Frozen provides further proof that we’re experiencing a new Disney renaissance under John Lasseter: it’s the Oscar frontrunner and the studio’s best since Beauty and the Beast. If Wreck-It Ralph seemed thematically subversive while still leveraging the hand-drawn legacy to guide the CG, then Frozen takes it even further. It’s the most feminist take yet on the musical princess fairy tale.
This is not about romantic love: it’s about the bond between two sisters based on love vs. fear, and the innovative snowy weather system is a secondary character along with the glorious songs by the husband and wife team of Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Somewhere Howard Ashman must be smiling.
“I remember giving [art director] Mike Giaimo an early treatment when I asked him to come on to the movie and he responded that it was a big movie,” recalls director Chris Buck. “I said, yes, there’s a lot of snow. And he said, ‘ No, this is a big movie!’ But it still didn’t dawn on me until a year ago. Not just the look but the themes and the story.”
It was hard enough adapting Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen (which even eluded Walt Disney), let alone dealing with such an overwhelming villain. Indeed, the story wasn’t working until Buck and screenwriter Jennifer Lee turned Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) into sisters, one funny and fearless, the other cold and distant. And when the production moved up a year, it made sense to elevate Lee to director, which further enhanced the feminine point of view in exploring and repairing the sibling rift.
Even so, it didn’t all come together until they had “Let It Go,” Elsa’s triumphant coming out in which she finally embraces her hidden talent in a flurry of artistic reverie. The bravura sequence also captures the joyful spirit of Andersen’s ode to imagination and the importance of remaining children at heart.
“I remember when I was asked to come on,” Lee recalls, “the first thing I was handed were lectures and conversations with Howard Ashman. And Bobby and Kristen really admire him more than anything, and there was that feeling where it’s really pushing songs to a level where they’re integral to the story in every way, yet they resonate and you can take them away with you. And to do that was a constant back and forth of elevating the story to match a song and then elevating a song to match a story point and driving each other crazy — no, I mean, forward.
“Believe me, everything changed when we found ‘Let It Go.’ We were talking a lot about the concept of that song and then one day they threw something together and it poured out. And it took a good few months to earn it and reworking the first act even longer to earn all the things from then on.”
Lee says the opening with the little girls and snowman Olaf’s “In Summer” song all came from “Let It Go” in revealing the sibling conflict and understanding Elsa’s internalizing her fear. And with “Let It Go,” they let go of Elsa being a true villain.
“And I’m so glad we did because she’s just something more different and special than I think we would’ve done,” Lee offers. But they couldn’t have achieved it without the help of Lasseter, who was very protective of Elsa and viewed her as an artist, according to the directors. He even came up with the idea of building the Ice Palace from a single snowflake.
“John coming back has just reinvigorated this place,” notes Buck, who attended CalArts with both Lasseter and his art director. “He’s instilled his love of Walt and his legacy as an artist and storyteller in everyone.”
Lasseter’s insistence on research took the mantra of “Truth in Materials” to a new level. “The way that snowflakes grow is in/out and so when Elsa stomped her foot we said we should have her build a snowflake exactly as it would be,” Lee continues. “And that was her foundation and everything grew from that. It made sense in nature and in magic. We did a lot of that. In fact, the language of her and the snow has a logic to it. Her magic when it’s whimsical when she’s happy vs. her magic when she’s scared or grieving. Her spiky language was more about crystallization and those hard cracks; whimsy is about playing with the wind and the joy that comes out of that, including Olaf.”
While Bell brought a spunk and awkward quality that defined Anna, the power of Menzel’s singing carried the larger-than-life Elsa, who’s in a constant state of turmoil. “Even though she’s ruled by fear, she’s trying to be protective of Anna,” Buck emphasizes.
Yet it was Buck who, from the very beginning, demanded an ending that boldly departs from the fairy tale norm. But Ed Catmull told Lee when she came on, that her job was to earn that ending.
“You change the story however you need to but you have to earn that ending emotionally,” Lee relates. “It has to matter — you have to feel it. And you have to be invested in both sides of the story. And he said really hard that if you do it, it’ll be great and if you don’t, it’ll suck. And then whenever he checked in, he’d tell me almost, not yet. Then when we showed it to an audience, he came up to me and said we did it. I might’ve collapsed at that point from exhaustion, but it’s because he put that fear in me that the movie turned out the way it did.”
Thus, Frozen was as cathartic for its two directors as it was for its two sisters, serving as another important building block for Disney.