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

Awards
by Susan Wloszczyna
November 26, 2013 2:30 PM
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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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