SALT LAKE CITY — Walk into any nearby Target and you’re bound to see it. Boxes piled high with merchandise of Anna and Elsa, the sibling duo from “Frozen.” Posters, television spots and promotional materials skate around our lives. Even if you don’t care about “Frozen,” you know it’s coming like a raging winter storm.
And that’s because sequels are a cash grab — an opportunity for studios to cash in on a previously successful product to earn even more money. “Frozen 2” is just the latest example.
“Frozen 2,” the sequel to the 2013 hit “Frozen,” will hit theaters Friday and is expected to freeze out the competition at the box office. The first film saw massive success. And a franchise-building sequel will try to reinforce that fact.
Early reviews said this movie does not explore anything particularly new; it’s marketing for the toy and costume aisle.
And yet ... who cares!
The power of sequels goes beyond the box office and merchandising. They bring a sense of familiarity. They make us feel comfortable with the $12 we will spend on a ticket. They give us another chance to see heartwarming characters again and there are more lessons to be learned.
“Studios are kind of planning for as long of a lifespan for these stories and world as possible. And so they plan accordingly. And the stories have to kind of suit that,” said Daniel Herbert, an associate professor in the department of film, television and media at the University of Michigan. “Everything is designed for narrative, almost everything is designed for continuing narratives.”
The story can lose its magical touch. The power of the original can dwindle. And sequels may hint at a society missing originality. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to glean.
The new era of sequels
Why do we care about sequels, especially if we know that Disney, Warner Bros. or any other studio is just trying to cash in on us as an audience?
The experts who spoke to the Deseret News offered a simple explanation: people enjoy sequels because they give us a chance to relive stories with characters we enjoy.
“Well, for some audiences, it’s a matter of wanting more narrative,” said Tiffany Knoell, an assistant teaching professor at Bowling Green State University in the department of popular culture. “Sometimes those narratives are contingent, sometimes they’re new, but they still involve the same cast, the same crew, the same stories, the same aesthetics.”
They also “provide a kind of familiarity and novelty at the same time,” said Herbert, the professor at Michigan. “Studios make this stuff because it’s got a proven track record financially.”
He said that “people get drawn to characters and they like to see characters in just new and novel situations. And so the sequels often will provide that.”
We know that “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is the epilogue chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so we want to see that story.
“Sequels allow you to also build universes,” Knoell said. “So that when an audience wants to be able to get back into a specific universe, it’s something that’s comfortable. They know the people there. They know the setting. They’re ready to hear her story, whether it’s a continuation of the story or a new chapter.”
Why sequels can divide audiences
There are plenty of sequels that compete with the originals for the best film in the series. “The Godfather: Part 2” and “Empire Strikes Back” are often seen as the best two films of their series, if not two of the best films in the history of cinema.
But sometimes sequels don’t work because writers thin out the storyline that made the first one so powerful. Sometimes it’s a direct retelling of the plot. Other times it’s a messy storyline that doesn’t add any punch.
“There are a lot of sequels that flat out fail because they can’t quite capture the same magic that the first installment of that particular series did,” Knoell said.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is one of those films. The sequel to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens“ and eighth movie in the “Star Wars” franchise remains one of the most controversial “Star Wars” films. Critics said it zigged where “Star Wars” would zag and that what director Rian Johnson did with the original characters betrayed the original films. So there is risk involved in creating a sequel — don’t mess with your audience.
Wherever you stand on the film (this reporter happens to enjoy it), it’s clear that “Star Wars” missed appealing to all viewers with the new movie.
“You know some people have very specific strong memories of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy,” Knoell said. “For them, there’s a lot of emotion tied up in it. And so what they were hoping for is that they would see more stories that feature the characters that they knew and the characters that they loved. Because (stories) have to change and acknowledge that audiences change.”
And then there are the sequels that simply don’t appeal to those who enjoyed the original. Even though box office numbers are still high, they don’t capture the critics or the cult status of the original.
“There has to be a fine balance when you’re trying to produce a sequel because you have to try to appeal not only to the original audiences with the materials of that universe, you also have to be able to attract people who maybe weren’t invested the first time around. So you need people who are going to come back and you also need new viewers,” she said.
What if a sequel flops?
Disney has a long history of producing sequels, many of which were direct-to-DVD snoozers that you’ll find in the bargain bin: “Return of Jafar,” “102 Dalmatians,” “Return to Neverland” and “Cinderella II: Dreams Do Come True.” So maybe you’ll watch these movies with your kids.
But when sequels fail, it could mean the end of an entire brand. Studios don’t create films in silos. They’ll plan for the long term, experts said.
Look no further than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What started as one “Iron Man” film soon blossomed into sequels and and entire stretch of 22 films, which culminated with “Avengers: Endgame.”
And it’s sequels like that that may make us smarter.
“So like, audiences watching sequels aren’t necessarily being dumbed down, they could actually be smarter because they’re being asked to remember all of this narrative information,” Herbert said. “And that can be part of the fun, right?”
Still, studios put a lot on the line when they develop sequels.
“Frozen 2” is the most recent example of this, Herbert said. The film looks to capitalize on the success of the original, which grossed more than $1.2 billion at the box office, and that’s not counting the money earned from toys and merchandise.
“The threat of it just being a kind of a crass commercial product is really high,” Herbert said. “And that’s really threatening for I think ‘Frozen’ because people had such genuinely deep affection for the first film.”
“Frozen” can’t come off as an overcommercialized movie, he said. The film’s producers must find a way to connect people’s genuine feelings of attachment.
The film can’t give off a sense that it’s a way for Disney to get your money, he said.
“‘Frozen’ isn’t just trying to generate ‘Frozen 2.’ ‘Frozen’ is trying to generate, you know, people going to Disney World,” he said. “The movie is actually a commercial for all sorts of other merchandise. And so if you sour the brand, it’s really detrimental.”
That plays out in traveling shows as well. Disney on Ice, which just completed a run in Salt Lake City, featured favorite characters from “Toy Story,” “Cars” and of course, “Frozen,” with crowds singing along to the smash hit, “Let it Go.” Tickets were from $39 to $139. Cost of Cotton Candy? $15, a high price because it comes with a foam hat of the character Olaf sitting atop the treat. Parents are willing to pay a high price for child loyalty — to both them and Olaf.
So what if the show tanks?
“It would have almost been better to not make it a sequel,” Herbert said, rather than risk the franchise and future trips to Disney World.
Important lessons from Frozen
Despite the obvious money play, “Frozen 2” is a chance to enjoy a show and teach some lessons to children.
BYU researcher Sarah Coyne — whose look into Disney princesses went viral three years ago — told the Deseret News that Disney princesses do offer lessons for kids, even if they’re only characters that Disney puts in sequels.
She said parents should use films like “Frozen 2” as teaching moments. “Frozen,” for example, is focused on sisters. It’s focused on the connection between siblings, which is a story millions of people can relate to.
“Frozen” asks questions that we can all connect to, she said.
“How do you respond if you feel like you’re different from everyone else and that you don’t fit in?” she asked. “I think that’s an experience a lot of people have had in their life not because they have magical powers, but you know, for one reason or another. One way to do that is to totally isolate yourself, and another that is to try to reach out to people, which is what Elsa eventually does.”
According to Coyne, the deeper messages are more important.
“No media is perfect,” she said. “And so you kind of need to take the good with the bad, and use media as a tool. Just like any other type of thing we talked about here. Be thoughtful about the media and the way you talk about it with your kids.”
She said Disney princess films “have these beautiful stories and these complex personalities and some wonderful morals that you see in these films. As parents, you can take them and you can talk about them with your kids. And that’s kind of where I think where the real magic happens.”