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Jennifer Lee, the woman bringing diversity to Disney

Jennifer Lee

Jennifer Lee, the woman bringing diversity to Disney

The studio head who made her name with ‘Frozen’ is poised to repeat that success

© Joe Cummings

Traditional Disney princesses, in frou-frou frocks and sparkly tiaras, would make googly eyes at princes. Their modern reincarnation made Jennifer Lee’s career — and with it, a global franchise.

Frozen, the 2013 Disney animated feature telling the story of Princesses Anna and Elsa, which Ms Lee wrote and co-directed, took almost $1.3bn worldwide and won two Oscars.

The film inspired pint-sized fans to buy merchandise, and listen to soundtracks so that they too could belt out its soaring anthem, “Let it Go”. For mothers and fathers demented by looped repetition, the song became an earworm. As one parody put it, “It’s in my head, it’s in my dreams, this freaking song is haunting me, let it go, let it go, can’t hear it one more time.” Some parents were charmed — in 2014, Elsa became a popular name in the US for the first time in about 100 years. Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore, describes Frozen as “an absolute phenomenon which went on to be a juggernaut worldwide. It’s one of Disney’s premier brands.” No small feat for the company that brought the world Mickey Mouse.

This weekend, the sequel delivers “Into the Unknown” as its show-stopper tune alongside a dose of environmentalism to an audience familiar with Greta Thunberg. Ms Lee, who became chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios last year, will hope her magic continues to work.

After all, it is an important film for Disney, which under its chairman and chief executive, Bob Iger, has evolved from being a retrogressive brand to an innovative entertainment empire, including Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox. The media group is now taking on streaming companies, Netflix and Apple TV, with its new Disney +. Next year, Frozen 2 will be screened exclusively on Disney Plus as well as a multi-episode documentary about its making. Disney, which wants longevity for its franchises, will hope to breathe fresh life into the Frozen brand. The original spun off as a Broadway show, touring North America and arriving in London’s West End next year.

The first Frozen, in which Princess Anna saves her sister, Princess Elsa, was a modern twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen”. It eschewed conventional narratives of romantic love for sisterly devotion and bravery.

Ms Lee recently told The Sunday Times: “I always very proudly say that Frozen is the film that passes the Bechdel test but almost in reverse; there is not one scene with a man not talking about a woman.” The contemporary story chimed with young boys and girls who enjoyed the action sequences and gutsy characters. Not everyone was pleased by the update. Jordan Peterson, the psychologist and critic of feminism, called Frozen “reprehensible propaganda”.

Of course, all fairy tales are updated as mores change. As the critic Marina Warner wrote: “Since the 1960s, criticism has pointed to the lies peddled by stories such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ . . . and as a result, the generations brought up by grandmothers and mothers who knew their Betty Friedan, Angela Carter and Naomi Wolf have brought a new consciousness to the way classic stories are reshaped for the screen.”

Ms Lee knows something about identifying with animated heroes. The 48-year-old has described growing up in Rhode Island on “a poor street in a rich town” where she was tormented by schoolyard bullies. In Disney’s Cinderella, Ms Lee found comfort in a character who endured cruel mistreatment before finding happiness. The bullying left her plagued with self-doubt. “People talk about the dangers of rose coloured glasses,” she said. “But let me tell you, the lenses of self-doubt are far worse. They are nasty. Thick and filthy.”

When at the University of New Hampshire, her boyfriend died in an accident. “Death exaggerates the significance of your life,” she said. “For a brief moment, you know better than to waste a second doubting.”

She moved to New York to work in book publishing which, via Columbia film school, led to screenplay writing. In 2011, she came to Disney to work on Wreck-It Ralph, followed by Moana. In 2018, after John Lasseter stepped down as chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation after admitting to “mis-steps” with employees, Ms Lee was promoted while Pete Docter took the role at Pixar.

Inheriting a studio that created classics such as Dumbo and Fantasia is some responsibility. As Mr Dergarabedian puts it, “That’s a huge legacy on your shoulders.”

Ms Lee has said that she wants a diverse workforce in order to find new talent, and devise innovative storylines for modern audiences. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, says that Ms Lee’s “success has helped to raise women’s profile in animation”. In 2018, 8 per cent of directors working on the top 250 grossing films were women, according to the Celluloid Ceiling study.

Ms Lee once wrote that the hardest part of being a female director was not the legacy of Disney or making herself heard in a room full of men. Rather it was the red carpet. “I didn’t know that being a size 2 . . . might as well be a size 92 to the elite designers; I have never wanted to be an animated character so badly.” Perhaps the second time around she will be prepared.

The writer is an FT work and careers journalist

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