Jennifer Lee, Queen of the ‘Frozen’ Franchise

Jennifer Lee, Queen of the ‘Frozen’ Franchise

27 mins read

BURBANK, Calif. — For decades, Disney hypnotized us into thinking that someday our prince would come. We would get a wake-up kiss, don the glass slipper, let down our locks so he could clamber up the tower and rescue us. True love would break the spell, chase away the bad spirits.

Sometimes, the wait seemed endless.

As Charlotte once keened on “Sex and the City,” “I’ve been dating since I was 15. I’m exhausted. Where is he?”

So how fitting that the Disney hot shot who is finally helping dismantle the myth of the white knight is a bright woman.

With “Frozen” in 2013, Jennifer Lee and her writing and directing partner, Chris Buck, changed the formula so that the true love saving Princess Elsa from her icy exile comes not from a prince but from her younger sister, Anna.

The writers also avoided the usual malevolent female characters, like menacing matriarchs and tormenting stepsisters. In “Frozen 2,” premiering this week in Hollywood, female self-reliance and sisterly love is once more the theme.

In “The Snow Queen,” the original shambolic Hans Christian Andersen saga that inspired “Frozen,” the queen was an older, sexy, diabolical diva, keeping a boy captive.

Rather than the usual fight between good and evil, Ms. Lee says, she played up the tension between fear (Elsa) and love (Anna), cognizant of the fact while they were working on the first “Frozen,” “you were really seeing an escalation — and exploitation — of fear in the world and it was overwhelming.”

She says that the classic Disney fairy tale model was taken for granted for generations, so many women just automatically strove for it. “I grew up in the ’70s and had a mom that was the single mom and very independent, so that wasn’t the life I was living,” Ms. Lee, 48, recalls at Walt Disney Animation Studio, the kingdom she now runs as chief creative officer. Mickey’s blue sorcerer’s hat sits atop the building.

“And then by the time I got here, we were all talking about how that’s not the life we lived, and about creating characters that we could relate to. Fairy tales are timeless, but they’re not 100 percent timeless.”

We talk in a writers’ room filled with snacks and storyboards for their latest project, “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Ms. Lee is often in jeans but today she is wearing a long royal blue Theory jacket and Christian Louboutin white ankle boot stilettoes that have “Love” scrawled on the side and silver spikes sprinkled on the toes.

“I call these my ‘compassion and armor,’” she says, with her radiant smile, noting that she splurged on them when she was nervous about “Frozen 2.”

Ms. Lee isn’t interested in any more Prince Charming characters who simply look good and show up at the right time. She long ago grew weary of Hollywood movies where the female characters were there either for a sexual reason or to reflect what’s at stake for the male characters. She is more inspired by the snappy back and forth of saucy women and the men who enjoy them on Turner Classic Movies.

“I always go back to when I saw ‘His Girl Friday’ for the first time, because the relationship was incredible, with the wonderful mess of life,” she says.

I ask her about the Twitter campaigns for Elsa to be gay.

Ms. Lee says that early on, she put both characters through intense Myers-Briggs personality tests. “It really came out that Elsa is not ready for a relationship,” she says.

While she is blowing up sexist stereotypes in fairy tales, Ms. Lee is also busting up sexist stereotypes about female directors, such as lingering fears that they can’t be trusted with big budgets or tell sweeping heroic stories.

With “Frozen,” Ms. Lee was the first woman to direct a Disney animated feature film. This is particularly remarkable since she was not a trained animator and had only ventured out to Hollywood a couple of years before, as she turned 40, the age when many people in the dream factory start lying about how old they are.

She started her career in New York, working at Random House as an art director in both reference and audiobooks. At 30, she decided to take a gamble and pursue her dream of a career in movies, going back to school to get an M.F.A. in film at Columbia University.

There she met a fellow student named Phil Johnston, who asked her to come to Disney in 2011 for what was meant to be eight weeks to work on an animated film called “Wreck-It Ralph.”

Separated from her husband at the time, she asked her mother to move temporarily to Los Angeles to help take care of her daughter, and eventually she persuaded the father of her daughter to move to California as well.

Without even realizing it, the 5-foot-3 Ms. Lee found herself standing up at meetings with the Disney boys’ club to make her voice heard. It soon became clear that she is a strong storyteller who is good at “killing your darlings’’: cutting narrative fat.

With Cinderella panache and a sunny outlook, Ms. Lee simply refused to accept that she had moved to a town where the odds were against her. And with her very first efforts, she proved why the paucity of women directors in Hollywood is a cruel absurdity.

“Frozen” was the highest-grossing animated film until it was surpassed by the 2019 remake of “The Lion King,” and Ms. Lee became the first woman to direct a film that earned over a billion dollars. Blond Elsa and redheaded Anna became such an obsession with girls and boys that Ms. Lee went from accepting thanks to saying “I’m sorry” to irritated parents when they couldn’t escape the “Frozen” songs and merchandising.

The movie’s success propelled Ms. Lee’s ascension at Disney, where she was the first woman put in charge of Walt Disney Animation Studios, replacing her mentor John Lasseter, the brilliant but mercurial animator who ran afoul of #MeToo codes of conduct and resigned last year.

Bob Iger, who had to seek Mr. Lasseter’s approval before Disney could buy Pixar from Steve Jobs, split the Lasseter fief in two and named Pete Docter to run Pixar. Even though Mr. Docter had been at Pixar for 30 years, had directed more films and won more Academy Awards than Ms. Lee had, Mr. Iger lifted the woman to equal compensation with the man.

In the last few months, Ms. Lee has been getting up in the wee hours to juggle the three jobs of writing, directing and running the studio, as she and Mr. Buck prepare for the release of “Frozen 2” on Nov. 22.

Disney was a touchstone for Ms. Lee as she grew up. When she was 6, her father, Saverio Rebecchi, gave her a Disney how-to-draw book. Later, she said, “Cinderella” got her through a tough time after her mother and father got divorced and she and her sister moved with their mother to East Providence, R.I.

Her mother, Linda, is her hero; she was a psychiatric nurse who worked two jobs to support her girls and went back to school in her 40s to get a master’s degree so she could also teach English at the community college at night. As a homage, Jennifer took her mother’s maiden name, Lee, to use professionally.

“When I was in middle school, I was very severely bullied,” Ms. Lee says. “I had about three very, very difficult years and by then I had the VHS of ‘Cinderella.’ So I’d play it and it was watching her be bullied and her perseverance and that she’s going to escape it, just by being true to herself and being a good person. I wasn’t really equating it to the prince so much. You start to believe the bullies and you believe the Kool-Aid and that you are all these horrible things.

“I was the new kid, and I just was very vulnerable. I remember getting chubby right around then. I think if, back then, they diagnosed A.D.H.D. the way they do now, there’s no doubt I had it. I mean, my daughter has it. She had a couple rough years with bullies as well. I now completely understand it. I was 100 percent that. I was always a mess. Stains on my clothes. I had knots in my hair. I was an easy target. There was physical shoving. Extreme bullying goes to the heart of what is your weakest spot. It makes you live in your head. So I had sagas going in my head and I just escaped reality.”

Behind her desk at Disney hang the original pencil drawings from the 1950 movie, showing Cinderella’s dress transformation.

Working on “Frozen,” Ms. Lee was able to draw on the relationship with her own sister, Amy, three years older and now an English teacher in New York.

“I was the wild, little daydreaming mess, a Tasmanian devil, and she was always the responsible one, a straight-A student,” says Ms. Lee, who identifies with Kristen Bell’s clear-as-a-bell Anna, not Idina Menzel’s mysterious Elsa.

She drew closer to her sister after tragedy. On the first day of college Ms. Lee fell for a charismatic student named Jason. “He was very larger than life, a risk taker, pushing it to the limit,” she says. “I was always so shocked that he liked me. I was still struggling, seeing myself from the point of view of the bullies. He was just effervescent and I was much shyer and he kind of brought me out of my shell. As my mother used to say, ‘He was the sun and I was the moon.’”

In the middle of the night, Ms. Lee, who was back in Rhode Island cat-sitting for her mother, got a call. Jason and his best friend had been out in a canoe in Maine. “The lake could get tumultuous, and the canoe flipped and they tried to swim to shore,” she says. “Jason’s friend made it, but Jason didn’t. He got hypothermia and he fell asleep.

“Definitely when Jason died, everything changed. I was full of fear in many ways because the vulnerability of life was huge. So I had phobias for a while. I still am afraid of flying. The trauma of it kicks in and doesn’t let go.”

Ms. Lee continues to explore the nature of fear in “Frozen 2.” She studied Nordic myths and went on a research trip to Norway, Iceland and Finland, getting plot epiphanies during tours of volcanoes, forests, waterfalls and glaciers about the back story of how Elsa got her magical icy powers and why the girls’ parents died in a shipwreck.

Ms. Lee learned more about the myth of the Nokk, a mystical water spirit that takes on the form of a horse, and they turned it into a beautiful, eerie image in the movie.

She is also inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary animator of such Japanese films as “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” She says that after her separation, when she was living in New York with her daughter, she spent the little money she had on a Swedish poster of Totoro for her daughter’s room, believing the spirit would protect them.

I first interviewed Ms. Lee in 2015 for a New York Times Magazine article on the dearth of female directors. Many of the women I interviewed were sad, angry and bitter about the way they were treated and the work they lost out on. But Ms. Lee was an anomaly, happy and positive about her future.

Everything has changed in Hollywood since then. Or has it?

When I wrote that article, the statistics were outrageous. Women represented a measly 1.9 percent of directors of the top-100-grossing films. Things aren’t much better now. Female directors represent only 4 percent of those on top films, buoyed by Ms. Lee; Patty Jenkins, who directed “Wonder Woman;” Anna Boden, a director of “Captain Marvel;” Vicky Jenson, who directed “Shrek;” and Betty Thomas, who directed “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.”

If Greta Gerwig, who was nominated last year for an Oscar for directing “Lady Bird,” is nominated for this year’s much buzzed-about “Little Women,” she will be the only woman nominated twice in that category.

There have been just four other female directing nominees: Lina Wertmuller, Kathryn Bigelow (who won), Sofia Coppola and Jane Campion. The only woman to have won a Golden Globe for directing is Barbra Streisand, and that was in 1984 for “Yentl.”

There is heightened awareness of the issue now, however, thanks to #MeToo and #TimesUp. “I remember when Geena Davis came here nine years ago and spoke,” Ms. Lee says about the actress who became an activist, urging studios to practice gender equity in their films. “Some of the men, other creatives, were mocking her. And they were mocking her because they were threatened by her. And I was very upset, but I couldn’t say anything then.

“The guys I work with now, they do want that change because they see it makes our films better. It challenges the storytelling, makes the days richer.”

She says Disney now has two new female directors in the animation studio. “When you’ve got three women in the room, it’s a different conversation. Talent knows no gender. It knows no race.”

When we talked four years ago, Ms. Lee praised Mr. Lasseter, who was then the animation boss, and talked about the importance of men supporting women as well as women supporting women. I asked how his resignation for “missteps,” unwanted touching and kissing, had affected her.

Did he ever ask her to help save him?

“No,” she says. Referring to the period where he was already on a “sabbatical” and being investigated by the mouse house, she added: “John was very supportive when we were opening ‘Frozen’ on Broadway. He sent us all texts congratulating us. He has not asked anything of any of us.

“He was a great mentor to me and it was purely a working relationship, and I 100 percent knew that he believed in my talent. I was certainly in groups where we would all be in a room and he’d hug us all. Men too. ‘John was affectionate.’ That’s what we’d say.

“He had talked to both Pete and I about succession, so we knew we had his support. There were moments it was scary, because I think he only saw one screening of ‘Frozen 2’ and he had been a real partner on the first film.” Sometimes, she said, the operating ethos after his departure was “What would John say?”

How should women navigate in the workplace when a man is a valuable mentor but is also doing things some women find inappropriate?

“I always say I can’t speak for other women, so you have to respect it,’’ she says. “Because what feels fun or isn’t even noticeable for one is traumatic for another. But there in and of itself is the dialogue we should be having.”

In January, there was a backlash when Mr. Lasseter got the top job at Skydance Animation. I wondered if she thought he should have that job.

“I don’t think it’s fair to ask me,” she says. “Because for those of us who work very closely, we all have very different relationships. So for me, I didn’t comment on it.” She says that, like many people, she wrestles with questions about whether there is a way back for some people, and who deserves another chance.

If you check Ms. Lee’s Instagram, you will see her with her teenage daughter, Agatha, and her boyfriend, Alfred Molina. Mr. Molina, an acclaimed British actor, is the voice of the father of Elsa and Anna in “Frozen 2.”

(In recent years, Mr. Molina has spoken about the pain of seeing his wife suffer from a very advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. He had said that he had looked after her for years at home but that eventually, she needed more specialized care.)

Ms. Lee calls Mr. Molina “Fred,” and they look very happy together. She says that they prefer to keep their relationship private, but allows: “I just feel very lucky because I’m, you know, 48 years old and I’m very happy in my family life and he’s very caring and very good to my daughter. And so I feel lucky.”

Just as a fairy tale might end, the couple shares a house in the mountains outside of Burbank.

“A little house,” Ms. Lee said. “But a big view.”

[One more round around the ice, shall we?]

Maureen Dowd: You agree with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola that Marvel movies are tedious.

Jennifer Lee: Deny. Actually, when I heard about it, it made me sad because I just said, “Do we need any more meanspiritedness in this world right now?” There’s no place for that, in my opinion. I just didn’t think it was necessary.

You are so afraid of flying that before you take off you have a drink, talk in the voice that you use with your cat, and ask everyone around you to shield you with protective white light.


You’re sick of metaphors about how you bring the heat and melt the glass ceiling.

Yes, I am. I will love the day we don’t have to have those.

J. D. Salinger’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction” is one of your favorite books.

True. I didn’t respond to “Catcher in the Rye,” believe it or not. I love Salinger’s line about writing, “Were most of your stars out?”

When there is a scene with choreography in your films, you dance it out for the animators.


When you were stressed out last summer, you would watch a live cam of a baby albatross growing up in New Zealand.


You hate falling asleep.


You play the flute.


Disney sneaks subliminal messages into its movies.

There is one in “Frozen,” and no one has figured it out. It’s a little more buried than subliminal. It’s pretty funny.

The studio brought in a live reindeer to inspire the animators on “Frozen.”

True. Sage. She lost her antlers and it was bloody and gross but she was fine because I guess that’s normal.

You actually hate cold weather and the winter.


You love Bono so much, you rooted for him at the Oscars for Best Original Song against the “Frozen” composers, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.

I was conflicted, I will say. But I love Bobby and Kristen more because I actually know them as people and it was “Frozen.” But I do love Bono, always and forever.

You love sci-fi.

Confirm. “Star Wars” was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. My first sci-fi book was “A Wrinkle in Time.” Then I was a big fan of Philip K. Dick, like “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Of course, because of that, I loved “Blade Runner.” Directing a sci-fi film is a dream. Animated sci-fi is just as fantastic, maybe it could be even more fantastical. We have some projects in development that have some sci-fi elements to them, so I’m happy.

You still miss New York.

Every day. I still say “I’m going home” when I go to New York. It will always be home. I miss the anonymity of New York. You walk the street and you’re everyone and no one. Just walking in Central Park endlessly. We’ll end up there someday and somehow. I want to grow old there.

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