Frozen: Making Contemporary Classic

“Frozen” embraces elements from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” a tale first published in 1845 that has sparked the interest of Disney filmmakers dating back to Walt Disney himself. The idea, of course, was to capture the sentiment and themes of the original story, but in the spirit of Disney classics like “The Little Mermaid”—another of Andersen’s tales, which was adapted for the big screen in 1989—allowing the filmmakers the creative freedom to be inspired to tell their own story.

A story of the struggle between good and evil, Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” depicts a shattered mirror that causes a young boy, Kai, to view the world in a negative way. Director Chris Buck decided to take on the story a few years ago. “We were inspired by that struggle and appreciated the overall message Andersen is sharing,” says Buck. “We were also drawn to Gerda, the girl in the story who wants to save Kai. Her core characteristics—optimism, love, strength and determination—began to form what would become Anna.”

But the story team was stumped by the Snow Queen herself. According to Jennifer Lee, who first joined the team as a writer and was later tapped to direct with Buck, Andersen’s version of the title character was somewhat mysterious. “She’s more symbolic in nature in the original story,” says Lee. “We knew that she’d need her own voice in ‘Frozen.’.

“We wanted the movie to be both timely and timeless,” continues Lee. “We were going for something contemporary that everyone would understand and we realized that fear is so often the very thing that gives us a negative outlook, that threatens our relationships. Every single scene, in its own way, supports our themes of family and love, and real love versus fear. And it’s fear that drives Elsa.”

Elsa’s inability to handle her power to create snow and ice is revealed when she and Anna are playing as children. Elsa’s magic delights young Anna—the girls build a snowman they name Olaf and play amidst wild slopes of snow inside their home. But the magic gets out of Elsa’s control and injures Anna. Elsa lives each day thereafter in fear she’ll hurt Anna again, and as a result, avoids the one person she loves most.  “Anna, who has no memory of the event, grows up trying to reach out to Elsa,” says Buck.

Kristen Anderson-Lopez and husband and writing partner Robert Lopez, who worked hand-in-hand with the directors and story team, were struck by the image of Anna getting shut out by her sister. “What could get you more on that girl’s side than seeing doors slam in her face all throughout her childhood?” asks Anderson-Lopez.

“We needed to tap into Anna’s emotions,” continues Anderson-Lopez. “We needed to understand her and show what’s missing from the world of this goofy, optimistic young woman. That moment in the film when we see the two sisters on either side of the closed door is one of the most revealing moments in the movie.”

The filmmakers realized that the morning of Elsa’s coronation would represent a new beginning for Anna. The story team wanted to introduce the now-grown-up Anna with a song, but it proved to be a tall order. “This particular song was a tough nut to crack, because it had to do a lot of things,” says Anderson-Lopez. “It had to introduce Anna as an optimistic, active person, but also as someone with a need to be filled over the course of the movie.”

The solution—and title of the song, “For the First Time in Forever”—came from a story-room conversation when someone said the words ‘for the first time in forever’ as part of a story point, catching the ear of president of Walt Disney Music Chris Montan. “I said, ‘That’s it! That’s Anna’s song!’” says Montan. “It was just one of those moments. ‘For the first time in forever, I’m going to be free.  I might meet somebody. I might live my life.’ It was really exciting.”

The song ultimately illustrates Anna’s desire for connection, while showcasing just how far apart she is from big sister Elsa. The story of broken family bonds takes a turn when Anna confronts Elsa, inadvertently setting free her sister’s stifled emotions and sparking a wintry outburst that reveals to everyone Elsa’s long-kept secret. Elsa flees Arendelle, leaving a cold and icy kingdom in her wake—and finding the freedom she’s craved.

That freedom actually became the defining moment for the film’s music, said songwriter Robert Lopez. “Let It Go” was the first song that the filmmaking team embraced. “That was our lynchpin,” says Lopez. “We wanted to write the biggest, beltiest diva number we could channel because we knew we had Idina Menzel—who just knocks it out of the park—and we knew her character Elsa was experiencing something epic in her life.”

The song resonated with filmmakers—so well, in fact, that it made them rethink scenes leading up to the moment. “‘Let It Go’ was the first song that we all knew belonged in the film because it helped shape Elsa’s character,” said Lee. “It delivers such a poignant and powerful message about how she’s feeling that we needed to back up and earn that song—to show how she finds herself in that place at that time.”

The realization of Elsa’s long-kept secret inspires Anna to take drastic measures to make things right. Her journey to find Elsa leads her to seek assistance from Kristoff, a rugged mountain man who’d rather not join the adventure. Kristoff and Anna face fierce weather, wolves—and a strangely familiar snowman named Olaf, who takes them—and the audience—by surprise. “When Elsa flees Arendelle,” says Lee, “she starts playing with the very magic she’s been hiding for so long. The snowman she creates comes from memories of the happy times she shared with Anna when they were young. Olaf represents that pure innocence and childhood joy. The minute we imbued him with that, he just took off. He’s funny in a way that children are funny. He’s completely unaffected by the world. He’s the one character who isn’t struggling with fear versus love. He is love.”

According to Del Vecho, Olaf exemplifies the real beauty of “Frozen.” “It’s chock full of left turns. Though it has everything that audiences will expect from a Disney film—it’s fun and full of heart—it also takes you in unexpected directions. That’s what I love about this movie.”