Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
A Little History
Frozen is a 2013 American computer animated epic musical fantasy-comedy film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. It is the 53rd animated feature in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series. Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, and featuring the voices of Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana, the film tells the story of a fearless princess who sets off on an epic journey alongside a rugged ice trader, his loyal reindeer, and a hapless snowman to find her estranged sister, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in an eternal Winter.
Frozen underwent several story treatments for several years, before being commissioned in 2011, with a screenplay written by Jennifer Lee, and both Chris Buck and Lee serving as co-directors. Christophe Beck, who had worked on Disney’s award-winning short Paperman, was hired to compose the film’s orchestral score, while husband-and-wife songwriting team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez penned the songs.
The film premiered at the El Capitan Theatre on November 19, 2013, and went into general theatrical release on November 27. Upon its release, Frozen was a box office success and received critical acclaim, with several film critics considering it to be the best Disney animated musical since the studio’s renaissance era.
In 1943, Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn had considered the possibility of collaborating to produce a biography film of author and poet Hans Christian Andersen, where Goldwyn’s studio would shoot the live-action sequences of Andersen’s life and Disney would create the animated sequences. The animated sequences were to include stories of Andersen’s works, such as The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Snow Queen, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes and The Emperor’s New Clothes. Walt and his animators were having hard troubles about The Snow Queen, as they couldn’t find a way to adapt and relate the Snow Queen character to modern audiences. Even as far back as the 1940’s, Disney’s animation department saw great cinematic possibilities with the source material, but the Snow Queen character herself, proved to be too problematic. This, among other things, led to the cancellation of the Disney-Goldwyn project. Goldwyn went on to produce his own live-action film version in 1952, entitled Hans Christian Andersen, with Danny Kaye as Andersen, Charles Vidor directing, Moss Hart writing, and Frank Loesser penning the songs. All of Andersen’s fairy tales were, instead, told in song and ballet in live-action, like the rest of the film. It went on to receive six Academy Award nominationsthe following year. Back at Disney, The Snow Queen, along with other Andersen fairy tales (including The Little Mermaid), were shelved.
Producer Peter Del Vecho commented on the difficulties adapting The Snow Queen:
“Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Snow Queen is a pretty dark tale and it doesn’t translate easily into a film. For us the breakthrough came when we tried to give really human qualities to the Snow Queen. When we decided to make the Snow Queen Elsa and our protagonist Anna sisters, that gave a way to relate to the characters in a way that conveyed what each was going through and that would relate for today’s audiences. This film has a lot of complicated characters and complicated relationships in it. There are times when Elsa does villainous things but because you understand where it comes from, from this desire to defend herself, you can always relate to her. “Inspired by” means exactly that. There is snow and there is ice and there is a Queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit. We do try to bring scope and the scale that you would expect but do it in a way that we can understand the characters and relate to them.”
In the late 1990’s, Walt Disney Feature Animation started on their own adaptation of The Snow Queen after the tremendous success of their recent films, but the project was scrapped completely in late 2002, when Glen Keane notoriously quit the project. Even before then, Harvey Fierstein pitched his version of the story to the Disney executives, but was turned down. Dick Zondag and Dave Goetz all had their try on it, but failed. Disney shelved the project again. Michael Eisner, then-CEO and chairman of The Walt Disney Company, offered his support to the project and suggested doing it with John Lasseter at Pixar Animation Studios, when the studios would get their contracts renewed.
The project was revived again around 2008 when Chris Buck pitched Disney his version of the adaptation. At the time, the project went under name of Anna and the Snow Queen, and was planned to be traditionally-animated. By early 2010, the project entered development hell once again, when the studio failed to find a way to make the story and the Snow Queen character work.
On December 22, 2011, following the success of Tangled, Disney announced a new title for the film, Frozen, and a release date, November 27, 2013, and a different crew from the previous attempt. A month later, it was confirmed that the film would be a computer animated feature in stereoscopic 3D, instead of the intended hand drawn animation. On March 5, 2012, it was announced that Chris Buck would be directing, with John Lasseter and Peter Del Vecho producing.
After Disney decided to advance The Snow Queen into development again, one of the main challenges Buck and Del Vecho faced was the character of the Snow Queen, which in that earlier version of the story, was a villain. Buck and Del Vecho presented their storyboards to John Lasseter, with the entire production team adjourned to a conference to hear Lasseter’s thoughts on this work-in-progress. Production designer Michael Giaimo, recalled;
“That was the game changer…I remember John saying that the latest version of The Snow Queen story that Chris Buck and his team had come up with was fun, very light-hearted. But the characters didn’t resonate. They aren’t multi-faceted. Which why John felt that audiences wouldn’t really be able to connect with them.”
The production team then addressed the film’s problems, drafting several different variations on the Snow Queen story until the characters and story felt relevant. Finally, the team decided to rewrite the film’s protagonist, Anna (who was based on the Gerda character from The Snow Queen), as the younger sibling of Elsa, effectively establishing a family dynamic between the characters.
Actress Kristen Bell was cast as the voice of Anna on March 5, 2012. Lee admitted that Bell’s casting selection was influenced after the filmmakers listened to a series of vocal tracks Bell had recorded when she was young, where the actress performed several songs from The Little Mermaid, including Part of Your World. Bell completed her recording sessions while she was pregnant, and subsequently re-recorded some of her character’s lines after her pregnancy, as her voice had deepened. When asked on her approach to Anna, Kristen Bell replied,
“I’m really excited to show it to people. I became a part of the kind of movie I wanted to see as a kid,” she said. “I always loved Disney animation, but there was something about the females that was unattainable to me. Their posture was too good and they were too well-spoken, and I feel like I really made this girl much more relatable and weirder and scrappier and more excitable and awkward. I’m really proud of that.”
Idina Menzel, a Broadway veteran, was cast as Elsa, after impressing the directors during a recording session with Bell. Between December 2012 and June 2013, additional casting roles were announced; including Jonathan Groff as Kristoff, Alan Tudyk as the Duke of Weselton, Santino Fontana as Prince Hans, and Josh Gad as Olaf.
On November 30, 2012, it was announced that Jennifer Lee, one of the screenwriters of Wreck-It Ralph, had joined Buck as co-director. The filmmakers hired Lee initially as a screenwriter, following her work on Wreck-It Ralph. Lee then became heavily involved with the film’s pre-development process, working closely with director Chris Buck and songwriters, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Following the announcement, Jennifer Lee became the first woman to direct a full-length animated motion picture produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Once the film entered production, Buck focused on the animation, whereas Lee focused on the screenplay, due to her inexperience with the former field.
The film’s animators visited an Ice Hotel in Quebec, Canada to study how light reflects and refracts on snow and ice. For the film’s setting, the animators used the landscape of Norway and the feel of the winter season of Wyoming for inspiration.
“We had a very short time schedule for this film, so our main focus was really to get the story right but we knew that John Lasseter is keen on truth in the material and creating a believable world, and again that doesn’t mean it’s a realistic world – but a believable one. It was important to see the scope and scale of Norway, and important for our animators to know what it’s like,” Del Vecho remarked. “There is a real feeling of Lawrence of Arabia scope and scale to this,” he finished.
Back at the studio, Del Vecho explained the film’s production:
“On this movie we do have character leads, supervising animators on specific characters. The animators themselves may work on multiple characters but it’s always under one lead. I think it was different on Tangled, for example, but we chose to do it this way as we wanted one person to fully understand and develop their own character and then be able to impart that to the crew. Hyrum Osmond, the animator on Olaf, is quiet but he has a funny, wacky personality so we knew he’d bring a lot of comedy to it; Anna’s animator, Becky Bresee, it’s her first time leading a character and we wanted her to lead Anna.”
Regarding the look and nature of the film’s cinematography, the film’s art director Michael Giaimo was greatly influenced by Jack Cardiff’s work in Black Narcissus. According to him, it lent a hyper-reality to the film:
“Because this is a movie with such scale and we have the Norwegian fjords to draw from, I really wanted to explore the depth. From a design perspective, since I was stressing the horizontal and vertical aspects, and what the fjords provide, it was perfect. We encased the sibling story in scale.”
Ted D. McCord’s work in The Sound of Music was another major influence for Giamo;
“The juxtaposition of character and environment and the counterpart of how they played in terms of cinematography was brilliant in that film.”
It was also Giamo’s idea that Frozen should be filmed in CinemaScope, which was approved by Lasseter. Giaimo also wanted to ensure that Norway’s fjords, architecture and rosemaling folk art, were critical factors in designing the environment of Arendelle. Giaimo, whose background is animation, noted that the art design environment represents a unity of character and environment and that he originally wanted to incorporate saturated colors, which is typically ill-advised in computer animation. A live reindeer was brought into the studio for animators to study its movements and mannerisms for the character, Sven.
During production, the film’s English title was changed from The Snow Queen to Frozen, a decision that drew comparisons to Tangled. Peter Del Vecho explained that
“the title Frozen came up independently of the title Tangled. It’s because, to us, it represents the movie.Frozen plays on the level of ice and snow but also the frozen relationship, the frozen heart that has to be thawed. We don’t think of comparisons between Tangled and Frozen, though.”
He also mentioned that the film will still retain its original title, The Snow Queen, in some foreign countries:
“because that just resonated stronger in some countries than Frozen. Maybe there’s a richness to The Snow Queen in the country’s heritage and they just wanted to emphasize that.”
Let It Go :: Idina Menzel
Anna is a lovely addition to the story, originally Gerda from The Snow Queen, is now portrayed as Elsa’s sister who at an early age is separated from her sister, and by a series of events, has no knowledge of her sister’s powers. Anna has been hidden away from the world, a familiar theme in so many “princess” tales, and is itching to get out and see a life beyond paintings and books. She is clumsy and foolish at times, naive, and yet witty, outgoing and brave. One could argue that she possesses social skills that one would lack from so much isolation, but to me Anna represents the innocence we all have, and that unwavering belief in those we love that in Anna is still free from jadedness and heartbreak. Kristen Bell does a great job with Anna, bringing a bit of her Veronica Mars character to her. Who knew she had such a great singing voice?
The boys who both vie for Anna’s attention are played wonderfully by Jonathan Groff (Kristoff) and Santino Fontana (Hans). I do wish that Hans had been a bit more complex of a character, and that the turn of events had not felt so contrived. As for Kristoff, he was a delight as our flawed and funny co-hero. I do wish they had given him more than one song in the movie, especially since Jonathan Groff has the Broadway chops to deliver.
Lastly, Olaf the Snowman is Disney sidekick at its best. At times a more funny Rankin and Bass “Frosty“, his childlike wistfulness for Sun and Summer, and his loyalty to both sisters, was heartwarming and wonderful. My daughters and I were quoting some of his lines for days after seeing the film.
All the way around, I loved this film. It surpassed the category of “Holiday movie” for me, finding itself among my list of favorite movies. It is more musical than most of the animated features that have been produced by Disney in sometime, and for this film it works. I could see it produced for the stage, as well, and hope that it is someday. Elsa and Anna are characters to remember, and will be part of my fictional character collective conscious for a long time to come. This is a must-see in the theaters, as well. Although I did not see it in 3D, it would probably be worth it to spend the extra to see it that way, as well.