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Directing ‘Frozen 2’ Showed Jennifer Lee the Way to Lead Disney Animation

Lee told IndieWire about her more inclusive, diverse, and collaborative vision, and the secret to unlocking Anna and Elsa in the "Frozen" sequel.

FROZEN 2 - In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven journey far beyond the gates of Arendelle in search of answers. Featuring the voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters November 22. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

“Frozen 2”

Disney

Animation

The making of “Frozen 2” (November 22) came at a tumultuous time for Disney Animation, as the film’s writer-director Jennifer Lee succeeded John Lasseter as chief creative officer. You could say that she went from being Anna to Elsa in her rise to the top. “But you don’t know if that’s a good thing or not — you haven’t seen the rest of the movie,” Lee told IndieWire, laughing, after introducing about 30 minutes of footage.

What we do know is the sequel to the Oscar-winning “Frozen” mega-blockbuster continues the adventures of siblings Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) by unlocking the mystery of Elsa’s magical icy power and why their parents died in a shipwreck at sea. It’s all connected to an enchanted forest and the elemental forces of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth, animated in a dazzling display of effects and character work, joined together as never before at the studio.

Lee’s vision for the film came together during a research trip to Norway, Finland, and Iceland, where she and her team had a eureka moment about fairy tales and mythology tied to the sisters. “Anna is your perfect fairy tale character,” she said. “She’s an ordinary hero, not magical. She’s optimistic. Whereas Elsa is the perfect mythic character. Mythic characters are magical. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. In fact, the mythic characters often meet a tragic fate and we realized we had two stories going together, mythic story and fairy tale story. In the mythic aspect of it, the fear of that tragic fate is something that Anna’s been worrying about and must protect her sister from.”

INTO THE UNKNOWN – In “Frozen 2,” Elsa feels that she’s being beckoned by a voice from far away, a calling she can’t ignore showcased in the original song “Into the Unknown.” She learns that answers await her—but she must venture far from home. Featuring Idina Menzel as the voice of Elsa, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2019. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

“Frozen 2”

Disney

Enchanted forests are places of great transformation, but first Elsa wields her icy power to skate across a raging storm during “Frozen 2’s” liberating musical version of “Let It Go” titled “Into the Unknown” (also composed by Oscar-winning songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez). It’s where she follows a haunting voice in her head and confronts the first obstacle to understanding the origin of her magic and how she must harness it against the more powerful forces of nature.

Yet while navigating enchanted forests and dark seas on “Frozen 2,” Lee began forging a new vision at Disney very different from Lasseter’s phenomenally successful, if autocratic, reign. She’s embraced greater inclusion, diversity, and collaboration. “We all balance for each other,” Lee said. “When I couldn’t be there in development on ‘Frozen 2,’  there were people juggling, which seemed impossible at times, but doing it, being there to help us the minute we needed it.”

The experience reinforced for Lee the importance of “teamwork and collaboration at the studio,” said Lee. “For me, I’m tired finishing a movie. I’m excited to take a break from the writing process and be helping others — give notes instead of take notes. But what’s been great was we put a plan together for what we wanted to do at the studio together and we’re executing that.”

WHEN I AM OLDER – When Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf find themselves in the enchanted forest in “Frozen 2,” Olaf faces a series of inexplicable events, illustrated in the song “When I Am Older.” Despite the mystery and dangerous realities coming to life before his eyes, the lovable snowman is convinced that one day, it’ll all make sense. Featuring Josh Gad as the voice of Olaf, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters on Nov. 22, 2019. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

“Frozen 2”

Disney

That means opening up the process of how features are developed and greenlit and expanding the Story Trust with new creative voices. First, Lee’s greatest asset is her writing skill. “I very much believe in a lot of iterations and scripting earlier,” said Lee. “We are also boarding a lot sooner and not putting stuff on the slate until we feel ready, and that’s always the goal, but getting more time to mess around in the wonderful playground before committing. But we’re not compromising and, again, it has to be the best quality and it is never any easier. You can start sooner but still push just as hard.”

And, in the fall, Lee will introduce a group of new directors at Disney. Some have been mentored from within, while others have been recruited elsewhere. After all, that’s how Lee entered Disney when she was brought in by her old writing pal from Columbia University, Phil Johnston, to help out on “Wreck-It Ralph.” That eight-week gig blossomed into Lee’s phenomenal Happily Ever After at Disney. “It’s a wonderful group of filmmakers,” she added, “and some more diverse voices, and that’s exciting [for storytelling] and making our rooms have different perspectives, which is important.”

At D23, Lee introduced “Raya and the Last Dragon” (November 25, 2020), a Southeast Asian fantasy/adventure, directed by former animators Paul Briggs and Dean Wellins (“Big Hero 6,” “Frozen”), produced by Osnat Shurer (“Moana”), and scripted by Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”). It’s about lone warrior Raya (Cassie Steele) from the kingdom of Kumandra (five lands surrounded by a dragon-shaped sea), who teams up with a band of misfits to find the legendary dragon to save their kingdom from dark oppression. They discover Sisu (Awkwafina, from “Crazy Rich Asians”), a dragon trapped in a human body, and battle to bring light and unity back to their world.

In Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Frozen 2, Elsa encounters a Nokk—a mythical water spirit that takes the form of a horse—who uses the power of the ocean to guard the secrets of the forest. Featuring the voice of Idina Menzel as Elsa, “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters November 22. ©2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

“Frozen 2”

Disney

“I’m excited for ‘Raya’,” said Lee, who enjoyed escaping the complexity of the story room to be able “to come in with outside perspective and help.” She’s bringing in Chris Buck, her directing partner on “Frozen” and “Frozen 2,” to be a part of the “Raya” Story Trust, which is evolving. “Obviously you have different projects and different writers,” she said, “and it’s great to get their voices in the room, but we try to keep the table at about 25, because there comes a point where the room becomes too big,”

Following up the “Frozen” phenomenon was daunting for Lee, who is still completing a few lighting shots on “Frozen 2.” Exploring the differences between Anna as the fun-loving extrovert and Elsa as the shy, tormented artist was important, and so was deepening the spiritual force of Elsa’s superpower. But the story still had to organically connect to “Frozen” in the way that “The Empire Strikes Back” connects to “Star Wars.”

“For us, what we discovered, as we were shaping this as one giant journey, was that there were so many things we would start and they would just lace themselves backwards mechanically,” Lee said. “There was the feeling that this story was always there. It was just waiting for us to uncover it. And ‘Frozen 2’ happens to be a mystery. It’s fun doing something different. And we sit at the end of the journey now and you look back at all the circuitous routes you took to get there. Whether the world responds to it or not, we did what we set out to do and that feels good.”

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