Pity the people tasked with following up Frozen.
We are already inundated with retrospective assessments of the cinematic decade. Any that leave out Disney’s all-conquering animation should be laid quickly in the budgerigar’s cage. The current writer had to pinch himself after emerging from the press screening in 2013. Disney seemed no more than usually bullish about their Christmas animation. It was expected to be a hit. It would probably play well enough with younger audiences. There was no more noise than that.
Was I alone in thinking it was as good as any cartoon since the first golden age? That song in the middle – Let Me Go? Is that right? – felt as if it could sit comfortably beside When you Wish Upon a Star and Feed the Birds. Was I crazy?
Not a bit of it. Frozen got great reviews. It opened well enough. Then it played and played and played. We were deep into the spring of 2014 when – following spectacular figures in Japan – it overtook Iron Man 3 to become the highest-grossing release of 2013. Some weeks later it scored as the highest-grossing animation ever. Only berks and Jordan Peterson (more in a moment) objected.
All this was a triumph for Jennifer Lee. Not enough attention was paid to the fact that the Rhode Islander, who co-directed with Chris Buck, had become the first woman to direct a movie taking more than $1 billion (she was already the first woman to helm a feature for Walt Disney Animation Studios).
“I went to a screening at Christmas and it was full,” she recalls. “And they weren’t just singing the songs. They were reciting the lines. ‘They’ve seen this more than once,’ I thought. I didn’t think it would go well because the Olaf in front of the theatre had been torn apart. Ha ha! People say it was a phenomenon. But it was a slow burner.”
Lee got her rewards. She also got more responsibility than many of us would crave. In June 2018, after John Lasseter, embarrassed by accusations of sexual misconduct, was manoeuvred towards gardening leave, Lee became chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. She is also tasked with co-directing and writing the incoming Frozen 2. She has answers for the "how do you follow…" question ready.
“We keep getting reminded of that this week,” she says merrily. “But we couldn’t think about that. We know we can’t replicate that. That’s not our job. We are storytellers. Our job is to tell the right story, not the story others may want to hear. We love that the first film allowed us to do another one. We loved Let it Go. But we also love how our characters grow.”
The film sends Anna and Elsa, regal sisters of Arendelle, on a worrying quest into an enchanted forest. It’s clear the filmmakers worked hard to hit the already familiar beats while exploring some new ground. Kristoff the burly iceman wants to propose to Anna. Olaf the simple-minded snowman is put in peril. The film will take another billion. Still, I don’t envy Lee the pressure.
“It’s our own fault. We naively and lovingly did a short,” she says. “We saw them animated again and we realised that we really missed them. We had been getting a lot of questions. ‘Is there such a thing as ‘happy ever after’?’ We realised there was more story to tell. We didn’t know what we were getting into. Even a year after the film, we knew it had been a success. But we didn’t know if that would last.”
‘Talent is universal’
Lee is an impressive character. Now 48, a graphic artist who took an MFA in film from Columbia University in her thirties, she worked her way into Disney as a writer, scoring a significant hit with Wreck-It Ralph in 2012. That opened the door for Frozen. And here we are. Though her achievements have not been sufficiently celebrated, she is emerging as an inspiration to younger female directors. Despite the success of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman (not as big outside the US as within), no woman has yet directed a higher grossing film than Frozen. It’s her job to further the drive for gender balance.
“We often talk about the fact that talent is universal,” she says. “It knows no gender. It knows no race. But access isn’t always the same. We make sure to have rooms with female creative talent in them. Women will then speak up more. They will contribute more. That has changed our rooms. We strive for balanced rooms in all ways. And that makes the storytelling more complex. I have the full support of the studios. It was primarily men, but that is shifting.”
Lee strikes a convincing balance between humanity and company loyalty. Unlike too many of the blow-dried male executives in their unconvincingly informal open shirts, she seems sincere with lack of ceremony. There is not a hint of the corporate robot about her. But you aren’t going to be shaking her commitment to the Order of the Mouse. In the course of a rambling question about Walt Disney’s increasing power, I refer to the company as a “machine”. As it takes over 21st Century Fox and moves towards streaming with the Disney+ channel, does she worry about its untrammelled acquisition of empires?
“That’s a funny question,” she says (and actually laughs a bit). “No, I don’t. I have gotten to work a lot with our colleagues at Fox. Disney always prioritises creative quality first and supports the artists. With streaming we are creating more opportunities for all artists. The market is shifting. Independent films couldn’t get audiences to the box office. Now there are other opportunities for them. I feel very supported. When we did Frozen, we just went to them and they said: ‘What do you need?’ You don’t get that everywhere.”
That’s a fair argument. She had little experience when she got to direct Frozen.
“You mention the words ‘Disney machine’,” she says. “That is not something we understand. It’s small groups of people pushing each other creatively.”
She proved her worth and has been generously rewarded. One small (I hope) part of that job will be defending the company against objections from those concerned about the slightest inclination towards diversity. Jordan B Peterson, the Canadian academic who writes self-help books for man babies, described Frozen as "deeply propagandistic". Don't do yourself a mischief while rolling eyes.
“I think it’s really funny someone says that just letting two women drive a story is propagandist,” she says. “That shows we have a problem. I’m sorry! We just made three-dimensional characters. They are flawed. They are not perfect. They are sometimes heroic. They are real women, and real women do have a lot of responsibilities. It’s odd. Female characters are often over-judged. They have to be perfect for everyone. But perfect characters are boring. It’s interesting that people see these agendas.”
Lee is evangelistic about increasing the representation of women at all levels of the industry. She talks at great length about doing business in those “balanced rooms”. But she politely steps back at the mention of quotas.
“I don’t believe in quotas because it gets misjudged,” she says. “I never want a man to feel he didn’t get a role he should have had because we had a quota. The hard part of that is you have to be willing to have these conversations. If that person was the qualified one they get the job. If they’re not you have to take the time to talk to them and say: ‘You’re not there yet. This is what it would take.’ Inclusion shouldn’t mean exclusion. We didn’t go to 50-50. But we are developing the talent to get us there.”
Lee stresses the point that this is not just a moral battle. It helps the work to have a balanced team of contributors. High-brows may snort, but Frozen has been genuinely empowering to a great many young women. It takes its story to unexpected places. Elsa, who possesses magical ice powers, is positioned in the territory normally occupied by the villain, but emerges as the film’s most beloved character. Hans, the Prince Charming, turns out to be a jerk.
“We had an argument in the room with the men and the women: should Hans kiss Anna or not kiss Anna?” Lee remembers. “We were adamant that he would not. The men said he should. But the cruelty is so much more painful if he doesn’t go in for the kiss. You go home, you linger at the door and he doesn’t even try. That says everything. That stuff is very true to our experiences. The moment when he pulled back got audible gasps. That said a lot about the difference between men and women’s experience.”
Frozen 2 will do what it does (almost certainly plenty). Jennifer Lee will continue to manage one of the United States’ great gifts to popular culture. The 59th film from the studio, Raya and the Last Dragon, will emerge in a year’s time. She is reluctant to say more about developing projects as that may inhibit creativity. Meanwhile, the fight for equality continues.
“Look at Queen Elizabeth I. For 40 years she was the monarch,” she says. “She carried a lot of responsibility. That’s how we look at it. It’s not just about: ‘Oh, she went to the ball at the end. Ha ha!’”