Monday, January 13th, 2020

Idina Menzel & Aurora – Into the Unknown

[Knock, knock, knock-knock, knock] Do you want to build a sequel?


Jessica Doyle: Given Disney’s current reputation for nostalgic repetition, I was pleasantly surprised to find Frozen II full of ideas — in fact so full of ideas that almost none of them actually get developed with any coherence. (Whose voice was it again? And why is Olaf suddenly obsessed with aging? And how was a troop of Arendellian soldiers going missing without a trace for three decades not an issue? Et cetera.) “Into the Unknown” is as good a preview of the incoherence as any, as the song makes no sense narratively, psychologically (having spent all but the last six months of her life being taught decorum and self-distrust to the point of pathology, Elsa is ready to flee Arendelle because she… hears a voice?), or musically: the build-up to the chorus is repeatedly off-puttingly paced, most clearly in the “How… do I… follow… YOUUUUU”  climactic line. But then again, I can say all this with authority because my older daughter, who was well finished with the first movie, is insisting on playing the soundtrack on the way to school. Maybe stuffing your sequels full of ideas and not worrying too much about the implications is more profitable than Bob Iger is willing to admit.

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: It’s impossible to discuss “Into the Unknown” without discussing the massive success of “Let It Go.” “Let it Go” was the rare type of cultural touchstone whose power was almost universal: it sold 11 million copies the year after the movie came out, won an Academy Award and Grammy, reached top five on the Billboard Hot 100, was translated into 44 different languages, and arguably paved the way for Disney to release a second movie and Broadway musical. Winter 2013-2014 when the movie came out, I remember singing this song in French during French class; in 2020, I’m putting on a musical production of Frozen with my students in China and every one of them — inexplicably, even the ones who really don’t speak English — knows the words to the chorus. This is all to say: expectations for the second Frozen soundtrack were sky-high, and thus, “Into the Unknown” has been sold as the new “Let It Go” almost since before the movie was even released. (I’d argue that “Show Yourself” is a better thematic follow-up, but never mind me.) So does “Into the Unknown” live up to the hype? Not exactly; but to no fault of its own. The song works perfectly well as a way to advance the character development of Elsa and is gorgeously sung. Idina Menzel sells trepidation, fear, and excitement convincingly, and harmonizes with Aurora beautifully. It pays tribute to its listeners too; if “Let it Go” is a child’s anthem about becoming the person you have always been despite what others think, “Into the Unknown” is the adult version of that, a song about escaping the comfortable life you’ve built in hopes of finding something new about the world and yourself. The song is doomed to live in the shadow of its predecessor, but is still excellent in its own right. 

Jonathan Bradley: “Let It Go” was, for all its power, an introspective ballad that turned on the first Frozen‘s theme of the liberating wonder of self-discovery. Its successor, “Into the Unknown,” is tasked with maneuvering great wedges of plot into position, meaning it has to be the film’s showstopper as well as taking on narrative weight that “Love is an Open Door” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” bore first time around. (The piano flurries that form the intro deliberately invoke the latter.) Aurora’s four-note motif, the sinuous call that leads Idina Menzel’s Elsa out of a resolved story and the security of her home of Arendelle, is appropriately otherworldly, but the song needs far too much to be overwhelming to allow that delicate melody the space it needs to be as entrancing as it is supposed to be. But “Into the Unknown” does eventually manage to be more than stage-setting; “Are you someone out there who’s a little bit like me/Who knows deep down I’m not where I’m meant to be” is a couplet that speaks to that deep-seated sense of strangeness Elsa sees within herself and which has made her movies more than a toddler-sized-blue-dress dissemination mechanism. Something else helps: Menzel’s horizon-shattering wail when she hits “unknown.” The voice that defied gravity on “Defying Gravity” has the heft to move these big wedges of plot to where they need to go.  

Katie Gill: Whereas “Let it Go” was “Defying Gravity” reskinned, “Into the Unknown” is every musical theater “I want” song reskinned. Elsa wants to see how far she’ll go, she’s gotta find her corner of the sky, and for once it might be grand to have someone understand. As such, it’s something we’ve heard before. A decent re-interpretation of something we’ve heard before with downright beautiful harmonies near the end, but something we’ve heard before nonetheless. “Into the Unknown” also fails in the job it’s supposed to do: be inoffensive and singable enough that five year olds or my drunk ass can sing it through all the way without disaster happening. That last “into the unKNOOO-OOOOO-OOO-OOOOOWN” is very nice and very powerful and is comprised of notes that six-year-old girls and my exceedingly alto range cannot hit. But, like “Let it Go” before it, this is a song that Disney has carefully crafted and reverse-engineered and is putting so much pressure to be an actual hit. Of course it’s going to be decent. Not as amazing as “Let it Go,” which is easily a [9] on a good day and a [10] when I’m drunk, but a solid song nonetheless and one that I won’t mind hearing when Idina inevitably performs it at the Oscars or when my five-year-old second cousin starts happily talking to me about Frozen at the next family reunion.

Jackie Powell: Although Elsa doesn’t build an ice castle at the conclusion of this power ballad, “Into The Unknown” doesn’t need to be accompanied by gigantic visuals for it to be a much more complex and fascinating song than its predecessor. This track soars and it uses a potent string section, predictable but equally fun percussive cymbal crashes and Aurora’s eerie dies irae gregorian chant as a counter melody. There’s a certainty in “Let It Go” and that must be one of the reasons why it caught on as much as it did. But the difference in “Into the Unknown” is its obvious ambiguity in subject matter and tone. It’s not sure of itself, but I don’t think that detracts from its quality. That’s why I don’t think it’s really all that comparable to “Let It Go.” Its goals and motives are different. It’s more mature in lyrical plot and composition. “Into the Unknown” takes leaps and breaths just as Elsa does when she’s contemplating her next move. That’s the beauty of the track, which composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have addressed. Each line in each chorus is symbolic. In every “Into the Unknown” within the refrain, Idina Menzel takes a leap sonically. First, she travels an octave higher, which is a relatively safe interval, but then that is followed by the much more difficult intervals as the chorus ends. Menzel’s voice goes up a ninth followed by an eleventh. Vocally she’s out of her comfort zone, which pushes Elsa to do the same. The melody is clearly a bit choppier. It also bounces especially on the couplet of alliterations: ” I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls.” Its dynamics are much more defined and that’s credit to Menzel, who wanted to sell the track as more than a “Let It Go” B-side. The extended queer metaphor that Elsa represents is able to flourish under “Unknown.” Although it really shows itself much more later in the soundtrack. 

Edward Okulicz: Yeah, look, Frozen II: Heterosexuality Reclaims the Throne of Arendelle gave me plenty of feels too, but I always preferred “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” to “Let It Go,” so this wasn’t one of the Primary Feels Sources. The use of Aurora’s four note call as a leitmotif is pretty clever melodically, but forcing this song and its narrative pivot kicking and screaming into being an “I Want” song (subclassification: “I Must,” which if it doesn’t already exist, it, well… should) is unbecoming. The asides (“which I don’t”) feel unnatural away from the cinema, and while Menzel surely blasts with those notes I don’t feel moved when I replay.

Brad Shoup: It’s quenching when, in the second half of the second verse, Menzel dips into some jump-blues phrasing. There was no way this thing was going to stay an Arctic tone poem, so I’m grateful for moments like that. Toss out the movie and have Menzel reel in the asides, and you’d have a fantastically mysterious piece of piano-pop.

Thomas Inskeep: I’ve never seen either of the Frozen films, but I recall how annoying I found “Let It Go,” from the first film. This is better (though still, of course, a big Broadway-style ballad); I appreciate how this song will likely speak to theatre kids who feel like the weirdos in their schools — songwriters Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, obviously, have a knack for this kind of thing. Having Broadway queen Idina Menzel sing it helps, as does the clever move of having Norwegian singer Aurora sing the part of the siren. Judged for what it is, rather than as a basic pop record, this is solid. 

Ashley Bardhan: As a recuperating former theater kid, I hoped this strange collaboration would be everything I wanted but couldn’t admit. Unfortunately, it turned out to be nothing I wanted, which I feel comfortable admitting. I’m not sure what Aurora is meant to do on this track other than supply wordless, ghostly ooo-ing, which opens you to a sense of mysterious possibility that goes absolutely nowhere. Idina Menzel is a powerhouse and typically good at convincing us that we are in her character’s world, but even she sounds bored at the incongruously triumphant swelling of orchestra during the chorus. She calls out from the overblown composition, “Into the unknown! Isn’t it cool that I’m hitting this E-flat in chest voice?!” Yes, it is very cool, but less so that the last 40 seconds of this song is essentially musical theatre sacrilege. A money-maker high-note chorus into a painfully loud bridge that conveys absolutely no mood other than “me and Aurora are both singing right now,” only to end with a very embarrassing, ham-fisted belted note? And they had the audacity to let Idina put a slide in there? No, no. No, no, no. No.  

Alfred Soto: No, no, I mean — let me go.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Even more than the first installment, Frozen II was lacking in songs that were memorable in and of themselves. “Lost in the Woods,” for example, is really only notable for the animation that accompanied it: a montage riffing on ’80s music videos that proved unexpectedly entertaining. “Into the Unknown” is the film’s best song, but the music doesn’t quite match what the lyrics are trying to convey: Why is the first chorus so bombastic when Elsa’s not yet convinced to follow this siren’s song? At least “Let It Go” knew how to accomplish a sensible narrative arc with its use of dynamic range. “Unknown” doesn’t come together as neatly as “Let It Go” either, which found a lot of meaning in the evolving delivery of “the cold never bothered me anyway.” The complaints could go on but at the end of the day, I can’t really hate something that finds Aurora using kulning — Scandinavian herding calls — as a narrative tool.

Tobi Tella: I was 13 when the first Frozen came out, and despite the fact that I probably should’ve been too old for Disney princess movies by the unspoken middle school social construct standards, I dragged my dad to see it in theaters. That probably should’ve been his first inkling that I was gay, and as clear as Disney’s attempts to play on my emotions were as a shy insecure gay kid, the introverted, uncomfortable princess Elsa was the most accurate representation I had really found of myself in a kids movie. “Let It Go” was not only a cultural moment but a formative one and even though looking back as an adult I know that Frozen has flaws, I can’t help but be empowered by it now. This song was set up to fail by its positioning it as “Let It Go II,” and the seams of this one are far more clear; the chorus is literally just one phrase repeated and the lyrics are prime “leave nothing to the imagination or subtext and explain all your feelings.” But I still feel an intense connection to this; maybe it’s Menzel’s strong and evocative vocal performance, maybe it’s nostalgia, and maybe it’s the feeling that even as a 19 year old my experience with my identity is not even close to over, the fact that there will always be unknowns which are horrifying yet intriguing (hello adult gay dating!). I’m not sure if this is a great song, or even a good one, but for a sequel with impossibly huge expectations it managed to evoke the same intense reaction that “Let It Go” did, so I guess Disney and their manipulations win this round.

Reader average: [4] (2 votes)

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