I was scanning a list of upcoming Christmas albums, as all the cool kids do, when I was ambushed by a startling question: “Can you think of a better way to celebrate the season than with some new music from Idina Menzel?”
No shade to the Broadway star, but I could think of so many better ways that the sentence blew one of the fuses in my brain. I had forgotten my excitement about popcorning my way through Disney's Frozen 2, in which Menzel will reprise her role as the voice of the famously keen-to-move-on Elsa.
Frozen 2, which arrives in Irish cinemas on November 22nd, is one of two major releases still to come for Disney – the other being Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – in a record-smashing year. By some incredible and perhaps unhealthy distance, it has been the dominant box office force in 2019. Come Auld Lang Syne time, it will be quicker to count the non-Disney pictures in the year's top 10.
Frozen 2's contribution to this bonanza looks nailed on now, but wasn't always guaranteed. The original Frozen didn't make a first-weekend splash, but word of mouth snowballed, and in December 2013 the kingdom of Arendelle became a popular escape hatch for all-Christmassed-out adults. Children were fond of it too. Repeat viewings ensued, elevating Frozen, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee from a screenplay by Lee, to its then status of highest-grossing animated film of all time.
Next came the brisk trade in on-demand consumption and DVD sales. Frozen is the biggest-selling DVD of this decade: its sales can, in retrospect, be seen as one of the last big hurrahs for the plunging physical audiovisual media market.
Now it is once again the season of the Disney ice queen. Frozen 2 is all set up to serve as a catalyst for youthful and parental subscriber interest in Disney+, the streaming service that will launch in the United States and selected other markets this month and seems destined to make it to Ireland in early 2020. Between now and then, multiplex trips aplenty are forecast. Cinema advertising experts at Wide Eye Media are not the only ones predicting an "admissions avalanche".
In Hollywood, the sequel formula is usually straightforward: any film that is a screaming commercial success gets at least one. But Walt Disney Animation Studios notably hasn't adhered to the tradition over the decades and there were many non-committal statements from executives about not wanting to "force storytelling" before Frozen 2 was confirmed in 2015.
The dallying, combined with animation lead times and Disney’s crowded release state, resulted in a six-year release gap – an aeon in the cultural life of a child. Clearly, a great swathe of the audience that belted out Let It Go in costumed sing-a-longs will now be disenchanted pre-teens and teenagers happy to leave the sequel seats free for younger, more fairytale-receptive kids.
But with our old friend/foe, the Disney merchandising machine, back with a vengeance, humans of all ages may find it hard to avoid the phenomenon completely.
I had a feeling it was all warming up when last month I was sent a press release for Specsavers’ new Frozen 2 collection, a range of glasses that come in “frosty” colours. Now the iceberg is in plain sight. Supermarkets and department stores have erected prominent displays of Frozen 2 paraphernalia – enough to create an entire bedroom-kingdom if required. This winter, if it’s fluffy and sparkly at the same time, it’s in stock.
For the most part, these products are aimed at girls. The initial movie marketing for Frozen, however, purposefully downplayed both the “princess” angle and the film’s central relationship between two self-sacrificing sisters. Instead, it foregrounded Olaf the Snowman (the comic relief) and gave top trailer billing to secondary male characters Kristoff and Prince Hans. And, as is often the case with trailers for musicals, no actual songs were featured.
By choosing a gender-unspecific title and careful group images for its promotional posters, Disney was bidding to make Frozen a “four-quadrant” movie, or one that would lure in male, female, under-25 and over-25 cinemagoers. And it worked, obviously. But it still seems a little sad that to bestow a female-led film with “universal appeal”, it was deemed necessary to market it by stealth.
Thankfully, various trailers for Frozen 2 show that Disney has let this nervousness go. The message of sisterly solidarity, rather than being regarded as too frightening for some segments of the audience, is treated as the thawed heart of the enterprise, with powerful yet vulnerable Elsa and brave girl-on-a-quest Anna (Kristen Bell) allowed to introduce their own story. One trailer even showcases Menzel giving her best lungful to new song Into the Unknown.
Offscreen, things have changed too. Lee, who once again directs with Buck and has co-written the screenplay, last year became the chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, succeeding Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, who left Disney in the wake of allegations of workplace sexual misconduct – or what he termed “missteps”.
That the appointment makes the Frozen co-creator one of the most important women in Hollywood seems fitting.