For the first time in its storied history, Disney has tapped a woman director, Jennifer Lee, to helm a theatrical feature. (Women do direct TV features.) Director Chris Buck wanted to bring her on as co-director on the studio’s 53rd animated feature “Frozen”; Lee contributed to the film’s screenplay, and was also a co-writer on old-school-arcade box office hit, “Wreck-It Ralph.”
“Frozen” centers on Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), who teams with an extreme mountain man and his reindeer sidekick when the world is plunged into eternal winter. The trio begins a search for Anna’s sister, the Snow Queen (Idina Menzel), to reverse the chilly spell that’s been cast on their kingdom. (There’s a touch here not only of the “Ice Age” series but Narnia’s White Witch Jadis.)
Lee’s other projects in the pipeline include an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights” for production company Troika, and an original screenplay that is in development with Leonardo DiCaprio’s banner Appian Way.
Disney’s recent history with female directors on animated projects is problematic, as Disney animation and Pixar chief John Lasseter replaced longtime writer-animator Brenda Chapman at the helm of Pixar’s “Brave” mid-production in 2011, despite her having spent six years hatching most of the mother-daughter relationship film. Chapman would have been the first woman to direct a Pixar or Disney film; both companies’ tally of female filmmakers now stands at zero.
Chapman and Lasseter fell out over creative differences, and Chapman did not go gently — she spoke out widely about being unceremoniously fired from her dream project, and the sexism involved in that company decision.
Indeed, women directors in the animated field are rare across studios. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s DreamWorks Animation has the best record. Chapman directed “The Prince of Egypt” for DreamWorks, where she is one of four women with a helming credit. But three of these four women (including Chapman, Vicky Jenson for “Shark Tale” and Lorna Cook for “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”) all shared directing duties with at least one male counterpart. Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who directed “Kung Fu Panda 2” in 2011, was the first woman in history to receive sole directorial credit on a big-budget animated feature, at DreamWorks or elsewhere.