With Frozen, Director Jennifer Lee Breaks the Ice for Women Directors

With Frozen, Director Jennifer Lee Breaks the Ice for Women Directors

It has taken 53 films, starting with 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for the
Magic Kingdom to reach this historic point. But Walt Disney Animation Studios has
finally placed a woman in the director’s throne: Jennifer Lee. Happily, her touch is definitely on display in Frozen, co-helmed by veteran animator
Chris Buck (Tarzan, Surf’s Up), especially since she handled
the screenwriting chores, too.

Having Lee in charge takes some of the sting out of Brenda
Chapman being denied the opportunity to become Disney-owned Pixar’s first
female director when she was replaced by Mark Andrews on 2012’s Brave. Chapman fought for and eventually
got co-director credit for a story she conceived and based on her daughter.

Even better, critics are already declaring Frozen, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s
The Snow Queen, a return to the glory
days of the so-called Disney Renaissance that began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid and continued through
1999 with such landmarks as Beauty and
the Beast
and The Lion King.

It could also be a momentous occasion as far as Oscar is
concerned, if the film becomes the first Disney film — one that isn’t made by
Pixar or part of a distribution deal with Studio Ghibli (the force behind 2002
winner Spirited Away) — to win the
Best Animated Feature prize since the category was launched in 2001.

Frozen, which
opens Wednesday, bears many of the hallmarks of that golden decade. It’s based
on a fairy tale, is filled with catchy Broadway-ready tunes, and ends happily
ever after thanks to an act of love. But instead of a Prince Charming saving the day, it is the
bond of sisterhood that propels the plot, in which two royal siblings, moody
queen-to-be Elsa and spunky princess Anna, in the Norwegian kingdom of
Arendelle are torn apart when Elsa’s ability to miraculously conjure a world of
ice and snow with a touch of her hand begins to endanger those around her.

In cartoon terms, it’s also a giant leap forward for
womankind in its depiction of two distinctive female animated characters,
neither of whom are defined by romance. Elsa and Anna continue the evolution of
the Disney heroine that started over twenty years ago with Belle in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, who strayed from
the bland, trilling princesses of yore with her wayward forelock of chestnut
hair and deep appreciation of books.

Lee, who co-wrote Wreck-It
Ralph
, Disney’s Oscar contender last year (it lost to Brave), talked to The Big O about how Frozen came to be and the controversial remarks from Frozen‘s lead animator Lino DiSalvo last
month.

How does it feel to
be an animation pioneer as Disney’s first female director?

The funniest thing is, I didn’t know about it for several
months, because it was a while until it was announced. What I did know was that
I was the first writer to direct an animated feature. Often, directors work
their way up from being an animator or a storyboard artist. Chris Buck is an
animation genius and having two perspectives like we have raises the bar.
Obviously, I am honored. Half the story team on Ralph were women. The great thing is, more and more women are
getting into animation. When you are the only female in the room, it is harder
to talk. Having more of us in the room makes for richer stories.

Does the gender of a
director make a difference in the end product?

There has been a bit of a female perspective missing in
Hollywood. But for us at the studio, we have a special situation. There are 600
of us all working together. Having more women does create a balance. We help
mentor each other in a safe environment that is all about what you create. If I
have an inspiring vision, that is what
people are thinking about, not that I am a woman. One of the great things we do
is screen our films every 12 weeks or so when they are in various stages of
development so that all the writers and directors can give notes. I will do the
same thing for films I am not directly working on, like they did for us. It is
a safe place to give your opinion, although the notes can be pretty tough at
times.

You and Chris might
be pioneers in another way. No film from Walt Disney animation has won the Oscars’ feature category yet. That just seems wrong, since this was the studio that
basically invented the medium of full-length cartoons.

It would mean the world for the crew. Starting with The Princess and the Frog and then Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen,
they have been working so hard. It would be the greatest thing to win. I am
just excited I can finally talk about the movie. We have been holding everything
so close. Many of us grew up on Disney and it’s terrific to make the modern-day
equivalent of those films and celebrate that classic feel.

How do you feel about
animated features being a separate category, rather than simply competing in
the best picture category?

I think animation gets lost in the crowd, because many
assume it is just for kids. At least it is being celebrated. I do films for people
of all ages. If it isn’t resonating for both children and adults, then we are
not doing our jobs. Animation is among the most exciting and interesting
filmmaking done today. I’m just happy it isn’t getting lost in the shuffle.

This movie has been
gestating at the studio since the 1940s, when Walt Disney tried and failed to
find a way to bring the story to life in animated form. Apparently, the
character of the queen was the sticking point — they couldn’t find a way to
make her relatable to audiences. Who came up with the solution of making Elsa
and Anna sisters?

The funny thing is, no one can remember. Everyone in the
room was just piling ideas on top of one another. Now we look at each other,
going, ‘Was it you? Was it you?’ From what I can tell, all the versions
attempted over the years had a hard time with the queen. In the original story,
she represents true evil. We asked who she was, what was the connection? And
someone said, “What if they were sisters?” I just remember sitting
there before I was on Frozen — I was
just on Ralph then — and in my head
I thought, “I wish I were doing that movie.”

What did you add?

It was Chris who pitched that the act of true love should be
different back in 2008. But the biggest struggle was changing Elsa. In the
original, it was more about love conquering negativity. When I came on, I wanted
to push toward Elsa being more complex, to be ruled by fear. Once we made them
sisters, Elsa represented fear and Anna represented love. We combined the power
of both of those.

That’s interesting. If
I hadn’t read all the online brouhaha over Lino DiSalvo’s comment at a
roundtable discussion that “animating female characters are really, really
difficult… you have to keep them pretty” before seeing Frozen, I wouldn’t have thought twice
about the look of Elsa and Anna. They are slim but not cookie-cutter or overtly
beautiful. They have some unique features that set them apart from other Disney
heroines.

It’s sad. His words were recklessly taken out of context.
When you see the film you’ll see that. Lino was talking in very technical terms
about CG animation. There was a panel once with a bunch of directors and a man
said, “Female characters are harder.” And a woman said, “I think
men are.” So you can’t apply a cultural stigma. It is hard no matter what
the gender is. I felt horrible for him. He was so proud what achieved in the movie.
We never had such sophisticated rigs (the skeletal structure of the figures
used to model characters on a computer) to show awkwardness and grief on a face.
I’m so proud of them.

What about the big
eyes that are similar to Rapunzel’s in Tangled?

The Disney style has been honed for generations. The bigger
eyes are how you draw the audience in. You want the characters to feel alive.

You have a daughter,
Agatha, who is 9. Did you consult with her? Is she like Anna?

She sings in the song “Do You Want to Build a Snow Man?” That
part with the lyrics “Hang in there, Joan.” My daughter is like the
young Anna, fearless. Dangerously so. She is such a kid. She is very
inspirational to me. Kristen (Bell, the voice of the older Anna) and I felt
even though we loved the Disney female characters from the past, we wanted one
who had stains on her clothes and was messy and willing to jump off a mountain.
An ordinary hero.

What are you up to
next?

I’m up to sleeping. Actually, I have a live-action film in
the works that is more of an independent film. Leonardo DiCaprio’s company is
producing it. I do love animation, though. There is no greater creative medium.
One day you are working on a giant fjord, the next day a jar of lutefisk. I
just want to keep telling stories.

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