Disney’s Christmas present to us this year is Frozen, an exquisite, snow-spangled musical in the classic Sleeping Beauty mould. Princess Anna fearlessly sets off on an epic mountain adventure to find her sister, Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped their kingdom in eternal winter. Frozen’s directors Chris Buck (co-director of Surf’s Up) and Jennifer Lee (screenwriter of Wreck-It Ralph) reveal some behind-scenes magic.
This is the first Disney animated feature to be directed by a woman. Sorry, Chris, ‘co-directed’!
CB: Thank you!
JL: I am flattered, but luckily for me I didn’t realize I was ‘the first woman director in the 76 years of Disney feature animation’ until the press told me! We didn’t talk about it, we didn’t think about it. I was first brought on to Frozen almost 2 years ago as a writer. It was a very intense production schedule and, because Chris and I worked well together, John [Lasseter – Disney’s Chief Creative Officer] asked it I would step in and co-direct. All I kept thinking about was that I was the first writer to do that, not that I was the first woman! We work with so many women now and more and more women are going into animation – so I think that’s just a great sign of things to come.Co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee pose at the Hollywood premiere of Frozen (Picture: Reuters)
Even so, this Disney princess story has a subtle but radical feminist twist: the relationship between the two royal sisters is presented as the ultimate love in Frozen – rather than the romantic story.Advertisement Advertisement
JL: Actually a lot of those ideas originated with Chris. They are what drew me to the project in the first place.
CB: I was always drawn to the idea of romantic love vs. real love. Romantic love being all the hearts and roses and candy and all that wonderful stuff, but then after a few months the arguments and a little more of the real stuff starts to kick in…
JL: the flaws show, the cracks show…
CB: …and either it works or it doesn’t. And if it works it’s so much stronger. But that led to us redefining ‘true love.’ And can ‘we’, as Disney, do something a little different? And not necessarily doing the kiss from the male lead, as being the ultimate ‘act of true love’. That led to looking at the bond of family and how that is a true love in itself.
How did you balance classic Disney storytelling with making a movie for a modern audience?
JL: It was organic really.
CB: Yes, because we both love Disney movies, we both grew up on them. Pinocchio was my favourite and my first.
JL: Cinderella was mine.
CB: They are in our DNA already; we don’t have to think about it. Then it’s about the contemporary side. Something that more speaks to today’s society.
Frozen’s princesses seem deliberately un-princess-y. At one point Anna sings ‘I don’t know if I’m elated or gassy- but I’m somewhere in that zone.’ Can’t imagine Sleeping Beauty singing that!Advertisement Advertisement
JL: To us the characters were what were going to drive the more modern element. It was through their choices and them being wonderfully messy and flawed like we all are in real life. Anna is fearless and inspirational but she sometimes makes wrong choices – albeit with a lot of heart.
Is there a difference between a Disney princess and a Pixar princess?
[They both laugh]
JL: No! It’s more about the writers and filmmakers writing what they are and who they know. You direct from your own vision. We are never given any rules.
CB: Though at Disney we do have the legacy of the hand drawn artists. We still have many hand drawn artists who are there. Often they will be there in the dailies where animators are showing their computer generated material and they will hand draw over it on screen and give the face and the poses that hand drawn appeal. There’s that nice visual marriage of both that is special to Disney.
Does a Disney princess movie always have to end in marriage?
JL: No! I don’t want to give away anything about our film, but a lot of the relationships feel like they are just starting.
Nature is a strong presence in Frozen and having two sisters as the heroines made me wonder whether Hayao Miyazaki was a particular influence?
JL: Miyazaki is one of my favourite animators. But there are so many of us that work together and we draw on each other and what inspires us. We read a lot and we research a ton. We draw on multiple sources.Advertisement
CB: We watch a lot of live action movies too – that’s one of the many great things about what we do! We watched Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago.
JL: We love that epic adventure and that big scope and scale and then the intimacy of funny quirky characters.Anna and Kristoff brave the epic cold in a scene from Frozen (Picture: AP Photo/Disney)
The look of the film is inspired by Norway?
JL: Our whole art department went to Norway – it was by far the greatest influence. We would say Frozen is set in a fictional world, but there’s a believability when you root it in some part of a real culture. What was amazing to me about Norway was all the wooden stave churches and the rosemaling – which is the folk art on all the clothing and on all the architecture. And then, in opposition to that intimacy you have all these giant fjords that are powerful and these huge drop-off mountains that are overwhelming and threatening and beautiful.
Frozen is actually based on a Danish story, by Hans Anderson, about a girl called Gerda saving a boy, Kai, from the evil Snow Queen. Though yours is a very loose adaptation?
CB: Walt [Disney] had originally wanted to do The Snow Queen in the late 1930s. And there were no treatments left from that.
JL: Nothing left – just a production number.
CB: Then in the late 1990s and early 2000s there were several people who wanted to do a version – but that didn’t quite happen. Then, when John Lasseter asked me to come back to Disney in 2008, I pitched a version of it and John was very excited about the possibilities. So that was the beginning of this version, then we just kept creating as we went and finding this story.Advertisement
JL: What is challenging about any adaptation, or ‘inspired by’ story is that there is a huge difference between a story read and its ethereal qualities and the symbolism and the metaphors and concrete film. The minute you visualize something it changes. And sometimes it takes away from the magic of the original. And so, to me, the answer is to take what’s inspiring, what the essence is, and then so something that works for the concrete medium.
You seldom get real baddies in cartoons any more – just characters that are ‘misunderstood’.
JL: Originally Elsa was a villain and that was less interesting for us in that ‘Good vs. Evil’ is often the go to and the evil character can be 1 dimensional. Frozen’s theme of Fear vs. Love is not one we’ve seen. To me Fear became the villain.
CB: It became very clear to us that Anna represents Love and Elsa represents Fear. It actually goes back to the original Hans Anderson story – which is about love vs. negativity. The boy character, Kai, gets this shard of mirror in his eye which means he can only see the negative in the world. You turn on the TV today and there’s so much fear on the news you don’t want to walk out of your door.
Movie industry wisdom has it that ‘Girls will watch boys films, but boys won’t watch girls films’.
JL: One of my goals was to disprove that. I think that if you give people really strong, real characters they will relate to them. We showed Frozen to a lot of test audiences and the response from boys has been equally as high. Chris has 3 boys himself, so he’s very tapped in to what boys like.
CB: Yes, I’ve 3 boys and my wife is a very strong woman, so they’ve grown up with that – which I think most of society has! So you have that in a movie and boys respond very well to that.
JL: I will happily argue that we made female characters that are as genuine and relatable to girls and women as to boys and men, because they are just real people. They are not on a pedestal and they don’t have a romantic notion of life that we don’t understand.Advertisement Advertisement