Frozen, no longer just a type a food or a less fancy way of saying hypothermia. It is one of the most successful movie franchises ever created despite only having one movie. Every year there is more and more merchandise, snacks for children or theme park attractions made with Anna, Elsa and Olaf. But would you believe that Disney did not have a whole lot of faith in the movie? So that might be an over statement, but no one at Disney expected Frozen to do as well as it did. With the sequel about to be released, let’s look back on the history of this juggernaut of a film that you’re probably humming at least one of the songs right now. And get ready, it is an amazing story.
Act 1: A Film 70 Years in the Making
This story begins back when Walt Disney was still alive and shortly after the release of the very first animated feature film ever made in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Frozen was initially created as a live action/animation hybrid film in a partnership with Sam Goldwyn Productions about the works of Hans Christian Andersen (similarly, The Little Mermaid was another one of these ideas that would’ve been included). However, the big problem the studio faced when adapting the story of The Snow Queen was making it in such a way that audiences in the 1940’s could enjoy. Things got even more complicated with World War 2 and Disney’s focus switching from the animated feature to war time propaganda film. Eventually, the project was cancelled.
Fast forward to the 90’s during the peak of Disney animated features and they tried to revive the idea of creating The Snow Queen into an animated feature, this time with Glen Keane attached to it. Glen is most famous for designing such characters as The Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Ariel (another Hans Christian Andersen character). This of course was followed by Glen abruptly quitting the project and started work on what would become Tangled. Other people who tried to work on this and failed included: Paul and Gaetan Brizzi (directors of the Firebird Suite segment from Fantasia 2000), Dick Zondag (would go on to animate Bowler Hat Guy in Meet the Robinsons), Dave Goetz (Art Director for Hunchback of Notre Dame and Atlantis) and even Harvey Fierstein (famous broadway actor and Yao in Mulan) tried. But none of them succeeded in getting it off the ground. Then things picked up when John Lasseter was attached to it in the early 2000’s after Disney’s partnership with Pixar was blooming. And that came to a halt in 2004 when Disney’s partnership with Pixar went down the drain.
But then a beacon of hope came in 2008 when John Lasseter was able to get Chris Buck (co-director of Tarzan) to come back to Disney to work on this film. Things were starting to come together. Chris dug up early concept art from the 30’s and worked on crafting a story about a different type of true love. Josh Gad was then attached followed by Megan Mullally (Tammy 2) to play the role of The Snow Queen. And then, because of course, it entered development hell in early 2010. Things looked like The Snow Queen would never get made until on December 22, 2011 when Disney announced that it would be releasing The Snow Queen, now renamed Frozen, due to the success of Tangled. Things started coming together, except the one big issue of how to make the Snow Queen herself compelling. The one issue that they had struggled with for the last 70 years. And it became resolved when someone suggested to make the main protagonist and antagonist sisters. This along with bringing in Jennifer Lee to help in rewrite the script after working on Wreck-It Ralph, everything started to come together.
Jennifer started to help and shape a lot of the story, which the ending was always going to involve true love being between the sisters and not the typical prince kisses princess love. Anna was always going to remind Elsa of the bond between sisters. Originally, Elsa was going to kidnap Anna from her wedding and freeze her heart on purpose and try to murder the town with an army of snowmen. This entire insane plot was overhauled because of the song writing team of Lopez and Anderson-Lopez wrote the earworm of the century, “Let It Go.” This song actually forced the writers to rewrite the entire script to keep it in an make more sense. Elsa became the more sympathetic character we got. Other changes we got because of this was the addition of Kristoff and Hans being changed from a good guy not named Hans who was going to marry Anna to a twist villain (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen a 6 year old movie that made a billion dollars and became the best selling Blu Ray of all time). Olaf also got changed from Elsa’s minion to Anna’s sidekick. Another thing that got cut was a rock troll who explains Elsa’s magical backstory voiced by Louis C.K. (not really important to this, just found it interesting) The script for the movie was reworked up until June 2013 when it was scheduled to come out in November of that same year.
Act 2: The Calm Before the Frozen Storm
The first teaser trailer was released on June 18th, 2013 to a resounding, “This looks okay,” with a full trailer being released in September 26 to more, “This looks okay.” Disney did the usual release of dresses, toys and plush in early November of that year to the normal trend of any new Princess movie release. It was fairly standard. Most of the biggest gross movies weren’t princess related with Tangled being the highest grossing one up to that point with a little less than $600,000,000. While that is a high number, Toy Story 3 released that same year did one billion dollars and the trends were showing that most people did not show up for movie musicals and princess movies. So it was fairly standard in terms of marketing and promotion. Anna and Elsa started meeting at Disney Parks with lines before the movie coming out not being longer than 45 minute to an hour, which is standard for a Disney Princess character.
The movie was released on Wednesday, November 27th (22nd in limited release). It’s opening weekend was $93.6 million for the 5-day total since it was Thanksgiving weekend. The thing with Frozen though was that it’s weekly totals were okay, but it held strong in the box office rankings. Most movies stay in the top 1-3 the first few weeks then go to the bottom. Frozen stayed in the top 5 box office rankings from it’s release all the way until February 20th 2014. A sing along version was also released in January to add more to it’s release total. And these are just domestic numbers, where it earned just north of $400,000,000 (66% of Tangled’s worldwide total). Internationally it made $1,290,000,000 (215% of Tangled’s worldwide total) and became the highest grossing animated feature of all time until The Lion King (2019). But this only covers box office totals. I haven’t even talked about…
Act 3: Frozen Fever
All the lines! Lines for Frozen product, food items, character meet and greets. Everything that could have Anna, Elsa and or Olaf on it did. Lines at Epcot to meet Anna and Elsa reached up to 6 hours long. Police officers had to be at local Disney Stores whenever they got Anna and Elsa dresses back in stock so no one would get hurt. A parade float for the new Festival of Fantasy parade in the Magic Kingdom had to be changed to remove Aurora and put Anna and Elsa. And when the meet and greet was also moved there, so many people got hurt trying to meet them on the first day that the opening procedures had to be changed to actually prevent running and trampling. Frozen had taken over the world. Let It Go (both original and Demi Lovato cover) was on the radio at all times. Even rice krispy treats with Anna and Elsa or Olaf at the Disney Parks sold out on a constant basis.
But why did it seem like everything release related to Frozen seemed like it was shoehorned in rather than part of some naturally integrated plan? Because no one in the company expected it to do well and it was. Look at the past three princess movies: The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Brave. They each did well, but no where near as well as Frozen. Merchandise forecasting looks at these trends to predict how much they will need. And given how troubled the production history was with Frozen, it was not assumed that it would be the billion dollar empire it has become. So because of that, the amount they ordered to sell was the normal amount. But when the movie did phenomenal, Disney had to react to the situation to give everyone what they wanted, more Frozen. So if it seems like Disney over saturated the market, it is solely because guests were demanding more Frozen and a lot of it came when people were just ready to…sigh…let it go. Everyone except for younger kids and a few adults. While it may have been cool for some to hate Frozen, the target demographic was wanting more. This was their generation’s Lion King (oddly enough, another movie Disney didn’t think would do well). And this can still be felt today with certain things from the Frozen hype still lingering and the movie is generally more liked today than it was a few years back for the sole reason that it’s no longer everywhere.
So as we stand on the edge of Frozen 2’s release into theaters with early reviews being better than the first one, it is amazing to think that this entire franchise almost didn’t happen. But because it refused to die and at least someone always came back to try to revitalize it, we have some incredibly memorable characters, songs, a Broadway show, theme park sing along, an act of vandalism to Cinderella Castle every Christmas season, boat ride, a short, featurette for Christmas and now a sequel that looks like it is going to be even crazier. But this is the franchise started out crazy and will remain crazy popular.