Disney+ TV review: Into the Unknown
Ivan Radford | On 04, Jul 2020
“I can’t believe I just showed you that,” says Malerie Walters, one of the animators on Frozen 2, partway through Into the Unknown. She’s just showed us a sequence on her computer where she’s effectively Photoshopped her own face on to the heads of several reindeers while they all sing a 1980s-style power ballad. Why? Because it helps her with animating the facial expressions of each individual animal as they go through the song’s emotional climax. It’s the kind of thing that normally would never be seen by anyone outside of the animation department – and that in-depth level of detail is what makes Into the Unknown such a surprisingly insightful watch.
The documentary sees filmmakers, artists, songwriters and cast open their doors to cameras to reveal the hard work, heart and collaboration it takes to create one of the most anticipated films in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ near-century of moviemaking. But while we’re used to five-minute featurettes that take us behind the scenes of a film, Into the Unknown spans six episodes, taking the time to make it clear just how much pressure was on the filmmakers to meet the hype following the first film.
It begins rolling cameras 11 months before the sequel’s premiere, and it’s surprising just how much work is left to do, as directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck screen a rough version to directors and artists within Disney Animation. The feedback cements Some Things Never Change and Into the Unknown as surefire hits, but raises questions about the song Show Yourself and what exactly it means.
That question takes several episodes to be resolved, as feedback after feedback only reinforces the challenge of trying to juggle Frozen II’s complex, mature themes with its toe-tapping music. Songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez take it all with an impressive amount of humility, agreeing to axe the song See the Sky altogether, but the frustrations are never far from the surface, and Disney commendably doesn’t try to hide it.
Even the way Elsa walks during Into the Unknown is subject to a huge amount of scrutiny, as animation supervisor Wayne Unten works with Walters to determine the best way for the character to finish up the song. While we all know that animation takes a lot of time and effort, this is rare glimpse of the nuts and bolts that make up the giant Disney machine.
Some of those nuts and bolts are movingly personal, such as the tragic inspiration behind Anna’s song The Next Right Thing. Others are borne out of necessity to help a young audience navigate the plot – Olaf is smartly deployed late on to recap the events of the film film – or have to be sped up to meet the production deadlines (Elsa’s dress tranformations were still being designed while footage was being unveiled at D23 Expo).
If all of that sounds like a gruelling watch, it can be, but Into the Unknown highlights the passion for the project that motivates everyone involved – from Josh Gad and Jonathan Groff singing their musical numbers with excitement to Kristen and Robert’s amazement at the orchestra playing the full score, not to mention Malerie’s starstruck reaction to Idina Menzel taking a tour of the animation department’s office. The result is a docuseries that gives everyone involved in production a chance to shine – the kind of inclusive, all-access approach that may inspire kids watching to consider all kinds of technical careers, rather than just the ones they see at the top of a movie’s credits. There’s no better praise for Disney making-of than that.
Into the Unknown is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.