Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Frozen (2013) - Disney Sisters in Love and War

It's a Winter Wonderland of Sisterly In-Fighting in Disney's "Frozen"

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"Frozen" (2013).
Walt Disney Animation Studios has been attempting, in conjunction with its brother animation studio Pixar, to update the portrayal of women in animated feature films. While there's nothing wrong with how women have been portrayed, and many would argue there is no need for any kind of change, Disney obviously feels that modern audiences will respond to active heroines who decide their own fates.

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Anna spies Elsa in the Ice Palace. Nice reflection!
The results to date have been encouraging, with "Brave" (2012) winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. "Frozen" (2013), a musical epic 3D animated fantasy directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, and written by , continues that trend.

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Once again, audiences approve, critics approve, and Disney has had to back up the mouse-truck to accept all the awards.

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Anna, Olaf, Kristoff, and Sven.
Elsa and Anna are two young princesses of Arendelle. They are different in one key aspect, in that Elsa alone has cryokinetic powers (the ability to freeze things using her mind). Their parents want Elsa to have time to learn how to control her powers without injuring Anna (which happened once). Therefore, they live hidden away in their castle, and Elsa remains even further secluded away, alone in her room, far from Anna. In this fashion, the girls grow to adulthood, but Anna does not understand why Elsa avoids her. Anna grows to resent her older sister.

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Prince Hans and Princess Anna.
After her parents die during an ocean crossing, Elsa is prepared to receive the crown of Arendelle. The castle gates are opened for the event for the first time in years, and Anna eagerly ventures out into town. There, after some scheming by the Duke of Weselton who wants to exploit Arendelle, she meets and falls in love with Prince Hans of the Southern Isles. After Elsa accepts her crown, Prince Hans proposes to Anna, who accepts. Elsa is upset at this hasty arrangement, and soon a row breaks out between the two sisters during which Elsa reveals her cryokinetic powers.

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Elsa gets very excitable at times.
Elsa is ashamed of herself and runs away. She has no way of knowing that by doing so, she will cause Arendelle to endure endless winter. She decides to build herself an ice palace at the North Mountain, a creation that also happens to bring her childhood snowman, Olaf, to life, though Elsa doesn't realize it.

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Olaf and Sven are always crowd favorites.
Anna, meanwhile, sets out alone to find Elsa and bring her back to Arendelle, which would return summer to the kingdom and reconcile the two estranged sisters. Mountain man Kristoff and his reindeer Sven happen along and agree to transport Anna to Elsa's mountain. Along the way, they meet Olaf, who takes them straight to the palace.

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Kristoff and Sven to the rescue.
The group arrives at the ice palace, and Anna remonstrates with Elsa to accompany her back to Arendelle. Elsa though refuses, and as they argue, Elsa angrily hurts Anna with her cryokinetic powers. In order to avoid further scenes, Elsa creates a giant snow monster, Marshmallow, who chases Anna and the others out of the palace.

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Marshmallow the Ice Monster.
Once out of danger, Kristoff notices that Anna's hair has turned white. Consulting the Grand Pabbie of the trolls, they learn that Elsa accidentally froze Anna's heart during their argument. The only cure is for Anna to thaw her heart by performing an act "of true love." Perhaps, Kristoff figures, Anna's beloved Hans will kiss her and free Anna from the ice curse. Accordingly, he returns Anna to Arendelle.

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Elsa's Ice Castle.
Hans, though, has gone searching for Anna, who had left without a word. He tracks down Elsa and kidnaps her, returning her to Arendelle under lock and key. There, Hans demands that Elsa release Arendelle from its eternal winter, but she pleads ignorance.

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Elsa is so regal.
Upon the return of Anna, she pleads with Hans to kiss her with true love and unfreeze her heart. He curtly refuses, however, revealing that he never loved her and was using her to gain control of Arendelle. Locking Anna away, Hans assumes control of Arendelle, orders Elsa's execution, and waits for Anna to die from her frozen heart.

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Anna and Kristoff.
Elsa manages to escape into the icy wilderness, while Olaf rescues Anna and reveals that Kristoff is in love with her. Olaf and Anna head out to find Kristoff somewhere in the icy fjord.

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There are some surprisingly risque scenes in "Frozen."
Hans finds Elsa and lies to her, telling Elsa that Anna is dead because of Elsa's accidental freezing of her heart. Elsa has an emotional reaction, which causes the blizzard upon the kingdom to lift. This reprieve in the weather enables Anna to find Kristoff in the frozen landscape.

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Anna, incredibly detailed.
Together, they find that Hans is attempting to kill Elsa, but Anna intervenes, which accidentally freezes her solid but saves Elsa. This turns out to the "act of true love" that lifts the curse from her, and Anna quickly returns to life with her heart unimpaired. Everything is soon put right, with Hans banished, the eternal winter lifted from Arendelle, Anna engaged to Kristoff, and Elsa in control of her powers.

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The source story by Hans Christian Anderson.
"Frozen" is based on the classic tale "The Snow Queen." Filming it had been one of Walt Disney's many projects based on classic Anderson fairy tales (such as "The Little Mermaid") which he never got around to completing. The project returned to life many years later, during the "Disney Renaissance" of the 1990s, but then it fell dormant again due to personnel problems.

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Veteran Chris Buck, an animator from "The Fox and the Hound" who had graduated to directing successful Disney movies such as "Tarzan," finally brought the "Ice Queen" project back to life. Modern animation techniques made the ambitious project feasible. The final breakthrough was to inject a sisterly rivalry into the story which is completely absent from the original Anderson source material, in which the Ice Queen is evil. Apparently, that was co-director Jennifer Lee's major contribution.

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The colors in "Frozen" are dazzling.
The highlight of "Frozen" is a splendid animation when we get to Elsa's ice palace. Ice and snow is difficult to animate believably because of all the light refractions involved, but the animators carefully studied snowy conditions in Norway, Canada and Montana for inspiration. Producer Peter Del Vecho noted that the idea was to create not "a realistic world - but a believable one."

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Anna and Elsa.
The dual female leads are done very carefully, and everyone has a unique personality. If there is one overriding reason to watch "Frozen," it is the cutting-edge animation that you won't see anywhere else. People praise the songs, the themes, and everything else, but the animation is what you will remember.

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The plot of "Frozen" is effective and in some ways inventive, but it also strains now and then. You have the obligatory cad, Hans, who seems charming at first and then undergoes a transformation. The forced sisterly rivalry between Anna and Elsa is a bit mundane for an epic feature film, with the idea of a sister who is inheriting a throne suddenly choosing to run away in melodramatic fashion on such a flimsy pretext a bit much. Yes, Elsa, flimsy!

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Superior animation tends to have themes that are outside the ordinary, though with human interactions and reactions to which audiences can relate. "Frozen" fits the bill nicely.

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Where "Frozen" cuts it a bit thin is in making the sisterly spats into a major cause of the film's plot progression as if a minor spat with your own sister were some magical event. Couldn't Elsa have just, you know, said she was sorry and bought Anna lunch or something? It would have been just as easy for all this to play out as some drawing-room drama, completely within the four walls of the castle. The injection of scenic ice fortresses and kingdoms and epic treks through the snow is necessary for the visuals, but also kind of pointless for the underlying story.

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Kristoff and Anna.
There also is a calculated feel about the portrayal of the characters. One is left with the impression that nobody can be made to look better than the others, that nobody is acting unreasonably or spitefully, and that ultimately the entire film is about a giant misunderstanding. Everyone (with the exception of Hans and one or two other villains, who simply have their own agendas) is so good-hearted that it makes the whole story lose focus. There's no Wicked Queen with that evil edge that people love to hate or anything like that, just people pursuing their assigned roles in life as muddied up by wrong-headed emotions and bone-headed mistakes.

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Whereas in, say, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" you have the truly creepy (and wickedly delicious) justice dispensed to the Evil Queen at the end, here you simply have poor Hans sent away, making him more pathetic than evil. Disney has, in a sense, gone soft. Furthermore, that the sisters are princesses is completely unnecessary and feels forced, and there is nothing particularly classic about a plot based upon petty rivalries and exaggerated emotional drama. This could more "believably" have been about ordinary people and their lives. Thus, "Frozen" is just a baby step by Disney into the future from its glorious princess past.

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The sunset in this shot is amazingly detailed.
Still, taking all the usual quibbles into account, it is indisputable that "Frozen" has a story to which a broad spectrum of audiences can relate through the usual Disney filter. That is important for widespread acceptance, and a big reason why many see "Frozen" as a return to true Disney-quality animation.

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Kristen Bell and her character, Anna.
Kristen Bell, who is best known from the television series "Veronica Mars," is the clear star of "Frozen" as Anna. Idina Menzel was brought in from Broadway to take the sister role of Elsa. Bell and Menzel have a duet in the film which is a highlight, with Menzel's trained vocal skills shining bright. Menzel alone delivers a stirring rendition of "Let It Go" at a key moment of the film, a song that is sure to become a classic.

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As you would expect from a top Disney animated feature film, the actors are superb and really embrace their roles. Jonathan Groff plays Kristoff, Santino Fontana plays Prince Hans, Alan Tudyk is the Duke of Weselton, and Josh Gad plays Olaf the Snowman. The score was composed by Robert Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Disney veterans who previously composed the score for "Winnie the Pooh." The characters include the usual Disney sidekicks for funny relief and scary monsters that aren't really that dangerous. That is what audiences like, so that is what Disney gives them.

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Disney knows how to market an animated film.
A smash box office hit since its release, "Frozen" is sure to become a beloved Disney classic along the lines of "Tangled" and "The Princess and the Frog." Both Anna and Elsa are so popular with audiences that they will become official Disney Princesses in 2014, and get ready for the inevitable Broadway musical and ice show.

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Just about everybody who has seen the film and commented upon it has had a positive reaction, and it will receive a lot of awards. Even if you don't get swept away by the mundane plot, the dazzling animation and usual funny bits, along with the sterling score, should make a visit to Arendelle a fun experience.

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Below is the official trailer for "Frozen," and below that the "Elsa" trailer. You also might be interested in "Frozen" hidden treats, our collection of "Frozen" stills, and our first look at the "Frozen" trailer. You also may wish to listen to a couple of different versions of "Let It Go," the film's true show-stopper, here.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

"How To Train Your Dragon 2" Trailers

Hiccup is Back, Badder Than Ever!

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How To Train Your Dragon 2.
Below are the trailers released to date for the eagerly awaited "How To Train Your Dragon 2," the follow-up to "How to Train Your Dragon."

The thrilling second chapter of the epic HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON trilogy brings us back to the fantastical world of Hiccup and Toothless five years after the two have successfully united dragons and Vikings on the island of Berk. While Astrid, Snoutlout and the rest of the gang are challenging each other to dragon races (the island's new favorite contact sport), the now inseparable pair journey through the skies, charting unmapped territories and exploring new worlds.

When one of their adventures leads to the discovery of a secret ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider, the two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace. Now, Hiccup and Toothless must unite to stand up for what they believe while recognizing that only together do they have the power to change the future of both men and dragons.

US Release: June 13, 2014


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Moana" Coming in 2018 from Walt Disney Animation Studios

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John Musker and Ron Clements form the directing team that ignited the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, and also created some of its high points. Their works include 'The Princess and the Frog', 'Aladdin' and 'The Little Mermaid'.

Let's put it this way: you won't find a better resume in the business.

John and Ron were working on a book adaptation project that got scuttled for mysterious reasons. With nothing better to do, they have turned to "Moana," which is a work in early development. It is so early in development, in fact, that they haven't yet decided what type of animation to use.

The official Disney page describes it as a "mythic adventure set hundreds of years ago and across a series of islands in the South Pacific." Here is the full statement of plot issued by the studio:
"The main character will be Moana Waialiki, a sea voyaging enthusiast, and the only daughter of a chief in a long line of navigators. When her family needs her help, she sets off on an epic journey. The film will also include demi-gods and spirits taken from real mythology." 
The dynamic duo is no stranger to pirate tales, having crafted "Treasure Planet" back in 2002. There is no word on whether "Moana" involves pirates, but it no doubt does involve sea-faring, which was the realm of "Treasure Planet" - sort of.

These guys can attract the best talent for their projects, and the one known to sign on is Mark Mancina, the composer behind 'Tarzan' and 'Brother Bear'.

No other details are available right now. We will keep you posted.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Disney Animators on Strike 1941

An Animated Picket Line!

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The strike at Disney just before the country entered World War II was one of the most colorful and animated strikes in history. I include these pictures here because this shows what animators can do even when they are not working on films.

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1941 Disney Animation Strike.
The moral of this picture is if you want to see some of the most creative and funny strike signs be mean to your animators. Walt Disney was notoriously hard on his animators, getting the maximum production out of them at the cheapest cost.

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Moral of the story: never upset your animators or you'll face some of the fiercest protest signs ever!

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"Frozen" Hidden Treats

The Animators Had Some Fun with "Frozen"

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There are all sorts of hidden treats in "Frozen." Let's take a look, one by one. We'll try to give a little background to each, just skip over those parts if they bore you.

Mickey Mouse

There's an old-time Disney character who makes his way into "Frozen" who doesn't appear in a lot of films these days.
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Look closely when Anna (Kristen Bell) ventures into Wandering Oaken's Trading Post and Sauna. If you look very closely, you might spot Mickey Mouse hiding out down there. It is dark and he is hard to see except on a big screen, but Mickey is definitely there.

"The Swing"

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Lisa Keene's copy of "The Swing," before putting in the "Frozen" character (bottom) and after (above).  
One of Anna's big numbers is "For the First Time in Forever." As she sings this, she leaps into a swing in a painting. This isn't just any painting, it is the Rococo-era French painting "The Swing" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. The painting is depicted/copied in the film by Disney background artist Lisa Keene and is far from an exact duplicate, as you can see. Clearly, it wasn't intended to be any kind of duplicate, not least because the original has some, er, mature connotations that don't really fit into a Disney animated feature film. It is what is known as an "homage."

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"I won!"
As an aside, Lisa Keene won an Annie Award for her work in "Frozen" in the category "Production Design in an Animated Feature Production," an award which she shared with Michael Giaimo and David Womersley. She is an old hand at Disney, having begun in the animation department working on "The Black Cauldron." She was involved in all the major Disney Renaissance films such as "The Lion King," "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," and has continued on through the Disney Post-Renaissance and the Disney Revival. She is a background artist who also does character design, and she does a lot of other work at Disney as well.

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Concept art for Rapunzel, apparently by Keene
Anyway, the Fragonard reference is an in-joke. When Disney was making "Tangled," the animators took as their inspiration the Fragonard painting "The Swing" (strangely enough, Lisa Keene isn't credited on "Tangled" at all). "The Swing" provided a certain oil-on-canvas look that gave "Tangled" a classic feel. The free-spirited girl in the swing is what Disney has been shooting for recently in its portrayal of female leads, a carefree, joyous spirit. There probably was the added benefit to Keene using it in "Frozen" that the animation studio already had dissected the Fragonard painting and had plenty of worked-up, unreleased treatments of it for Keen to work with.

"Tangled" also makes an even more direct appearance in "Frozen" elsewhere, but we'll get to that below.

Thus, there's a huge, hidden connection between "Tangled" and "Frozen," two of Disney's best recent films.

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Fragonard's "The Swing."
Notice by comparing the animated version to the original painting how, in her version, artist Lisa Keene emphasized the flying shoe (carefree joi de vivre) but dropped the hidden lover (infidelity) in the bushes, and also retained the drone pushing her (commitment). The original painting is about the guy watching in the bushes on the left, a voyeuristic quality that puts him and you the viewer in the same position, both watching the naughty but happy girl. This makes you - the viewer - part of the illicit transaction, with the oblivious gentleman pushing the swing unaware of both the hidden lover and you. Without the guy in the bushes, the painting is just about a free-spirited young girl having fun with her (inconsequential) boyfriend. Its focus shifts completely so that it's all about the princess in a Disney Princess animated film. Very Disney-like changes.

As background, Jean-Honoré Fragonard was a French painter and printmaker who lived from 1732 to 1806 in Paris. The man worked like a madman, painting some 550 quality paintings during the final years of the French Monarchy. "The Swing" is one of his more interesting paintings because it shows a man pushing a lady on a swing while another man, hidden from the guy pushing the lady, is watching the lady fly up into the air. It is pretty clear that the hidden fellow is looking up the lady's dress, but she doesn't care, perhaps because they are having an affair and the first fellow - boyfriend/husband/whatever - is clueless. That may explain why she looks so happy. This kind of ribaldry was frowned upon in serious paintings back in the day, but Fragonard earned a good commission for it anyway. I mean, it's a good painting, and I'm not just saying that because it's old and respected. Fragonard clearly was pushing the limits with "The Swing" during that puritanical age, but Keene managed to tone it back down again.

Eugene and Rapunzel from "Tangled"

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Eugene and Rapunzel?
According to Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, that is Eugene and Rapunzel over there on the left, directly in front of Anna. Nothing gets into a Disney animated feature film by accident. Nothing. Becky Breese, the lead animator on Anna, had also worked on "Tangled" and asked the directors for permission to include that homage. The question went up to John Lasseter, and he gave the OK. Good move, John.

Nothing is there by accident.

Below is a reference to another recent Disney classic.

"Wreck-It Ralph" Reference

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The fairly obvious reference to "Wreck-It Ralph" probably got noticed by a few people, though it wasn't exactly emphasized. People usually don't go into films watching for clues to previous films, but some do because they know there are usually things slipped in by animators on the sly. Some of those easter eggs have been intentional, some have been misinterpreted (clouds forming the word sex?), some have been put in maliciously by disgruntled animators (phallic symbols in ornate castle designs) - but there's usually something. And sometimes Disney just re-uses old material - they were still using work done for "Sleeping Beauty" decades later, and some of the designs for "The Little Mermaid" derived from unused treatments from the 1930s. So, there's usually something there for those with a sharp eye, especially in the "prestige" projects like "Frozen."

Anybody who saw "Wreck-It Ralph" and was looking for insider stuff instantly would have recognized the tasty treats that Anna likes so much.

Below is the introduction of the racers in the "Sugar Rush" game in "Wreck-It Ralph" for comparison.

Donny Osmond

Now we come to one of the most subtle references you'll ever find in a Disney movie (and actually find out about). There supposedly is a Donny Osmond reference in "Frozen." For real!

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Donny Osmond in the 1970s, Hans in "Frozen."
During the song "Love Is an Open Door," when Prince Hans proposes to Anna, there is a moment where Prince Hans belts out a high note under a waterfall. As he does so, he closes his eyes and raises his arm in an exact copy of a signature move by Donny.

This isn't a very good way to see it, but it is from this scene:

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The "Love is an Open Door" scene.
Now, why would Disney put a reference to Donny Osmond of the famous Osmonds in a film that had absolutely nothing to do with him?

Well, because the animator in charge of that sequence was his nephew.

Hyrum Osmond (now there's a name you don't hear every day) has been at Disney since 2008's "Bolt." On "Frozen," Hyrum was the supervising animator for Olaf, the lovable snowman. However, he stepped in to animate Prince Hans for that one particular moment.

According to Yahoo Movies, Osmond said, "I requested that shot, just because I knew that that was the perfect moment to kind of pepper in that Donny Osmond feel to it."

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There really isn't much of a resemblance between Hans and Donny, and nobody would have known if Hyrum didn't spill the beans. It is more about Hans' mannerisms while singing than his look.
A couple of things are of particular note about that. First, Hyrum didn't just slip the shot in. This cannot be stressed enough - nothing (at least these days) makes it into a Disney film by accident. That is how tightly controlled the process has become. Second, Donny has a sort of reputation (perhaps from Weird Al Yankovich calling him that once) of being the "white-est guy," and "Frozen" is all about the white stuff. So, it's almost an inside joke of an inside joke, or an inside joke squared.

Hyrum is the son of George Virl Osmond Jr., the eldest of Donny's seven brothers. George isn't very well known because he never sang with the Osmonds due to hearing impairment. He was always around, though, just as much a part of the family as anyone else.

Further quoting Hyrum:
Obviously we were exposed to the 'Donny and Marie' show. We were on set a lot. And me and my brothers and sisters almost playfully mocked our uncles with their signature move, which was basically sort of a tilted head, eyes squinting, with the raising of their arm or arms as they belt out that note. I just thought it was a perfect moment to kind of hit the Donny Osmond pose there.
So take that for what it's worth. It hardly seemed worth asking permission to put in, because, well, you can barely see it even after you are told it is there. But, that is Hyrum's nod to uncle Donny. It pays to be nice to your nephews.

Crazy End Credits

Now, there's one more that isn't that well known. It's not, however, an easter egg, but rather a crazy credit. But it's amusing, and nice to see it and be able to tell your friends about it.

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Crazy Credits.
This appears at the very end of the credits and makes fun of standard disclaimers. Hey, you don't see that very often!

This one reads:
The views and opinions expressed by Kristoff in the film that all men eat their own boogers are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Walt Disney Company or the filmmakers.
So there you go, the animators had their fun, and almost nobody noticed!

Reference to "Arrested Development"

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Anna and Hans have a cute exchange about finishing each others' ... sandwiches. This happens to be a direct homage to a similar scene in the Fox television show "Arrested Development." The Fox show aired from 2003 - 2006, but then had a revival in 2013. Since that was the same year that "Frozen" was released, it likely wasn't an accident. Disney always tosses in a few obscure references like this for the truly observant!

You also might be interested in my full review of "Frozen."

You may find the "Let It Go" sequence from "Frozen" here. It includes a wonderful performance by a 9-year-old singing it - the film version is there at the bottom of the page, animation included. There's a fun lip-synch to "Love is an Open Door" here.

I also have collections of still pictures from "Frozen" as a supplement to my review here and here.

Learn some unknown facts about Elsa here.