Disney’s legacy of heroine princesses gets two new additions with Frozen. The studio behind fairytale favorites like The Little Mermaid and most recently Tangled, introduces a story about two royal sisters. After Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) embraces her uncontrollable ice powers, her kingdom is put in an eternal winter and it’s up to her sister Anna (Kristen Bell) to save their land. Directors Chris Buck (Tarzan, Surfs Up) and Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It-Ralph) talked to ScreenCrave about what makes Frozen Disney’s next big thing.
What made Frozen the next story to tell?
Chris Buck: It just resonated with me when pitching it to John (Lasseter). The character of the Snow Queen and environment—I guess the early kind of theme that we had talked about. Love vs. Fear.
What themes did you use as touchstones for this new story?
Jennifer Lee: There was going to be a very different way of looking at the power of love… It was all anchored in that and the refinement of the theme came a lot from the original material and looking at what would resonate at any decade no matter who you are or where you live. That theme of a society crippled by fear and this little light that’s just love trying to fight its way through was extraordinary to us.
There’s a contemporary feel to the characters, but they still exist in a storybook world. How did you go about maintaining that balance?
Chris Buck: We talk about it being timeless and timely at the same time. You create this world, and it’s set in a certain time. You’re not sure when it is but it feels like a storybook kind of time… and we couldn’t help it cause of how we are living in today’s society. Bringing that contemporary quality without the contemporary language necessarily.
Jennifer Lee: We try and stay away from fad language but we don’t feel locked to sort of “thou art my child”.
Chris Buck: You wanna make it relateable to everyone today.
Jennifer Lee: For me it always is: Your characters are your key. There are so many things out there that are set in different times and are different genres, different worlds but if you make characters people relate to that they can laugh at whether they’re comic relief or just the lead—humans are funny, people are funny. And they’re funny because of the dumb choices they make and the insane things they’ll risk. If you keep that alive we all connect to that. We go on the epic journey that can feel timeless. I always find that’s the balance.
Frozen really seems to be an ensemble piece. What are some ways you’re able to explore the different characters within the constraints of the film?
Chris Buck: You always try to get the scene down to just it’s essence. You never want any fat.
Jennifer Lee: Within storyboards we play a lot and you want that. You give the animators pages and you want them to goof off and add or change. ‘What about this?’ ‘Explore’ but give them [notes] ‘This has to be here. This is part of it.’ You give them freedom and you find great ideas. So by the time we get to animation itself, you wanna be locked because to animate one shot is weeks of work for an animator. What you really do then is — we would sit down and watch the storyboard version and we’ll talk through every shot of what the character is feeling. That’s the key. What’s going on in their head.
Chris Buck: Not necessarily the action.
Jennifer Lee: Not like ‘she’s picking up a cup’, we say ‘she’s skittish’, ‘she’s nervous’ ‘she has fear building up inside her that she’s trying to hold back’ and then you let them know and you let them find what the action is.
Chris Buck: And you talk about the whole arc of the whole sequence. Within that one sequence ‘How is Anna growing or changing?’ Emotionally what is happening? They really can take it from there.
Jennifer Lee: Elsa’s very much about body language. We did a lot of tests. Elsa’s very upright, like people who control every piece of their body and that’s her. And then Anna is just open and loose and will stumble over the chair because she’s trying to get somewhere without thinking first. And everything about her mannerisms is kinda down to earth.
Tell us about Frozen’s music. How many major songs will it include to serve the story?
Chris Buck: Seven I think. They hopefully carry the arc of the story out without stopping the story. That was our goal to keep telling the story and let those songs propel us along. So it won’t feel like we’re just sitting for three minutes waiting for them to finish their song.
Jennifer Lee: That is a key. Music functions to get right to the emotion. They really help you feel things. They resonate but also when you’ve got a song, there is so much more you can accomplish that would take five or six scenes to do that you can do in one song. So we always said [with] every song, we’re gonna take full advantage. We’re making this big movie, we want to go to some big places and make big choices and so the songs all lead you that way. Or they’re trying to capture the emotion of what someone’s been through. Particularly Elsa’s ‘Let it go’ is a great example. There is a great song in the beginning that’s sung from Anna’s perspective and you just understand them better. I love what we’ve done. We do it in a way that is contemporary and fresh. I hope people see it as a very different musical experience.
What are some of your personal favorite songs from the movie?
Chris Buck: ”Let it go” is so powerful. The song itself. We were blown away and the imagery that these guys did is just stunning, the creation of the ice palace, how powerful Elsa is.
Jennifer Lee: I have my troll song that I love.
Chris Buck: ”The Summer Song,” Olaf’s song is so honest and so innocent.
Frozen opens in theaters November 27.