As you may have guessed from its trailers, Frozen II gets a little intense. In that first glimpse, we saw Elsa (Idina Menzel) face down a turbulent ocean and an untamed magical water horse (a.k.a. a Nokk); there's also a forest consumed by pink fire and a mysterious wall of fog. When the trailer first dropped, it seemed like Frozen II might be a bit scary, and in truth: It is. But according to the filmmakers, that's because they trust that their audience — especially the youngsters — can handle it. The reason? Look no further than the earliest entries in Disney's animated catalogue.
"I think sometimes we forget, because we grew up on the Disney fairy tales, that Pinocchio takes you on a ride; there's a lot of dark moments in every fairy tale," Frozen II co-director and head of Disney animation, Jennifer Lee, tells Refinery29, adding that she and her team know how far they can push their youngest audience members. "If it challenges them and it takes them to sometimes scary places, they go on that ride, they reach out, they learn from it, they take it internal. It isn't a horror film, but it's saying there are moments where you're on the edge of your seat and you are scared in life. That happens."
"There's nothing like that — when someone believes in you and would do anything to help you realize yourself in that way," she tells Refinery29. The story, you see, mirrors her relationship with her own younger sister, who she says Anna reminds her of.
But sisterhood and all, as an adult woman who managed to sit through Ari Aster's Midsommar, I must admit there are some moments in Frozen II that even had me a little spooked. This movie gets dark. It gets sad. The action almost feels like it could have inspired by some of the more recent, and more intense, entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Lee says the team felt they were on the right path, she did admit they got a little nervous about some of the more harrowing twists in the film.
"We were nervous," she says. "But as we've seen kids see the film, they were like, No, no, I knew it was gonna be fine. They have this faith and resilience and the grownups have life experience, so they actually know what the greater stakes mean; it has a different effect. Kids are experiencing it in this safety of the theater, so I think they're very aware that the movie's going to take them to a good place."
Nervousness and all, Lee says this tougher storyline has been the way they've seen this sequel since the beginning. That includes crafted one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the entire film — and one of the more devastating animated moments this side of Bambi losing his mother.
"The big one, for us, is wanting take someone like Anna to a hopeless place so you can see her survive and know in those hopeless moments, that all you have to do is not give up. And we knew in order to do that, we would have to feel her loss."
With those darker moments come quite a few more positive and dynamic upswings, in the form of legitimate action scenes for both Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa.
"With these two women, we put them on a journey out in the forest, out in the mountains. We even gave them clothing that would be suitable for those adventures. It was right for the moment, for each of them to have to do these very, very dynamic things and these great action sequences," says Lee's co-director Chris Buck.
For Lee, however, the real takeaway isn't the more adventure appropriate gear, or even the sweeping action. It's the message the new movie has for anyone who's ever loved a princess narrative.
"They're carrying it themselves," she says. "I think that's the most important thing: To see the two of them, and that these girls are solving these problems themselves."
And look, while Lee makes an excellent point, the best testimonial for this bolder new Frozen tale might come courtesy of Menzel's son.
"He's often not interested in what I'm doing because he's 10 and because mommy singing is annoying, but he looked at me in the middle of the movie and he said, 'Mom, this is badass.'"
Yep, that'll do.