Kristen Bell knows that Frozen II has big snowshoes to fill. Its 2013 prequel busted box office records and earned an eye-popping a $1.27 billion globally.
But she calls herself an optimist.
"In my mind, if you make a recipe and the cake comes out great, you make it again the next day with the same ingredients. Why on earth wouldn't it be great?" said Bell in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition.
Ticket sales agree with her. Since its release last month, the follow-up feature has iced out the competition.
Bell thinks the key ingredient to that magical recipe is rooted in the realness of the characters in Frozen II. Like children, the film's princess protagonists, sisters Elsa and Anna, exhibit vulnerability and power at the same time.
"There's something inside all of us that feels so vulnerable and powerful ... especially in kids," she said. "They feel so vulnerable because they're often the smallest person in the room. They're slower than everyone else. They don't know everything. And yet they have a spirit of growth and they feel their own power."
When it came to the sequel, Bell, who voices Princess Anna, played an integral part in helping expand the world of Frozen. She collaborated with screenwriter and director Jennifer Lee to figure out how Anna would grow in this movie.
Bell said she drew inspiration from her own struggles to help give her character some autonomy.
"I'm ferociously co-dependent, and it's taken me a long time to learn what to do when I'm alone," Bell admitted.
Bell said she told Lee, "I really would like to see Anna face her codependency head-on."
With this challenge cut out for Anna, Frozen II exhibits a melancholy rare for a kids movie. Anna grapples with the unknown in mournful ballad, "The Next Right Thing."
"Hello darkness, I'm ready to succumb" are some of the song's darkest, existential lyrics bred from the idea of codependency, Bell said.
"I said, I really want a song about what she's going to do when she doesn't know what to do" Bell said. "And then that turned into something much more profound for our songwriters."
Some of the most memorable music from the film is rooted in deep, personal loss. Co-director Chris Buck lost a son the week that the original Frozen hit theaters in 2013. Songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez told The New York Times that another collaborator, Andrew Page, who had a leading role in the music production for both films, lost a daughter.
"The Next Right Thing" is an encapsulation of that pain, said Bell, and a tribute to their strength.
"When you really don't know what to do — what do you do? How do you do it? You just put one foot in front of the other. You just do the next right thing," said Bell, reflecting on the song's message.
Bell has been outspoken about her own struggles with anxiety and depression.
"I just thought, 'Wow, we're all monkeys.' We look to each other for guidance and example. Why don't I talk about this?" she said.
"It's the right thing to do, because if any little girls are looking to me saying, 'How is she happy all the time?' They need to know that might not be the truth."
Since revealing her battles with mental health during a 2016 interview, she's felt a responsibility to continue speaking up.
That's not to say it comes natural to her now. "Still every time I talk about it, I feel this little tiny feeling bubble inside my belly, that's like, 'Don't talk about that stuff,' " she said. "It's in my bones, because we as a society want to put our best foot forward."
"I just I don't believe in that. I just think I've become a person that's a firm believer in 'whatever foot goes forward.' "
NPR's Austin Horn, Sophia Boyd and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
"Frozen II" has swept the holiday movie season with all the elements you'd expect - wind, water, fire, ice and, of course, a big ballad...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTO THE UNKNOWN")
IDINA MENZEL: (Singing) Into the unknown, ah, ah, oh, oh...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's not unknown is how beloved this movie franchise is. Elsa, Olaf, Kristoff and, of course, Anna. We got to talk with Kristen Bell - that's Princess Anna herself - about what it was like to expand the world of "Frozen." And she told us that "Frozen's" screenwriter Jennifer Lee really collaborated with her about how Anna would grow in this movie.
KRISTEN BELL: Before writing this, Jen Lee and I sat down. She said, what do you want Anna to deal with? And I said, I really would like to see Anna face her codependency head on.
BELL: She's so similar to who I am. Like, I really - the first script, I added a ton of things that I wanted to see out of this character that was kind of just a love letter to my 10-year-old self. I wanted to play a princess who didn't have good posture, who tripped and who spoke before she thought about it and was constantly believing in people around her and thought that love was her superpower. But that can come at a price. And I'm ferociously codependent. And it's taken me a long time to learn what to do when I'm alone. And in this movie, you see Anna have to pick herself back up and make some decisions on her own, which is really hard for her. And it takes a lot of practice.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's listen to a song that kind of talks a little bit about that. It's called "The Next Right Thing." Here's a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEXT RIGHT THING")
BELL: (As Anna, singing) This is cold. This is empty. This is numb. The life I knew is over. The lights are out. Hello, darkness. I'm ready to succumb.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, hello, darkness. I'm ready to succumb. Anna seems very, very sad, and it's rare that we hear such an openness about this sort of thing in a children's movie.
BELL: Yeah, that song - you know, the kernel of the idea, I suppose, came out of this talk about codependency. And I suffer from anxiety and depression. And I said, I would really like to see her feel that. I think sometimes they go hand-in-hand, at least for me. And I said I'd really want a song about what she's going to do when she doesn't know what to do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned your own struggles. Why has it been important for you now to talk about that?
BELL: You know, I think - I didn't talk about it for a very long time. And the night before I was about to do a longform interview with Sam Jones, I said to my husband, what do I talk about? It's an hourlong interview. And he said, why don't you talk about your anxiety and depression? And it was like I was immediately scared because I suffer from the shame stigma, as well. And I all of a sudden was flooded with these feelings of irresponsibility that I had presented this very bubbly human being for so many years. And I just thought, wow, we're all monkeys. We look to each other for guidance and example. Why don't I talk about this? Why don't I break the spell this shame stigma has on me as an example and - because it's the right thing to do. Because if any little girls are looking to me saying, how is she happy all the time? - they need to know that might not be the truth.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has it helped you?
BELL: Yeah, that's funny. I - yeah, it has because I still - every time I talk about it, I feel this little, tiny feeling bubble inside my belly that's like, let's - don't talk about that stuff. Like, that sort of - this 1950s vibe of keeping everything perfect. And I now feel way more responsible telling my whole story and being a well-rounded representation of a human being. It's not someone who has everything together that struggles just like anyone else. My house is a mess (laughter). I'm sitting here in a chair, unshowered. I'm wearing socks and sandals. You know, we're just - we're trying our best every day.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you do a lot of voice acting? - because you have done a lot of it in your career - not just "Frozen," but you've done guest-ins on tons of animated shows - "Big Mouth." You've been the voice of Lucy for the "Assassin's Creed" video game series. What does that bring to you?
BELL: Well, when I was growing up - the whole reason I became an actor was I started out as a mimic. I'm - there's a tic inside my head that mimics everything from a subway ding to the way someone with an accent says something. It happens inside my head on repeat. And I don't quite know how to describe it. But then I started studying music because sounds were so important, my ears are so sensitive. And I - they really are because I find in really loud places, I get a little bit of stimulus overload. So I started studying music. And I just like creating sound. And then there's something about only using your voice and creating a sound that will induce a feeling in someone else, not being able to use your face but then relying on an animator to tell the rest of the story. There's something about that partnership that I just find really thrilling.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And also just looking at your career, you seem to have really gravitated more towards comedy. But there's also an undertone of drama. What kind of roles draw you? What is it that you're looking for?
BELL: Well, I never thought I would just get into comedy. I've never done stand-up. I've never took formal improv classes. I feel like there has to be a sincerity behind comedy for it to really be funny to me. Somehow the convergence of the emotion of sincerity and perhaps darkness mixing with comedy has always been stimulating to me. But also the idea that what I think has been a little bit of a thread, at least what I gravitate towards with, like, Sarah Marshall or Veronica Mars or Eleanor Shellstrop on "The Good Place" - taking a character that is inherently unlikable on the page and then figuring out in my head how to get you to like her, to root for her.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is that, though, that thing that would draw you to that - to want to make people like someone who is unlikable? Is it like a feeling that everyone is likeable, ultimately? Is that sort of the message?
BELL: I mean, a little bit. You know, I think some great actors - I think it was Meryl Streep or something that said even when you're playing a villain, you have to like something about them. You have to know what's driving them. I remember an executive having on their - behind their desk a sign that said what does the villain want.
So yeah, you do have to - no one is inherently evil. I don't believe that. I think people are coming from damaged places. I think people have mismanaged ideals. And sometimes, greed or, you know, anger or malicious intent sort of fills that empty void. But it's always coming from someplace that's human. And there's just something really stimulating to me about digging deeper into character and finding what that is. Like, Eleanor Shellstrop on "The Good Place" - she's known to be a jerk. She doesn't want to engage with anyone because they always let her down. But there's just something about digging deeper and looking at a character's motivations. The most interesting ones I find are the ones that have a sort of deeper wound that they're working from.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristen Bell, thank you very much for talking with us.
BELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.