THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Frozen’

The one that became a cultural phenomenon.

Let it go. Three little innocuous words that took on a new life of their own post-2013. The history of Disney animation is dotted with films and characters that captured the pop culture zeitgeist, but none quite like the unprecedented phenomenon that was Frozen. With box office figures, soundtrack sales, and merchandise revenue not seen since the early 1990s, Frozen was the cultural sensation Disney had been chasing for the better part of two decades. While it inevitably became nauseatingly overexposed, it still stands as one of their finest achievements.

The seeds of what would become Frozen had actually been permeating at the studio since the dawn of feature animation in 1937. After the staggering success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney began searching for further fairy tales adaptations for future animated features. In the early 1940s, Walt began developing a live-action/animation co-production with film producer Samuel Goldwyn to be based on several fairy tales of poet Hans Christian Andersen including The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, The Little Match Girl, and The Snow Queen.

But when the U.S. joined World War II efforts in 1941, all future Disney animated features were placed on hold including the planned Disney-Goldwyn production. By the end of the war, Walt became intently focused on producing an animated adaptation of another fairy tale in Cinderella, causing the co-production with Goldwyn to fall apart. Goldwyn ultimately went on to produce Hans Christian Andersen as a live-action musical told in song and ballet without Disney’s involvement, which was consequently nominated for six Academy Awards.

In the 1950s, the studio again approached the idea of an adaptation of The Snow Queen, but couldn’t quite determine how to make the titular character relatable to modern audiences, nor did they have the funds to authentically produce an animated film set in a land of snow and ice. As such, the project was shelved indefinitely and wasn’t touched again until the late 1990s when veteran animator Glen Keane attempted to bring the project to life.

After working on story ideas for over a year, Keane ultimately quit the project in 2003 to work on his passion project Rapunzel Unbraided, which eventually became 2010’s Tangled. Over the next five years, numerous animators and screenwriters attempted to salvage the languishing project including Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, Dick Zondag, Dave Goetz, and even Mulan voice actor Harvey Fierstein, but none were able to truly make the concept work.

During Disney’s contract renegotiations with Pixar in 2004, then-CEO Michael Eisner suggested Pixar director John Lasseter would be perfect to tackle the project when the new deal was finalised. But, as we know, the deal fell through and Eisner soon departed the Disney studio. When Lasseter was installed as the new chief creative officer of Walt Disney Feature Animation in 2006, he decided the project still had potential as a future animated production and set about finding the right director for the task.

In 2008, Lasseter convinced his close friend animator/director, Chris Buck to return to Disney from Sony Pictures Animation to potentially direct The Snow Queen. After working as a key animator at Disney since 1978, Buck had departed the studio in 2005 to direct Surf’s Up for Sony Pictures, but was keen to return to Disney after Lasseter took control of the studio. Under the working title Anna and the Snow Queen, Buck’s initial adaptation closely mirrored Andersen’s original fairy tale and was planned to be traditionally animated, but, yet again, it fell apart, and the project was shelved in March 2010.

After the tremendous success of Tangled in November 2011, Lasseter dusted off The Snow Queen project once again, but went a step further by officially announcing a new title for the film, Frozen, on December 22, and confirming its release date as November 27, 2013. Due to the box office disappointments of The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh, Lasseter also confirmed Frozen would now be fully computer-animated. This was also due to the complexities of its intended animated sequences, which would not be logistically possible with traditional animation.

With less than two years to complete the production, Buck was now under pressure to find a way to adapt The Snow Queen into something more palatable for modern audiences. At this point, the Snow Queen was still the villain of the piece, as she is in Andersen’s original tale, who kidnapped Anna from her wedding and intentionally froze her heart in a bid to usurp Anna from the throne.  Yet there was still something lacking from the narrative that Buck couldn’t quite crack.

In desperate need of assistance, Buck enlisted Wreck-It Ralph co-writer Jennifer Lee in March 2012, who provided the breakthrough the film needed. Lee suggested rewriting Anna as the younger sibling of the Snow Queen, now named Elsa, which created a complex family dynamic between the characters. The narrative was also rewritten to focus on Anna’s brave efforts to save her sister from the evil powers controlling her every move, with the film now more centred on the notion of the love between two siblings and not romantic love, as in Andersen’s tale.

It was also at this point songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Tony Award-winner Robert Lopez joined the project, after completing work on the music of Winnie the Pooh. The Anderson-Lopez and Lopez worked closely with Buck and Lee on the film’s concept and narrative, much in the same vein as the songwriters of Disney’s 90s animated films. After reading the initial draft of the script, the Anderson-Lopez and Lopez wrote the song “Let It Go” to be sung by Elsa, who they saw as a complex, vulnerable, and sympathetic character. To say this one song genuinely changed the entire production would be an understatement.

Unlike Buck and Lee, the Anderson-Lopez and Lopez did not see Elsa as a villain, but rather a young woman terrified of her powers and genuinely struggling to control them. After years of suppressing who she really was, “Let It Go” would stand as the moment she finally accepted her gifts and embraced her inner strength. It also created a complex juxtaposition between Elsa and Anna, in that one sister was ruled by fear, while the other was ruled by love. The song ultimately caused Lee to rewrite the entire film, with Elsa no longer cast as the film’s villain and the centre of the story revolving around the attempts of two sisters to understand each other.

In Elsa’s place as the film’s true villain, Lee created the character of Prince Hans, who initially presents himself as the true love Anna has been searching for. However, Hans would ultimately prove to be a selfish sociopath with a devilish plan to usurp both Anna and Elsa from the throne of Arendelle. To balance the narrative and add a dose of typical Disney romance, Lee also crafted the character of Kristoff, who would aide Anna in her quest to save Elsa from her powers.

In the initial draft script, Anna would openly flirt with Kristoff, but this was soon abandoned after fears it would confuse viewers, given Anna had supposedly already found her true love in Hans. Instead, Anna and Kristoff’s love would grow organically over the course of the film through awkward interactions, which only subtlely hinted at a potential romance. Joining Anna and Kristoff on their daring rescue would be a sentient snowman named Olaf, who was originally cast as an obnoxious, nasty sidekick for Elsa, but was soon reimagined as Anna’s comical, innocent friend.

Due to Lee’s extensive involvement with the production process, Lasseter promoted the screenwriter to co-director in August 2012. This made Lee the first woman to direct a feature-length Disney animated film and only the third woman in history to direct an animated feature film from a major studio. The move was entirely welcomed by Buck, who felt the pair shared the same vision for the film and had collaborated well on the production thus far.

By November 2012, Lee and Buck felt they’d finally laid the foundation for the film’s story, but elements still weren’t working, and Frozen went through extensive rewrites from February through June 2013, which was just five months before the film’s scheduled release. Songs were abandoned or rewritten, characters were introduced and removed, and the final act went through numerous changes. It wasn’t until late June the linchpin of the whole film arrived in the form of the song “For the First Time in Forever,” which created the inspiration for the final narrative of Elsa locking the gates of Arendelle and remaining separated from her sister for over a decade.

In July, Disney conducted test screenings of the partly-finished film for two completely different audiences; one comprised of families with young children and the other exclusively adults. The reaction from both screenings was tremendously positive, with Lee later recalling it was this moment they realised “they had something.” After the screenings, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios Edwin Catmull told Lee, “you actually did it.” As such, the team pushed on to meet the looming release date deadline of November 22.

For the key role of Elsa, Buck and Lee turned to Broadway veteran Idina Menzel to bring the character to life. Menzel had unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Rapunzel in Tangled, with her original audition performance passed on to the Frozen team by the casting director of Tanged, Jamie Sparer Roberts. For the role of Anna, the filmmakers considered television actress Kristen Bell, but wanted to test her chemistry with Menzel before officially casting either actor.

The pair were invited to a table read of the screenplay at the studio, where they performed the entire script before singing a duet of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” as none of the film’s music had yet been composed. The performance left the entire production team in tears, with Menzel and Bell perfectly creating a sisterly bond, despite never having met before the audition. For the remainder of the cast, Buck and Lee enlisted several noted Broadway performers including Jonathan Groff as Kristoff, Santino Fontana as Prince Hans, and Josh Gad as Olaf.

For the film’s visual aesthetic, Buck and Lee were heavily influenced by Norway, with the directors and key members of the production team travelling to the region to study architecture, nature, art, and culture. The team ultimately acquired three key factors from their Norway research trip; the fjords and vertical rock formations would serve as the setting for the secluded kingdom of Arendelle, the medieval stave churches inspired the design of Anna and Elsa’s castle, and the distinctive panelling and grid patterns of rosemaling folk art would inspire the costuming and decor for the entire film.

While the preliminary animation research was underway in 2012, Buck and Lee were still struggling with the final screenplay for the film, which meant animators were faced with the daunting task of completing the animation in less than 12 months. Much like Tangled, Frozen would employ the fusion of computer-generated imagery with traditional hand-drawn animation to create a more fluid final look. Initial sketches were drawn with pencil and paper, which were then scanned into computer systems to be fully animated.

In order to achieve realistic snow and ice effects, software engineers used advanced mathematics and physics to create a snow simulator software called Matterhorn, named after the popular snow-themed Disneyland attraction. The software was capable of depicting realistic snow, ice, and water in a virtual environment, which was notably used in the “Let It Go” musical sequence and the finale where the characters battle their way through a chaotic blizzard. By the end of production, Frozen had employed a team of around 650 people, which was one of the largest productions in Disney’s history.

Anderson-Lopez and Lopez ultimately created 25 original songs for the film, with eight making it into the final version. As the duo lives in New York City, they would spend two hours each day video conferencing with the production team in Burbank, California to play demos and discuss the overall production of the film. During the songwriting process, if the pair were ever feeling lost, they asked themselves, “What would Ashman do?” in reference to the late Howard Ashman, who composed several of Disney’s hugely successful animated musicals in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The original score of Frozen was composed by Christophe Beck, who was hired after his work on the Oscar-winning Disney animated short film Paperman. Beck created a Nordic-inspired score employing regional instruments, such as the bukkehorn, and traditional vocal techniques, such as kulning. Beck was assisted by Norwegian linguist and composer Christine Hals for elements containing Norse verses. The entire music production team travelled to Trondheim, Noway to record the all-female choir Cantus for a piece entitled “Vuelie”, which was inspired by traditional Sámi music.

Frozen was released on November 27, 2013, to rave reviews from film critics. The New York Times called the film “one of the most visually captivating environments to be found in a Disney animated film,” the Los Angeles Times hailed the film as “a welcome return to greatness for Walt Disney Animation Studios,” TIME magazine praised the film for drawing “on the Walt tradition of animation splendour and the verve of Broadway present,” while The Guardian declared it “glorious family entertainment.”

As you would be keenly aware, the response from the general public was nothing short of rapturous. Frozen grossed $400 million in the U.S and a further $880 million internationally for a staggering worldwide total of $1.2 billion. This was only the second time in history an animated film had grossed more than $1 billion (Toy Story 3 was the first) and made Frozen the highest-grossing animated film of all time. The film became the fifth-highest grossing film of all time and the third-highest-grossing film from The Walt Disney Company. After production, marketing, and distribution costs, it’s estimated Frozen earned Disney profit of approximately $400 million.

The soundtrack release was equally successful, selling over 4 million copies in the U.S. and 6 million copies internationally to end 2014 as the year’s best selling album. The Frozen soundtrack peaked at #1 on the Billboard Album Chart, becoming only the fourth animated soundtrack in history to achieve this milestone. “Let It Go” became a breakout hit on its own, reaching #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Unsurprisingly, Frozen also won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, marking the first victory in this category for a Walt Disney Animation Studios production.

If you were the parent of a youngster in 2013, you probably shudder at the memory of Frozen mania. The film was likely all your child ever talked about. You were probably labelled the world’s worst mum or dad when you couldn’t find any of the sold-out Elsa or Olaf merchandise. “Let It Go” was possibly the only song allowed to be played in your car for weeks on end. I get it. Life was hell for parents post-Frozen. The phenomenon surrounding this film was unlike anything Disney had experienced in decades. And you bore the brunt of it. You have my sympathies.

But there’s a very simple reason Frozen became such a pop culture sensation; it’s a bloody great film. It’s easy to forget how dazzling this film was, given how overexposed it ultimately became. Disney cashed in on this film like few others, and that likely means most have forgotten what a remarkable piece of animation Frozen actually is. By drawing on the spirit of the Disney Renaissance and infusing the film with deftly designed Broadway sensibilities, the entire production team crafted a film that truly recaptured the Disney magic.

In essence, Frozen is an animated Broadway musical, in the same style of films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. By enlisting two composers intimately familiar with the Broadway stage and casting actors with musical theatre backgrounds, Disney played to the strengths of what makes Broadway musicals so wonderfully entertaining and emotionally resonant. While we all eventually became sick of hearing the songs, they are (mostly) brilliant pieces of music composition, and, yes, I include “Let It Go” in that summation. Just think back to the first time you heard and saw that song performed and remember how utterly breathtaking that moment was.

Outside of Lilo & Stitch, Frozen is the only Disney animated film to present a narrative centred on the complicated relationship of two sisters, which proved to be the masterstroke to adapting Andersen’s original fairy tale. After years of animated films with gushy love stories, it was so decidedly refreshing to see something like Frozen present the notion of true love being that of two siblings and the love to thaw a frozen heart did not come from a romantic connection but a familial one. It was a sharp detour from a studio that rarely sought to offer insight into love being anything other than something elicited through romance.

Once again, we find Disney presenting a tale where a hero or heroine longs to be “normal” like everyone else and fearfully attempt to suppress who they truly are. It’s only when Elsa embraces who she is that she realises the very powers she was hiding are actually her true strength. That’s why “Let It Go” is such a spectacular moment. It’s the culmination of years of suppression finally being unleashed and Elsa’s breakthrough realisation of how foolish she’s been to hide from her identity. Is it any wonder many have used this song as a metaphor for members of the LGBTQ+ community coming out of the closet?

What else is there to say about an animated film that captured the zeitgeist like few others? Strip away all the merchandise and promotional tie-ins and Frozen stands tall as one of Disney’s most dazzling achievements. The animation alone is astonishingly crafted, with spectacular background and character designs that genuinely leap off the screen. The music is iconic, even if you likely never want to hear it again. And its two protagonists continued to break the mould of the stereotypical Disney princess. You can hate it all you want now, but Frozen was, and always will be, a masterpiece.

Is Frozen a Disney Classic? It’s hard to ponder another Disney animated film as outrageously popular as Frozen. We’d never quite seen anything capture pop culture quite like the phenomenon which followed the film’s release. With an endless line of merchandise, a Broadway musical adaptation, theme park rides, several spin-off short films, and an equally-successful sequel, it’s a film that simply refused to die. The legacy of Frozen is solid as ice, making it a true Disney Classic in every conceivable way.

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