Disney took winter to heart last year with a little all-singing, all-shivering animation called Frozen. An Oscar, more than a $1bn in box-office takings and a possible Frozen 2 commission later and it’s not so little anymore. Co-directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, the film is a Nordic-set tale of friendship, family and fear that features pet reindeer, deconstructable snowmen and an actual ice queen. Empire asked the two Frozeners to talk through the stories behind their colossally popular protagonists...
What was the genesis of Frozen?
Chris Buck: I was intrigued by the story, and I pitched it about five years ago to John Lassiter and Ed Catmull. We all loved the idea of doing a Disney movie in snow and ice, which had never been done before and which is always magical in itself. Also we were all intrigued by the character of the Snow Queen, there's something about her that draws you in. In the book, she's not too well defined; she's just evil. You don't really know a lot about her.
Jennifer Lee:: The original story is very poetic and it's one of my favourite fairytales, but to turn it into a film you have to make some concrete choices. We wanted to know who the Snow Queen was, so we started to explore that. The story has an amazing theme, the concept of love versus fear. That's something Disney hadn't done before; it's usually good versus evil. So we decided to work on that theme, and as we did the Snow Queen became more three-dimensional because she was no longer limited to being a villain, the standard fairytale evil queen.
Buck: We had tried several versions like that, but it wasn't playing as well as we wanted so we kept working at it.
Lee: Then we asked ourselves, what if they were sisters? That's when the film went to the next level; that's when we knew what the heart of the film was.
Buck: It created such an emotional bond between the two characters who weren't originally sisters. And we split them up early on, so the audience is always yearning for them to get back together and wondering how they're going to work things out. It keeps people on the edge of their seats, waiting for that happy ending.
And it's not the standard happy ending, either. The crucial 'act of true love' isn't what you're expecting.
|Without giving anything away, we wanted to see if true love can mean something other than a kiss from Prince Charming.|
Don't give away the ending! (laughs
). But yes, it redefines true love as well.
Buck: I always envisioned when I was pitching it that there was romantic love, which Hans represents, candy and roses and everything's perfect. Then there's Kristoff, who represents real love, where everything's a little bit messier.
The guy who picks his nose and eats it.
Buck: Exactly! (laughs)
We should just point out that at no point does anyone in the movie pick their nose and eat it. It's simply a metaphor for male imperfections.
Buck: And there is a disclaimer at the end of the movie.
Lee: The disclaimer is that it is Kristoff's claim that all men pick their nose and eat it, and it does not represent the views of Disney Animation (laughs).
Moving on. So you have the concept of idealized romantic love; real love, warts and all; and then the love between the two sisters.
Buck: Right. Without giving anything away, we wanted to see if true love can mean something other than a kiss from Prince Charming.
The movie is very much in the classic Disney mold. What elements does it have to have to make it a real 'Disney movie', not just a movie made by Disney?
Buck: Well, we both grew up on Disney movies, as so many people have. We have a soft spot in our hearts for those movies. The first film I ever saw was Pinocchio -
Lee: Mine was Cinderella.
Buck: So I think the elements that make for a classic Disney movie are in our DNA already. The elements for me are human characters, humour, the emotion and the heart and then a certain depth. Kids get the movie on a certain level, which is great, but adults will get it on an even deeper level. We work on that very hard.
Another thing is that the classic Disneys don't shy away from certain realities - death for instance - and Frozen doesn't either.
Buck: I think what I reacted to so strongly when I first saw Pinocchio was that I identified with the character so strongly. The movie takes you on a whole journey, a rollercoaster of emotions, and that sometimes means some very scary places. But in the end, it comes out okay.
So you can enjoy the rollercoaster, the sad parts and the scary parts, knowing that everything's going to be all right in the end?
Lee: That's right. And I think kids respond to that.
Can you tell us about casting Kristen Bell in the lead?
Lee: She came in to audition and she set the bar so high. She has a warmth to her and also a beautiful singing voice, which a lot of people don't realize. She's so funny and so smart, and there's so much of her in Anna. And like us, she wanted to create a heroine who's flawed and goofy and yet who's still inspirational. She was a great partner. And the same with Jonathan Groff. They both really gave us the character's voice. I found I could write the roles much more easily when they were cast.
Is that the standard way it works: an actor is cast and then you work on writing the character?
Lee: It's back and forth. That's the joy of animation; you want to let the actor inspire you. The best way to find a dynamic story is to give it an authentic voice, and when you start improving with an actor, you get that authenticity. Then you can hear that in your head when you're writing.
Last question, and an important one: when did you decide not to have a talking reindeer?
Buck: We never wanted Sven [the non-talking reindeer] to talk, because we have Olaf [the talking snowman]. But Jen had the idea of how to give him a voice anyway [in private moments, Kristoff has conversations with Sven, providing both voices himself]. She came in and said, 'What if we do this? It's what I do with my cats.'
Lee: I talk for my cats.
Buck: I loved it because I talk for my dogs.
Lee: We thought, Well, if we do it, probably a lot of people will be able to relate to it.
Interview by Simon Braund