Disney has long been inspired by the work of Hans Christian Andersen, having animated several of the Danish author’s tales, including The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and The Little Matchgirl, among others.
Andersen’s The Snow Queen serves as inspiration for Disney’s latest film, Frozen. Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, the film tells the story of a fearless princess (Kristen Bell) who sets off to find her sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), a queen whose powers have enveloped the kingdom in an eternal, icy winter.
Buck spoke to SSN about the film and the process it took to turn the 170-year-old fairy tale into an epic animated musical.
SSN: What aspects of The Snow Queen did you first take to begin to creating Frozen?
Buck: I looked for what spoke to me the most, which was the theme of love conquering fear … The Snow Queen isn’t defined very well in the book. She’s a villain but you’re not sure why or how she got that way. Still, there’s something very intriguing about her. The environment I found to be magical on its own, the snow and ice. Those three things were standouts for me.
SSN: Frozen features new Disney princesses Elsa and Anna. Were you actively creating more to add to the fold of classic princess characters?
Buck: They weren’t royals when we first pitched it. We added the royalty because it added stakes to the story. Anna has to not only save herself from eternal winter, but her entire kingdom.
SSN: These princesses are not dependent on being rescued by a prince like some princesses of the past. Was that something you consciously strived to portray?
Buck: I never thought of them as princesses. To me, they were two interesting, flawed female characters … When it comes to certain things earlier princesses may have done, I think Disney has grown up a bit, and a slightly more well-rounded female character is appreciated these days.
SSN: How do you incorporate songs in to the story?
Buck: We went through a few versions of the story. It was a little more action-adventure before (songwriters) Robert (Lopez) and Kristen (Anderson-Lopez) came on. Once they did, we needed to retool it because it didn’t have the structure that was able to handle songs. We needed the songs to be telling a story rather than stopping the action.
SSN: What was that collaboration like?
Buck: We worked with Bob and Kristen every day, videoconferencing between L.A. and New York, working out the story with them. It was quite a collaboration. They would push us to define our characters better so they could write songs that were clear … You don’t necessarily want to be on the nose with everything, but with a song, you [do]. You have two or three minutes to say something and you need to say it very clearly so that the audience understands what’s going on.
SSN: Let It Go, the song sung by Idina Menzel as the Snow Queen, is a very pivotal moment in the film. Were you always looking to have that one big song?
Buck: You have to create your story with your highs and lows and then figure out where the song placement goes. Let It Go was one of the first songs written and it really defined Elsa. At one point she was a little more villainous. With Let It Go, we went ‘No, we can’t go that way with her.’ This is such a wonderful song and you want to root for Elsa.
SSN: Once that discovery was made, did the script have to be rewritten?
Buck: Jen had to go back and rewrite some pages in the first act to build up to that scene … You have to set it up well enough in advance so that when the song comes, the audience is ready for it and there’s an emotional payoff.
SSN: Is having a co-director easier or more difficult? Are two heads really better than one?
Buck: It’s easier. We had a compressed schedule. We got pushed up about a year, meaning we lost a year of production—that was a strain. I was the only director on at the time so when Jen was promoted, I couldn’t have been happier. We saw the same movie in our heads, but now we could share the responsibility.
SSN: Disney animation is often very colorful. How do you manage to do that with Frozen when everything is set in white snow?
Buck: When I asked art director Mike Giaimo to come on, I knew that with this white environment he would bring something very special to it. He realized, ‘White is a blank canvas, I can do anything with that,’ meaning that whatever time of day, whatever season, he could put different colors in there, like sky or moonlight reflecting off the snow. He could play with a wide range of colors and still make it believable, yet very stunning.
SSN: Frozen is populated with a cast and songwriters who all have Broadway experience. The film certainly has that Broadway feel to it. With Beauty and the Beast already on Broadway, could Frozen be next?
Buck: (laughs). I hear you. No one has spoken to me personally but I think it would be perfect for the stage. You could do some magnificent things like adding new technology and creating some stunning sets. Bobby and Kristen could write more songs. In fact, we have some songs that we had to throw out, so maybe they could dust those off and bring them back. I think it’s right for it.
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