As often is the case when it comes to the movies, the story behind them holds just as much weight as the film itself.
Frozen is no different, but for a tragic reason: co-director Chris Buck’s son died just 24 days before the first film’s release.
Speaking in Into the Unknown: Making of Frozen 2 documentary on Disney+ Chris shares his grief and describes how Frozen 2 helped him pick himself back up just like Anna in The Next Right Thing, even leading to a character tribute.
At the time, the world had no idea at least not until the night of Oscars.
On that night back in 2014, the film’s producer Peter Del Vecho and directors Jennifer Lee and Chris mentioned a young man, Ryder, during their acceptance speech after the film was awarded Best Animated Feature.
“We’d like to dedicate this to our guardian angel, that’s my son Ryder Buck. That you Ryder,” Chris said, dedicating the award to his son.
In August 2012, Ryder had been diagnosed with Stage 4 testicular cancer aged 22, but he fought back.
“After each dose [of chemotherapy], he would feel completely nauseated and bedridden,” Shelley Buck, Ryder’s mom, told LA Weekly. “But by the second weekend, there was just no stopping Ryder. He would be up again, jamming and doing more shows.”
Ryder remained positive, on Facebook in 2013 he said: “We have to be willing to stop trying to MAKE things in our life happen, and just LET whatever is supposed to happen take place.”
Within eight months things were starting to improve, his treatment was working, and tests showed he was cancer free.
A mere six months later, Ryder was killed after being struck by two cars on a freeway after his own car had broken down.
More than 1,200 people attended his memorial, held in November 2013.
“There was so much wind behind his wings,” she told LA Weekly, “If only he could have landed.”
His death came 24 days before Frozen was released in cinemas, but Chris knew he was still proud. Ryder posted to his Facebook a photo of him with a Frozen poster. “Check it out! Thanksgiving 2013!! Well done Chris Buck. — feeling proud,” he wrote.
In the Disney+ documentary Chris talks about what it was like in those early days.
“The wrap party was the weirdest thing for me,” he says. “One moment people would come up to me and say, ‘I love this movie’ and then 10 seconds later say, ‘And I’m so sorry.’ And I got that all night.”
As the world went mad for Frozen, Chris took the time to recharge from the intense process of making the movie and to grieve his son. When the team decided to write and make a sequel, there was an obvious theme – and tribute to be made.
In episode three of the documentary we hear how a character voiced by Jason Ritter in Frozen 2 was named after Chris’ son, Ryder.
“Jen was the one who – she asked me if it was ok if we named one of the characters Ryder,” Chris says. “We’ve given him more to do because he’s a very light spirit, he’s a very positive character. He’s actually really fun, really, like I said, kind of hopeful.”
Ryder is one of the Northuldra tribe Elsa and Anna find in the Enchanted Wood. The character ends up trying to help Kristoff with his proposal to Anna, memorably acting out the reindeers’ advice, putting on all their voices just like Kristoff does with Sven.
Chris explains all this while he and his wife show the documentary team a memorial for Ryder. His wife had no idea about the tribute and we see her tear up when hearing about it, moved by how they’ve chosen to honour their son.
The Next Right Thing
Chris also revealed he was part of the inspiration for the song The Next Right Thing along with Kristen Bell’s own struggles with depression. Bell has spoken about how she called Jen to talk about the role, to discuss how Anna would be feeling as she strongly connected with her at that moment. “All you can do is think of the next step,” she says.
The song The Next Right Thing, sung by Bell who plays Anna, and written by songwriters Kristen Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez, was powerful for Chris.
It sees Anna mourn her friend and sister and try and pick herself up to save her home. The lyrics reminded Chris to get back up and carry on. When Frozen 2 was released, the darker tone was noted by critics and fans alike, but the song is actually seen as hopefully.
While it starts with “I’ve seen dark before, but not like this/This is cold, this is empty, this is numb,” it goes on to urge you on Anna and the audience:
This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind
You are lost, hope is gone
But you must go on
And do the next right thing
The documentary episode ends with a backyard concert where the Disney crew all turn up. Jen explains the crew is like “your family” because of their intense hours and the Disney spirit. The group has gathered for the concert, a fundraiser Chris and his family organised to raise money for a music scholarship set up in his son’s name.
Chris’ wife Shelley released a book Leave Your Light On, sharing their son’s story to inspire people with his positive attitude. The book looks at how Ryder adapted his life after his diagnosis and how it inspired him to change his relationship with his parents and the world around him. The book’s title comes from a song Ryder had written himself.
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“His legacy lives on through this story, which I hope will inspire many people who are faced with the difficulty of hearing and processing bad news,” Shelley said. “We can’t always change what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond to it.”
You can watch the episode of Into the Unknown: Making of Frozen 2 on Disney+ now.
Frozen 2 comes to Disney+ on 3rd July along with Hamilton. Sign up to Disney+ for £59.99 a year and £5.99 a month.