In the early 1940s, one project that captured the attention of Walt Disney was an ambitious biography of Hans Christian Andersen. Initially, the project was conceived as a half-animated collaboration with Hollywood bigwig Samuel Goldwyn. Disney had discussed the project with Goldwyn throughout the war years, during which the two had developed a particularly close friendship (especially for Walt). Of the animated sequences Disney was to provide, one stood out: An adaptation of “The Snow Queen,” an ethereal 1845 fairy tale about an evil witch who encases a kingdom in a never-ending winter.
Sadly, this version of the project never happened. Goldwyn produced a variation of the Andersen biography starring Danny Kaye almost a decade later. Yet the friendship between Goldwyn and Disney remained strong; Goldwyn assisted Disney in the completion of his difficult Song of the South project a few years later. Instead of animated sequences, Goldwyn’s Hans Christian Andersen from 1952 told the author’s fairy tales through choreographed balletic dance numbers. Yes, seriously. It was nominated for a handful of Academy Awards, won none and the “Snow Queen” section, which had originally sparked Walt’s interest, was ultimately not included.
The Snow Queen concept briefly sprang back to life during the early 1970s, although not in cinematic form. Instead, legendary Disney artist Marc Davis proposed a frigidly air-conditioned Disneyland attraction entitled The Enchanted Snow Palace, designed along the lines of the classic Disneyland rides like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or the Haunted Mansion. This version never made it past the conceptual phase.
Still, like a number of other fairy tale projects kicked around during that post-war period—including a film based on Andersen’s “Little Mermaid”—the Snow Queen would stay in the company’s bloodstream for decades to come. Toward the end of what would be known later as the Disney Renaissance—the period between The Little Mermaid and Fantasia 2000—when the studio would recapture some of the animated magic and box office might of Walt’s golden era, attention turned again to The Snow Queen.
According to a 2002 report by Disney historian Jim Hill, a version of the project set to combine traditional animation with 3D computer graphics was quietly developed with veteran animator Glen Keane, responsible for many of the most famous Disney characters of the Disney Renaissance, including Ariel from The Little Mermaid and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast.
As recounted in James B. Stewart’s Disney War, the definitive take on the studio’s combative Michael Eisner era, in June, 2003, the excitable executive took a meeting to discuss the company’s upcoming animated slate. The focus of the meeting was primarily on My Peoples, an animated film that would have had two-dimensional, hand-drawn characters interacting with 3D computer animated objects. The project, set in the Deep South and featuring songs by Dolly Parton, ultimately proved too difficult to crack, but at the time it was a huge priority for the studio.
Still: other topics demanded Eisner’s attention. After Eisner became frustrated with talk of a Legally Blonde-esque version of Rapunzel, something that would evolve years later into Tangled, discussion turned to The Snow Queen.
“I love the Taming of the Shrew idea,” Eisner told the room, which included recently installed head of animation David Stainton and creative vice presidents like Pam Coats and Mary Jane Ruggels. “Take Martha Stewart. She’s tough, smart—a worthy adversary. If she was a doormat of a woman, no one would be after her.” Eisner hemmed and hawed about the creative team assembled to bring The Snow Queen to life, a team that included Keane, and suggested that they hand over the project to Pixar. At that point, Pixar hadn’t been bought by Disney and was still on shaky ground with the company.
“John Lasseter. If we make a new deal with Pixar …” Eisner began.
“You mean when we make a new deal with Pixar,” Stainton cut in.
Eisner continued: “I said to John, you can have Snow Queen. He loved it. John said, ‘I want to do a princes movie.’”
That’s right: Frozen was once very nearly a Pixar movie, at least according to Eisner.
Ruggels pitched Eisner the project. “The Snow Queen is a terrible bitch,” she explained. “When her suitors try to melt her heart, the Snow Queen freezes them. Then along comes a regular guy.”
“This is perfect!” Eisner shouted. Then: “I’m afraid to hear more.”
Ruggels continued: “The regular guy goes up there, he’s not that great, but he’s a good person. He starts to unfreeze her … she melts.”
“It’s great,” Eisner said.
Ruggels promised Eisner that he’d have a full treatment for the project, including all the major story beats and placement of musical numbers, in two weeks.
“Can we have this for 2006?” Eisner asked.
“No way,” said Coats.
Still, as Eisner got up to leave the meeting, he proclaimed: “I love The Snow Queen.”
Apparently, Ruggels’ treatment didn’t meet Eisner’s specifications, and the project was shuttered shortly thereafter and put on a kind of indefinite hiatus. Glen Keane took the postponement as an opportunity to leave The Snow Queen and focus all of his attention on Rapunzel, a similarly classic fairy tale he hoped to direct in the style of a living Renaissance painting. Despite these major setbacks, work on The Snow Queen continued.
People like Harvey Fierstein, who recently penned the book for the hit Disney Broadway musical Newsies, pitched an idea to Disney Animation, but they didn’t bite. Veteran animators like Dick Zondag and Dave Goetz and illustrators like the Brizzi Brothers likewise tried to break through the ice surrounding the project to no avail.
Then, in March, 2006, the project momentarily thawed, but not in the way you’d expect. In a press release describing a “non-exclusive, multi-year” deal with composer Alan Menken (a key creative principle of the Disney Renaissance), Disney announced that Menken, among other things, would be developing a “stage musical of The Snow Queen for Tokyo DisneySea.” Additionally, the studio announced that the project had a crack creative team behind it, including director Amon Miyamoto, with John Weidman providing the book and Glenn Slater handling lyrics.
But by the end of August, the project was back in deep freeze. No reason was given for the production’s cancellation. (Bootlegged demos from the production have found their way online for those curious about this incarnation.) For a while Slater and Menken moved over to animation, working alongside Mike Gabriel (co-director of Pocahontas) on an animated version of the stage musical. In 2010, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Menken mentioned that he had been working on The Snow Queen for years but that it was now defunct.
According to a Los Angeles Times article from March, 2010, reporting on Disney’s then-controversial decision to rename Rapunzel to Tangled, Disney concluded “it had too many animated girl flicks in its lineup” and “has shelved The Snow Queen.” That same article partially blamed Brave (then entitled The Bear and the Bow), Pixar’s first princess movie, on The Snow Queen’s cancellation—ironic since, years earlier, The Snow Queen was discussed as Pixar’s first princess movie.
Later that same year, Disney producer Don Hahn, who had shown off artwork from the film publicly in 2008, told British movie magazine Empire: “It’s actually been tabled right now. It’s on the low shelf—we can’t reach it! But seriously, we don’t have the story.” Hahn explained: “It’s a bit like Beauty And The Beast, which sat there for years. We cracked Beauty finally by putting in the objects and creating more plot. The Snow Queen we’ve had a lot of trouble with, and I’ve spent years on it. I love it, and I think it’s one of the last great fairy tales.”
Tangled bowed in fall, 2010, and became a box office sensation, tallying up the biggest opening ever for a Disney animated film and a global haul of almost $600 million. The movie added fresh blood to the Disney Princess product line, which trade publication The Licensing Letter recently announced was the single best-selling line of licensed entertainment merchandise in the country, grossing more than $1.6 billion annually in North America and more than $3 billion worldwide. Suddenly, The Snow Queen had sprung vibrantly to life.
Less than a month after Tangled’s release, Disney announced that The Snow Queen would be re-titled Frozen and would bow on November 27, 2013. At the time of the announcement, it wasn’t clear whether or not Frozen would be traditionally or computer animated; later, it was confirmed that it would be an all-CGI affair.
Over the next year, production steamrolled ahead, this time under the direction of Tarzan co-director Chris Buck. Kristen Bell was cast as Anna and Idina Menzel assumed the role of Elsa, the Snow Queen, who in this version would be sisters.
This project abandoned the previously written Menken/Slater songs in favor of new tunes penned by Bobby and Kristen Lopez, a husband-and-wife songwriting duo that had produced tunes for Winnie the Pooh. Toward the end of 2012, it was announced that Jennifer Lee, who was handling screenwriting duties on Frozen and on Disney Animation’s 2012 holiday offering Wreck-It Ralph, would come aboard as a co-director.
When I spoke with Buck and Lee last month, I remarked that they had accomplished something that even Walt Disney couldn’t do. They both laughed nervously, with Lee adding: “I like how you put that. It’s even more thrilling.”
“There really wasn’t much on any version Walt did. We saw a couple of sketches that Marc Davis had done, but that was only six months ago and that was only in someone’s private collection somewhere,” Buck recalled. “So we don’t know that version or any version that Walt wanted to tell. So we were free to do our own. And it was a tough one.”
I asked if they encountered any roadblocks in the course of devising a story that had famously tripped up Walt and countless other brilliant animators and storytellers.
“I can say that the Hans Christian Andersen story [is] very symbolic, poetic; it’s everything that cinema is not,” Lee said. “Cinema is very concrete. And The Snow Queen is not clearly drawn; she’s an idea. She’s a villain but you don’t know anything about her. So there’s so many ways to go into the story. You can’t just tell it as it was. It meanders. It’s episodic. The in for us was asking the question: Who is the Snow Queen? And the more three-dimensional she became, the more we could keep the themes from the original in the new story. But I can personally see why it was so hard.”
And that’s how the Snow Queen’s curse was finally lifted. From an animated section of a live-action film overseen by Walt himself through countless animated feature attempts, a possible Pixar movie, a possible Disneyland attraction and Tokyo DisneySea production and back again to a feature project, Frozen—a beautifully animated, delicately told tale of sisterhood and chatty snowmen—is finally here. The Snow Queen’s journey to the big screen may have been tortuous, but, as audiences all around the world are about to discover, it was more than worth it. Frozen is downright magical.