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We talk princesses with Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, directors of Disney's uber-hit Frozen...

9th December 2013

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It’s a film that has been in the back of Disney bosses’ minds since the 1940s – the days of Bambi, Pinocchio and Dumbo – but it was only at the end of November that Frozen, the remastered story of a Snow Queen locked in an ice palace and a valiant attempt to save her (and henceforth the world) from an eternal winter, finally hit cinema screens.

The tale first recorded by Hans Christian Anderson in 1845 has gone on to take in $190.2 million in the US so far, making it the biggest Thanksgiving opening in history. This week it returned to first place in the US film charts, outperforming The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and in the UK, where it was released on Friday, it has broken records with its £4.7 million opening weekend.

It’s more than an achievement for its co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee - so how do they feel about the film’s success?

“Overwhelmed”, says Jennifer, who was also a writer on 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph. “I think we hoped for it, but you just never know. We’ve got a great response to the film when people have seen it, but you just don’t know if they’re going to come.”

Come they did, but clearly, Chris and Jennifer were wary of being too hopeful. The reaction in the US is something that they have yet to witness firsthand, after spending Thanksgiving weekend promoting the film in Rome – where they had a champagne toast with the film’s crew over video link.

“It’s great to be travelling,” Chris says, “but with a film that has had this much success you really want to be celebrating with the crew. They’ve worked so hard on it.”

With the task of humanising the distant, heartless Snow Queen being the essential problem that had delayed the film’s creation for upwards of 70 years, how did they finally go about finding a believable voice for Elsa?

Jennifer says: “It was very difficult. (The traditional character) is not one that is as interesting to us, as in the original she’s symbolic.

“It’s a glorious story, the Hans Christian Anderson story, and we love the theme, fear versus love, and the essence of the strong female characters. We wanted to have a Snow Queen that was three dimensional and complex; making it less a good versus evil story and less of a villain, more someone ruled by fear. It just allowed us to make the story more complex. And I think she speaks to more people that way.

“But it certainly was a challenge, and we struggled for a long time over whether she should become evil.

“We were sort of guessing because there’s so little known about all the different versions of her.”

Frozen has been compared to those Disney masterpieces created during the company’s ‘renaissance era’ of 1989 – 1999 – think The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan.

Chris worked on The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Tarzan, and for those now in their twenties this roll-call of 1990s Disney films is often seen as part of a collective childhood. How do he and Jennifer feel about their newest film being compared to those of this ‘golden’ period?

Jennifer says that The Little Mermaid is a film that represents this era for her. “I was a teenager when it came out,” she says, “and it was monumental for me; I carried that film with me everywhere. I still have the VHS copy of it! So for me it means the world.

“I am overwhelmed to imagine that this film could speak to generations and mean something to generations... we’re very grateful because we just set out to get the story right and the characters, and make great songs. To think that’s what it added up to to people is really...” she trails off.

For Chris, the perspective is slightly different. He takes one film at a time, he says, doesn’t think about the era that he is working in, and at the core of his mission simply “tries to really relate to the audience.”

Both he and Jennifer have spoken about how they didn’t want Frozen’s heroines, Elsa and Anna, to be thought of as typical ‘princesses’, but rather as fully-rounded females with developed personalities – such is the way they considered them whilst making the film. So, speaking of Chris’s previous work, does he see any similarities between his current heroines and his previous ones? Between Anna and Pocahontas, perhaps? They’re definitely both courageous...

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he admits. “There’s the assumption that they’re on a pedestal, that they’re these glass porcelain type of characters... which is not what we were going for at all. We were going for these very believable, very flawed, very real characters.”

Jennifer adds: “The whole reason that we made them royal was because we wanted to put pressure on them. They weren’t before; we weren’t even going to go in that direction - but for Anna to be responsible for a kingdom because her sister has caused this winter is to have that pressure. It just raised the stakes for us; we pushed it that way, which is more adventurous.”

It’s set in an older period, she adds, where royalty was absolute and family honour was everything.

Do they think that the princess trope is a damaging one – that there is pressure in film, and not necessarily just in animation, for young women to fit into this stereotypical, submissive female role? It’s certainly something that Disney may have been accused of in the past...

“I don’t like to think of it as damaging,” says Jennifer. “Because sometimes I think we lose perspective. There is a classic timelessness to a lot of films; they were made when they were made. And so Cinderella is a very different film and it was made in a different era, and that’s what that era would say and that was what was inspirational then. And it’s not now. I think we’re happy to go with what is resonating now.”

On Cinderella, she says: “She managed to get through some very hard times; the solution to it was a bit more of that era - but they’re different qualities.

“I love the kinds of characters that we’re creating now... we wanted to do characters that are much more relatable and aren’t on pedestals.”

Jennifer is the first woman to direct a full length feature at Disney – but it wasn’t something that she was aware of whilst she was working on the project.

“All I was thinking about was that I was the first writer in Disney Animation to become a director,” she says, “so that was a much bigger thing for me, and what that meant and what I could bring to it, having not come from animation or storyboarding.

“It was the press that brought that news to me. I’m used to working with a ton of women. Hopefully it’s a sign of what is to come, and that’s where we’re going.”

Chris adds: “Our relationship is that we bring a great balance to our movies and we keep each other honest when it comes to male and female characters. I don’t think we go to stereotypes too much.”

There is no doubt that the 3D aspect adds something extremely mystical to the film, which is set in the distant past, in a country far away. Does Chris, having an extensive history on the animation side, think that 3D, with its otherworldly associations, lends itself especially well to the fairytale genre?

Definitely, he says: “I think it transports you to a different place: I think 3D can put you there. I think, especially with Frozen, it immerses you in that world... the snowflakes, the storms; it put you right there. There’s nothing more magical to me.”

Watching the stunning visuals that are at work in this film, it’s very difficult to disagree.

Frozen is out in cinemas now. Read our review here.

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