Filmmakers faced a unique challenge in the newest entries in two of Disney’s most popular animated family franchises: bring an updated sense of freshness to beloved stories and characters in Toy Story 4 and Frozen II. Their efforts to explore fresh territory anchored presentations for both films at Deadline’s Contenders New York event on Saturday.
“We worked really hard to conclude Woody’s arc,” said Josh Cooley of Toy Story 4, his feature directing debut. The film finds Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) — his early life with Andy a distant memory — heading toward a greater sense of maturity after an unexpected reunion with his long-lost friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Along with Woody’s return alongside Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), other welcome pairs show up in the film, including Key and Peele stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele who play, respectively, Ducky and Bunny; and longtime legends and pals Carl Reiner (Carl Reineroceros) and Mel Brooks (Melephant Brooks). And then there’s the singular presence of Keanu Reeves, who agreed to voice Duke Caboom.
“We were very fortunate the people we asked first said yes. We asked Keanu and he said, ‘Yeah,’” Cooley said, in perfect voice imitation of Reeves’ gruff baritone. “The first time we met with him he said, ‘My character is kinda like an action figure, right?’ And then he actually jumped up on the table and went ‘Huh! Hahh!’”
The real breakout character, however, seems to be Forky, played by Veep’s two-time Emmy-winner Tony Hale. “Tony brought real wonderment to Forky,” said co-screenwriter Stephany Folsom. “He was able to ground it in emotional reality.”
Bringing the captivating emotion back to some well-known characters and story worked wonders in Frozen II. Set three years after the events of the first film, the sequel sees Elsa (Idina Menzel), Anna (Kristen Bell), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad) and Sven (Groff again) journeying beyond Arendelle to discover the origin of Elsa’s magic, and ultimately save their kingdom.
While no kingdom saving is necessary for Disney, the Mouse is certainly enjoying the film’s box office numbers, which are now past $800 million worldwide, and include a record for the five-day Thanksgiving holiday. That may be a testament to all its returning filmmakers—including songwriters/co-story creators Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez—who were challenged with following a film that made their Oscar-winning song “Let It Go” an anthem.
“We wanted to talk about the change and growth we all have, now with children in that teenage time who are looking at getting into the unknown, and we as parents are in the ‘let it go’ phase,” Anderson-Lopez told the crowd.
“Into the Unknown” is the Lopez’ answer, with Menzel again bringing her unparalleled vocal chops to a song that finds Elsa following a strange siren call that pulls the adventure forward.
“It’s about this idea of change and maturity, and in order to get where you need to go you have to get out of your comfort zone,” added Lopez, who is the youngest and quickest (in a mere 10 years) EGOT winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony—and the only person to have won all four awards more than once. “We decided there would be a voice calling her from the mysterious past. Because of the danger aspect” in the journey, the songwriters wrote the siren call to mimic an ancient, wrathful Gregorian chant.
The same depth of thought went into Menzel’s powerful rendition of the song, which seemed to soar into the unknown when all was said and done. “At first she has these clipped phrases in the song, then they get longer and longer and then she busts the octave,” said Anderson-Lopez. “Steps a toe in, then comes back to the boundary and then [hits a note] that is basically, ‘Elsa has left the building.’ And it mirrors what happens in the movie.”