally and artistically, wondering, like Anna in Frozen 2’s third act, if they would ever find their way out of the dark. Considering the lengths Disney has gone to keep this kind of material out of the public eye (google The Sweatbox), it feels like a real turning point for them to highlight the process in this way and something we should all feel very thankful for.
The documentary’s honesty goes a long way, both in telling a gripping narrative that makes you want to watch the entire six-episode run in one sitting (all of the episodes drop, collectively, on Friday), and in making you feel like you’re actually a fly on the wall, watching one of these productions unfold. Walt Disney Animation Studios, like Imagineering, is one of the more secret (and therefore more mysterious) areas of the Walt Disney Company and, like Leslie Iwerks’ brilliant documentary series The Imagineering Story, Into the Unknown, by taking you behind-the-scenes, doesn’t lessen the mystique at all but amplifies it dramatically. Knowing who made the film and how it was made only makes Frozen 2 that much more magical. Hopefully, every Walt Disney Animation Studios feature going forward gets the Into the Unknown treatment.