Is it finally time to let “Let It Go”, go? The soundtrack of Frozen II (2019) certainly puts forward a solid case for doing so.
With the same songwriters from the first smash hit, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (each two-time Oscar winners – 2014; 2018), this film was destined to have a great collection of songs. However, few could have expected the sequel to produce such catchy, emotive songs which could possibly come to outshine those in the first film.
Elsa’s (Idina Menzel’s) main song “Into the Unknown” has been nominated for Best Original Song at the 2020 Oscars, which is not surprising. This song is the “Let It Go” of Frozen II – big, impactful, emotional and life-changing for the character. It mirrors the power of “Let It Go”, with Idina Menzel’s belting voice, tied together with typical Disney character building. However, “Into the Unknown” explores Elsa’s unrest and confusion, whereas “Let It Go” was Elsa’s big moment of acceptance and self-confidence. Elsa in Frozen II is settled but has a constant sense of foreboding that she is not where she needs to be; this song portrays that perfectly.
The song opens with an eerie Dies Irae, sung by Aurora, which represents the restless feeling Elsa has and the ‘unknown’ that is calling her. Dies Irae is latin for “Day of Wrath”, which was a 13th Century chant outlining the day that god judges the dead and the living. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Kristen Anderson-Lopez describes the songwriters’ choice of including a Dies Irae, saying:
“We knew that there were questions she still had, we need to embody that restless feeling we all have when we know: Maybe I’m not exactly where I need to be. That we would embody that with this voice, that is actually the Dies Irae which is used by composers of operas, and musicals, for centuries. It’s actually a mythical call usually to danger of some kind.”
This mythical call instantly sets the tone of the song (and ultimately the whole film), and paired with the impressive animation and characterisation, the audience are made aware of what the song’s narrative will entail.
The songwriters described the atmosphere they wanted to create in “Into the Unknown” as “3AM”. They wanted the eerie call and the tone to convey an early hours feeling; Elsa has to be woken up in the middle of the night to confront this voice. Watching this scene in cinemas and listening to the song alone, you do get the sense that she is conversing with this voice at this hour. Elsa (and the songwriters) personify the call, referring to it as “you” in the first line. As Elsa sings “I can hear you, but I won’t”, she sets up the personal feel to the song; it’s as if she is talking to a close friend or family member, which ultimately foreshadows what’s to come.
Prior to this song, the Dies Irae becomes a motif, regularly calling out to Elsa when she is with Anna, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf. This is why the call is so prevalent in the opening of this song, and throughout, as the audience recognise its importance and are intrigued to unveil it.
The first verse begins quite slowly, and the pace gradually builds as the emotion and music builds. After the first line of Verse Two, the instruments become more and more loud and aggressive, and the tone becomes darker, reflecting the negativity in the lyrics – “You’re not a voice, you’re just a ringing in my ear. And if I heard you, which I don’t, I’m spoken for I fear”. However, the shifts in the last line of Verse Two – “I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you…” – suggests that while part of her wants to follow the voice, there is too much uncertainty.
The chorus in itself, in terms of musicology, could win the Oscars category.
In the Vanity Fair interview previously quoted, Anderson-Lopez describes how the chorus actually reflects the whole story. The first “Into the unknown” that is sung, is an octave; it is a safe note which represents Elsa being comfortable in Arendale with her family. The second “Into the unknown” is slightly out of her comfort zone, but she returns to the safe and comfortable note reflecting her uncertainty in the film about reaching out of her comfort zone. Lastly, in the final “Into the unknown” in the chorus, she goes so far past the safe notes, way into the enchanted forest. Here the chorus acts as a microcosm for the whole narrative.
After the intense chorus, the verses begin to shift further and show her interest in the voice that is calling, and where it may lead her. The song is truly an exploration of Elsa’s character.
Menzel uses her powerful voice to shift and change the tone and feel to the song so beautifully, her voice-acting expresses the character’s feelings so impressively. For example, as Elsa’s interest builds, Menzel’s voice quietens and she sings in a higher pitch: “… or are you someone who’s a little bit like me, who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be?”
The slowing down of the song here allows the audience to absorb themselves in the decisions Elsa has to make, and we visually and aurally can relate to what she is feeling.
The bridge after the second chorus is mainly made up of Aurora’s calls, and Elsa repeating the Dies Irae back to her, making it a less daunting and eerie song, and more a realisation that she has more to discover. Similarly, the outro reflects this realisation and her need to discover more. The song ends on a powerful line – “How do I follow you into the unknown?” – which foreshadows the narrative to come and informs the audience that the story will now be about Elsa’s expedition to find the voice and her place in this world.
Once broken down, “Into the Unknown” illustrates such clever and thoughtful musicology and detail, and even without as detailed analysis it is still such an impressive, unique piece of music . This song definitely has a strong chance of winning Best Original Song at The Oscars, and I even see it overtaking “Let It Go” in terms of popularity once this film has settled more into the zeitgeist. “Into the Unknown” is a fantastic song which embodies the emotional depth of a strong Disney Animation offering in Frozen II, and is as strong as any number of Disney’s entries into the Oscars category in recent years; a strong option for any Oscars predictions game.
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