“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a film where it feels like the public has made it their own. It really feels like it’s their movie now,” said Producer Peter Del Vecho about the whirlwind success and public embrace of Disney’s FROZEN. This was in mid-February, just three weeks prior to the 86th Academy Awards, a ceremony during which FROZEN would be crowned “Best Animated Feature,” and take home the Oscar for “Best Original Song” (for “Let It Go”) on the very same day that the film would cross the $1 Billion mark at the global box office – a stunning set of accomplishments for a film that was just released theatrically a mere four months ago, and just five years ago, was shelved.
Taking a break from the quite frozen landscape of Northern Illinois to visit Walt Disney Animation Studios in sunny Burbank, California for a media event, I took a seat on a couch across from Del Vecho, Writer/Director Jennifer Lee and Director Chris Buck to spend some time discussing the development of the film, it’s ties to the Disney legacy of hand-drawn animation, and the cultural juggernaut that it’s become, all on the cusp of it’s home video release.
While it’s long been rumored that Walt Disney himself wanted to bring a version of the Hans Christian Andersen tale THE SNOW QUEEN to life on the big screen, potentially as part of a live-action/animated feature about Andersen’s life, no evidence of it actually going into production at that point has been discovered in the Disney Archives, despite later attempts at doing a Snow Queen film. For FROZEN, while it’s roots may go back a good eighty years, it’s the past five – but particularly the last three – that finally brought a story loosely connected to Andersen’s to theaters everywhere.
The Beginning, and the Choice in Animation Style:
“I first pitched the film a little over five years ago, about five and a half,” says Buck. “But then there was a little time off where I went and did other things for about a year.” After working on variations of the project, Producer Del Vecho joined the production about two and a half years ago, followed by the addition of Lee just eighteen months out from release. Originally planned to be a hand-drawn film, I’d asked the filmmakers at what point those plans changed.
“It switched when it got put on the shelf, and then when it came back off, it became more CG,” Buck explains. “Mulling it over, I’d grown up on hand-drawn, and then thinking ‘a world of ice and snow’ – what they can do with CG now is so incredible, that, for me anyway, made me want to go over to that world to see what we could do. The great thing about this studio, more than most, is that our legacy is hand-drawn, and we still have some of the best hand-drawn animators in the world, here. They helped work on our movie by doing early character design, and doing hand-drawn effects. Mark Henn, who’s one of our premiere animators, was in our animation dailies room every day, and as the guys would show their work, we’d stop on a frame or something, and Mark would draw over it on a screen and give it that hand-drawn appeal with silhouette shapes and everything. So it has that feeling of classic hand-drawn, but it’s CG.”
“Our Art Director, Mike Giaimo, came from hand-drawn, and this was his first CG,” adds Lee. “What I liked, is the way he used color, and that everything was stylized – it wasn’t about reality, but it was about emotion. He was excited about being able to do things with cloth and such that we couldn’t do [in hand-drawn], and detailing like to put rose mulling on a dress in hand-drawn is so complicated and expensive, and nearly impossible, but this was limitless, yet he could still do things stylistically. For us this was the best of both worlds.”
The Casting of Idina Menzel as Elsa:
“I don’t know if it was us or our Casting Director that initially brought her up, as we were all sort of circling around her,” states Buck on the casting of Broadway star Idina Menzel as Elsa. “We’d been going to New York for auditions, and it was funny when she came in to do a vocal audition, because we knew her singing voice, and we weren’t expecting her to sing. She says, ‘No, no, I can audition,’ and she sang ‘Tomorrow’ from ANNIE.” Adds Del Vecho, “It was a GREAT version of the song. She kind of changed it up a little.”
While Menzel might’ve scored fans with her take on ANNIE, what really pushed her into the lead for Elsa was at an early table read, long before any songs had been written…
“Kristen Bell was there, and Idina was there, but she hadn’t been cast yet,” said Lee, who was still working on WRECK-IT RALPH at the time. “They did the table read, and then they sang to each other at the end, ‘The Wind Beneath My Wings.’ It worked. Men and women were crying in the room, it was so powerful. When we finally got to a point where we knew who Elsa really was and could cast, we knew it was Idina.”
“During the holidays, Jen was in New York and I was here, but we’d both been to screenings toward the end of the holidays – beginning of January – and people were starting to sing, on their own,” says Buck about the inspiration for the Sing-Along reissue.” “It’s like with the kids,” adds Lee, “once they start singing, you can’t stop.”
In a meeting with Disney Animation chief John Lasseter, Buck reported on what they’d seen, and decided that they had to do a Sing-Along version, and initially thought that it would coincide with the DVD release because there wouldn’t be time to put it together. But once the plans were in motion, it came together almost instantly.
“Originally, it was supposed to be 200 theaters, primarily in the New York, Chicago and L.A. areas,” says Del Vecho. “But the theater owners said that ‘if you’re doing it there, we want it here,’ and it grew to over 2,000 theaters, and now they’re talking about International versions. Again, it was the demand from the audience that made it bigger than we could’ve ever imagined.”
FROZEN is available now on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere. It will arrive on Blu-ray and DVD on March 18th.
Pre-Order FROZEN and other Disney titles via (my affiliate) Amazon:
Thanks to The Walt Disney Company for inviting me to visit on Mickey’s dime. Look for more coverage of FROZEN, THE PIRATE FAIRY, and SAVING MR. BANKS, right here on THE ROCK FATHER in the weeks ahead!