Disney Animation has always been known for taking well-known stories and fairy tales and upending them a bit to create something recognizable as the original text, but undeniably different and unique to the House That Walt Built. For its latest animated epic, Disney turned its attention toward Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, but, as it did with Tangled, reformed it into a new thing entirely: Frozen. At a press event at Disney Animation Studios last month, we spoke to the film’s two directors, Tarzan director Chris Buck and Wreck-It Ralph writer Jennifer Lee, about how the classic fable was changed, the development of the characters, and the importance of modernism in Disney animated musicals.
NERDIST: Disney’s known for doing these revamped fairy tales and The Snow Queen is a fairly well-known fairy tale which you changed quite a bit; how close did you feel like you needed to stick to any existing story?
JENNIFER LEE: We definitely had free rein. It’s always about telling the best story, but I think that there’s also this element of it being a powerful story for a reason, and part of me thinks it’s foolish to not explore that, because you’re missing an opportunity. We want these stories to be timeless and timely. The timeless qualities should come from these types of movies, these fairy tales, Aesop Fables, etc. There’s a universality to it that resonates with everyone. That’s what The Snow Queen did for us, especially the theme, which is love conquering negativity, but for us it’s love conquering fear. It’s more contemporary but the same concept. That was just brilliant, and we didn’t want to lose that, but at the same time, you know that it’s a different medium, it’s a very poetic and symbolic piece of literature and you don’t want to say that it is a concrete film—they don’t just flip flop, it’s very ethereal. You don’t want to shy away from what you need to do to make a film a film.
N: At this point, Disney has already made so many animated features and they’re always so different; How much pressure was there to be like, “This is a story that not only hasn’t been told like this but also will look completely different to anything else?”
CHRIS BUCK: It’s always about trying to do something different. We all know the legacy, and we all know all the films that Disney has done. We don’t want to repeat that; We want to do something new and fresh, but you also don’t want to alienate a general audience either. So, what do people expect from a Disney film? You have to think about those things, but how do we surprise them, how do we give them something new and fresh to look at and still make them feel comfortable watching a Disney movie? So there’s that kind of challenge.
JL: Coming from Walt — his own philosophy and then one [Disney Animation chief] John Lasseter really supports — is, you’re not doing your job if you’re not constantly defying expectations, evolving as filmmakers, making it bigger or different; If you keep repeating the same thing, you’re failing the audience. Our big thing is to feel like we’re doing things that I’ve never seen before myself or things that haven’t been represented in the way that I wish they had been represented and things like that. They really encourage that here, because, to them, it’s what makes each film individual and unique and worthy of going out to the world.
CB: Sometimes we’re the hardest critics in saying that, “We’ve seen that before, we did that three pictures ago. So, let’s try something new, something a little different.”
N: Since animated films develop over such a long period of time, do you ever come to the point where you have to add a new character to fulfill this new role in the story you’ve just come up with?
JL: There are these characters that just come in and out and we have a couple — we have an actor who’s fantastic who’s in the film, Alan Tudyk, who we tried out characters on because — I worked with him on Ralph; He’s so flexible and he’s so talented that we would just bring in a scene to play and he helped us a lot. He plays the Duke in our film, the Duke of Weselton, and to find the Duke, we worked with him a lot. You always pivot the story around the main characters, particularly Anna (played by Kristen Bell), and every character has to hang off of them, and if they don’t, they don’t belong. If there’s something represented and doesn’t put the pressure on the character in the way you need to, you need to bring someone in.
CB: And take characters out, we’ve done that too.
JL: You try to, even in the early stages, try to get some character designs going the minute you have an idea, and it wouldn’t go into modeling until you know they’re staying, but you’ll do it because you just never know. And suddenly we’ve got a new character we have to animate and he has to be rigged and all that. We certainly don’t put that on them until we know they’re staying. But definitely in the 2D design of them, we’ve got a lot of those, and they’re this cute little collection of characters that aren’t in the film.
N: Is that the kind of thing where you could reuse the characters for something else?
CB: They’re very specific for this movie. Yeah, I don’t think so.
N: Which character changed the most through the process of making the film and which stayed mostly the same?
CB: Elsa, for sure, changed the most. Originally, she was much more villainous. It’s very easy to go in that direction for that type of character, but as the time went and we evolved the story, she became much more three-dimensional. Before, I thought she was one-dimensional but a very fully fleshed out character. Olaf [the snowman voiced by Josh Gad] changed a bit; he had a little bit of an angry edge to him before we decided to say he’s just innocent; he’s a total innocent that loves everything, comes at the world like he’s just born and everything is new to him. They’ve all evolved in certain ways.
JL: In some ways, Sven [the reindeer] changed the least because we were never going to have him talk. But you know, how his role changed was it got bigger and bigger, particularly as we went along and we brought Jonathan [Groff, the voice of Kristoff] in and he started doing the voice for him, talking for him, that was fun. Anna always had this optimistic spirit in terms — maybe not in the first, first drafts, but she just got stronger, more dynamic. I think there was a lot of pressure on that character as the lead, so people had a lot of opinions on her and how she should be and for us, really being able to strip it away and work with Kristen, and come up with who we thought she should be. It took a while but with her it was always like a slow climb up a hill but with Elsa it was like a BOOM kind of climb up.
N: This movie obviously has characters that sing in the film, something that Disney has done for a long time, but it’s kind of fallen away. At what point did you think that you were going to make this into an actual musical film?
CB: From the beginning, it was always pitched as a movie with songs in it.
JL: One thing that we’re aware of, and I think part of why it has fallen away, is old stereotypes versus reality, the kind of thing that if you say you think that it’s the film that is going to be like from the 1930’s or something or it’s going to skew young from the 80’s or something. I don’t think we’re afraid of doing music, we just wanted to make sure that in what we were doing, we were doing the 2013 version. There are a lot of stories in the past that were a lot more straight forward with simpler plots and arcs, and you could sustain the playful musical, and we’ve got something big and complex, and the music has to keep up with that and be smart, and [songwriters] Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez were perfect to do that. We’re hoping that people will see a similarity yet see it as a 2013 version of it, something very fresh.
CB: Bob and Kristen give it their own spin, their lyrics. It’ll be very fresh.
N: For the cast, because it is a musical, there’s a very high Broadway pedigree. What were you looking for on the acting side of it?
CB: I think they all had their own separate challenges. With Anna, it had to be that optimistic spirit, that fearlessness and humor. Humor was huge for Anna and we always like to give our main characters as much humor as sidekicks. Making the main characters as entertaining as possible is the best way to go.
JL: Particularly with Kristen Bell and Jonathan Groff, Josh was obvious, but for them, the playfulness that Jonathan brought, we knew he could do that and be funny.
CB: Elsa was tough; you can always find someone with the strength but not the, as we had with Idina Menzel, the vulnerability in her voice, because Elsa goes through quite a bit in this move.
JL: I don’t think that anyone could do Elsa but her. It was such a hard and specific thing, yet there was no one else. I feel that way about Kristen as well, obviously, to me, she is Anna. That was so hard; to do something like it, an iconic character that is magical and always has to be larger than life yet has to be vulnerable at the same time. I don’t think anyone could have done it but her. She’s just perfect.
N: Nobody’s even attempted, in any iteration of The Snow Queen, making her a human being.
JL: It’s true, the original she’s very symbolic and everything about her is thematic, it’s not real, so we had to create a full person.
You can see the latest fairy tale brought to Disney life when Frozen storms into theaters Wednesday, November 27th, just in time for Thanksgiving.