With ‘Frozen’ franchise, Jennifer Lee makes history at Disney

As part of our Tribute Series, FF2 Media celebrates the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

Jennifer Lee has broken ground as a writer and director at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, accomplishing much within the past decade. She is best known as the writer and co-director of Frozen (2013) and Frozen II (2019), but was also made Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2018 when John Lasseter departed the company. Under her creative leadership, the Frozen franchise has been one of Disney’s most successful and has permeated the culture in a way that is unprecedented for a Disney Princess film. 

Lee has a MFA in Film from Columbia University School of the Arts’ Film Program. A classmate of hers later invited her to work on the script of Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and she ended up staying on at Disney Animation after that script was complete. She was brought onto Frozen to write the script and ended up co-directing it alongside Chris Buck as well. She helped transition it from an adventure film to more of a musical comedy. While Brenda Chapman had directed Brave at Pixar the year before, Lee was the first female director of a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film. She was also the first female director of a feature film that earned more than $1 billion in gross box office revenue. 

Frozen is a moving film about sisterhood and finding your identity. It follows two sisters, Elsa and Anna, who have been separated since childhood because of Elsa’s inability to control her magical icy powers. The two actually perfectly balance each other out, but after being reunited they must learn how to communicate with each other again. It’s an incredibly moving film, and can break your heart within the first ten minutes. Lee’s clever dialogue and the way that the two leads interact together perfectly recreates a sisterly dynamic. The film demonstrates the dangers of being isolated and not having a healthy outlet for your feelings by showing how their isolation has affected Elsa and Anna in very different ways. 

Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Sven take on a new adventure in Frozen II.

Lee builds a lovely romance subplot for Anna, creating an effective love triangle between a prince who seems exactly like what she’s always dreamed of and a mountain man who she actually falls in love with. In fact, the movie is remarkable in that while one female lead is looking for romance and the other isn’t, neither of them are shamed or condescended to for their choice. Frozen was the second princess film that Disney made in which a princess, or in this case a queen, doesn’t have a romantic interest and the first from the Walt Disney Animation Studios. 

Frozen II, which was released late last year and was also written and co-directed by Lee, is even more nuanced and mature than its predecessor without losing its appeal to children. It’s a great example of how to use a sequel to further develop characters as Anna becomes more of a leader in her own right, Elsa feels the call to connect with other powers, and Kristoff struggles with proposing. It also fills in further backstory information about Elsa and Anna as children and about their parents. Much of the film is centered around the doctrine of “do the next right thing” as both girls try to help their people. 

Frozen II demonstrates how Lee has grown as a director and writer and is even better than Frozen. All of the characters are better utilized in this film, particularly Anna, who gets more character growth. The scene in which Olaf recounts the story of the first movie to a group of people they’ve met is one of the most clever and funny in any Disney film. It would be easy to overdo a sidekick character like Olaf, but the film doesn’t let him veer into being annoying. The songs in Frozen II are more evenly spread out across the whole length of the film; one of the real downfalls of Frozen is that the soundtrack seems to finish by the start of the third act. “Show Yourself” and “The Next Right Thing” are two of the most touching sequences I’ve ever seen in a film, let alone in an animated film.

In addition to her work on the Frozen movies, Lee has worked on a handful of other Disney films. She is credited for creative leadership on Big Hero 6, Moana, and Zootopia. She was also a co-writer on Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time alongside Jeff Stockwell in 2018. 

A Wrinkle of Time is a science-fantasy film based on the 1962 novel by Madeleine L’Engle. The film adaptation features Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Chris Pine. It follows a young girl who goes on a journey to find her scientist father with the guidance of three astral travelers. While the film didn’t do well at the box office and had mixed reviews, many praised its diversity and female empowerment along with impressive visuals. 

Jennifer Lee and Ava DuVernay on set of A Wrinkle in Time.

Lee has already seen the rewards for her work. Frozen was not only financially successful, but was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature as well as a BAFTA and an Annie Award. Lee is certainly one of the most exciting creators working in animated film today and it’s exciting to imagine where she’ll go next. Hopefully her success may also lead to more female directors at the Walt Disney Animation Studios. 

You can read more about Disney’s depiction of sisters in Frozen and Frozen II in FF2 Media’s feature “Which Film Gets Sisterhood Right?” from contributors Brigid & Georgi Presecky.

© Nicole Ackman (4/27/20) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Jennifer Lee was named chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios following the departure of John Lasseter from the company. She is also the screenwriter and co-director of Frozen II. Photo by Jesse Grant – Getty Images for Disney

Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

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Nicole Ackman
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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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