A Brief History of Disney’s Frozen

Now that Frozen has become the top grossing animated film of all time it may be hard to believe that this box office juggernaut was plagued with problems, and trapped in development hell, dating all the way back to World War II.

It’s true. Disney’s animation department always saw great cinematic possibilities with the source material, but Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen proved to be quite problematic.

The story begins sometime in 1943 when Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn met to discuss the possibility of collaborating to produce a biography film of author and poet Hans Christian Andersen. The original idea was that MGM’s studio would shoot live-action sequences of Andersen’s life and Disney would create animated sequences of Andersen’s stories (including The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Thumbelina, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Snow Queen).

Right away Walt’s team of storytellers and animators encountered difficulty with many of Andersen’s stories but, for the sake of this blog entry, most notably The Snow Queen. Simply put, they couldn’t find a way to make modern audiences relate to the Snow Queen’s character. This, among other things, eventually led to the cancellation of the Disney-Goldwyn project.

Interestingly, MGM did go on to produce its very own live-action film in 1952 starring Danny Kaye in the titular role. The film was extremely successful; receiving six Academy Award nominations the following year. Meanwhile, back at the Disney Studios, development work on all of the Andersen fairy tales, was suspended.

The Snow Queen – a concept sketch by Marc Davis.

After the smash success of The Little Mermaid in 1989 Walt Disney Feature Animation reassumed work on their adaptation of The Snow Queen but, shortly after Glen Keane quit the project in 2002, the project was completely scrapped. Apparently, at some point Michael Eisner even offered his “support” to the project – suggesting that The Snow Queen should be handed off to Pixar Animation Studios (which may very well be the reason Keane threw in the towel).

The next attempt started in September 2008, after Chris Buck pitched The Snow Queen to John Lasseter (who by then had become Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation); ironically, a story Lasseter had been extremely interested in pursuing as far back as the early 1990s when Pixar was working with Disney on Toy Story. John has since commented that he was “blown away” by some of Disney’s prior attempts at preproduction art (some of which are on display in this blog).

Development began immediately for a traditionally animated film under the new working title Anna and the Snow Queen. Anna’s name was added to the title because one of the major hurdles that Disney faced was that their main character, who happened to also be the title of the movie, was the villain!

Think about it: never before had Disney created a feature-length animated movie where the antagonist was the centerpiece of the film. Snow White, Cinderella, Hercules, Tarzan, Aladdin, even the Hunchback are all heroes and heroines. No villains in any title role and they weren’t about to start.

It didn’t matter. This small change in the film’s name had nearly no effect on the writing team.

By early 2010 the project entered development hell once again. With the success of Tangled Disney’s marketing team – concerned that an emphasis on the word “Queen” would have discouraged young boys from seeing the film – believed the best way to capture a wide audience was with another single-word title. At their advice, the movie’s name was changed to Frozen; but the writers were still stumped on how to make people care about Snow Queen’s character. The story they had developed was fun and light-hearted… but the Queen’s character just didn’t resonate. She wasn’t multi-faceted and test audiences were never really able to connect.

Using test-audience feedback, the production team drafting several different variations on The Snow Queen until the character and story felt relevant. At that stage, the first major breakthrough was the decision to rewrite Anna (the protagonist) as the younger sibling of Elsa. This one simple change established a family dynamic between the characters and changed the entire course of the film.

Regardless of the many changes throughout the story I find it striking how much the Snow Queen’s character design remained mostly consistent throughout the years. Marc Davis’ drawing (displayed at the top of this article) originally served as the inspiration for the never-built Ice Palace, a winter wonderland proposed for Walt Disney World. The sketch was one of the very last drawn by Davis before retiring in 1978. Most would agree that there is more than a passing resemblance to Elsa, from Frozen.

Truly, there are no such things as bad ideas at Disney – just good ideas whose time has not yet come.

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