IF AT FIRST you don’t succeed, try, try again. At least that’s the Disney philosophy after finally pulling together an animated adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen after three failed attempts, including one by Walt himself back in 1943, who eventually concluded that the traditional tale of Kay, Gerda and shards of ice in the heart was too problematic to make it to the screen.
The most recent attempts began in the late 1990s, and finally came together this winter under two writer-directors. “Putting the story together into a shape that would fit 90 minutes was our biggest challenge,” recalls co-director Jen Lee.
Over time, it was decided that the Snow Queen was less interesting as a villain, more engaging if she was a girl with uncontrollable power over snow and ice. The other breakthrough came while they were toying with the snow queen’s bond with the second lead character. After dallying with a romantic angle, Frozen’s co-director Chris Buck says: “Someone in the room said ‘but what if they were sisters?’ At that moment, it just clicked.”
In recent years, Disney animation has braved fur software (Monsters Inc), the demands of Scottish tourism (no snowy scenes in Brave please) and 3D (everything since 2009), but in Frozen, their female characters take another leap forward by ditching romantic love as their driving force.
Lee and Buck have crafted a musical about siblings Anna (voiced by Kirsten Bell) and her big sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who can fashion ice and snow into stereoscopic 3D shapes that shimmer on the big screen. When Elsa’s power freezes their Nordic kingdom, she flees, forcing Anna to go after her to persuade her to reverse the spell.
A mix of drama, music and comedy designed to entertain the kids and distract the adults, Frozen may not have the ironic humour of a Pixar film, but it makes an effort to get past the wasp-waisted, wide-eyed girlishness of previous Disney Princesses. It even mocks the belief in instantaneous true love, espoused by boy-mad Princess Anna near the start of the film.
“Really,” groans Kristoff, a blue collar ice-cutter when Anna relates the story of her engagement to a handsome swain. “You fell in love after one day? You got engaged after one day to a guy and you don’t know his last name?”
“The point there with Anna is that she’s so lonely and desperate that she agrees to marry the first guy she meets” says Jen Lee. “I grew up on Disney films. My favourite was Cinderella and that romantic notion of true love is a part of that legacy and a part of life. However, in 2013 we wanted to get a little more connected to how it goes down in real life.”
Buck says Lee deserves the credit for “some of the best female characters we’ve ever done. These aren’t female characters to be put on a pedestal. They are just human.” Anna and Elsa even pass the Bechdel test, since they talk about a lot of things other than boys, and Anna may be the first Disney princess to pass wind. “We wanted Anna to be real, flawed and funny because girls can be funny,” adds Lee. “We wanted her to be a character that speaks to both girls and boys.”
Her reserved, angry sister Elsa also needed thawing out, and in the end this was achieved through the songs composed by Robert Lopez, best known for his work on Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The couple would tease Lee that “they were going to take her best scenes and make them their songs”. And in one case they did: her showstopper Let It Go seems destined for an original song nomination next year.
“That song was a gamechanger, because up until that point she was a pretty straightforward villain,” says Lee. “After that song, we reworked the first act so that she was much more complex, more interesting and sympathetic.”
Jennifer Lee has also become part of Disney’s girl power narrative. Buck co-directed Tarzan and Surf’s Up, but Frozen is Lee’s first film as a director, after serving as a screenwriter on Disney’s 2012 video game movie Wreck-It Ralph. She is now also the first woman to direct a full-length animated motion picture to completion.
“More and more animators and storyboard artists in Disney are women,” says Lee. “So I’d only stand out if this was 1965. Actually, I’m much more unique in Disney as a writer who has become an animation director. Until a couple of years ago, I didn’t know anything about animation.”
Under Buck and Lee, Disney’s 53rd in-house animated feature blends a fairytale structure with good-natured snowman jokes. “Getting the snow to look right in this film took a while,” concedes Buck. “The first software we tried, the snow the princesses were wading through looked like Styrofoam packing. In the end we sent animators to Wyoming to wade through snow in long dresses so we could get it right.”
And were these animators men or women? “Both” says Lee. • Frozen is on general release