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Countdown to Disney "Frozen" : How one simple suggestion broke the ice on the "Snow Queen" 's decades-long story problems

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Countdown to Disney "Frozen" : How one simple suggestion broke the ice on the "Snow Queen" 's decades-long story problems

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So how long has Walt Disney Animation Studios been trying to bring "The Snow Queen" to the big screen? Would you believe 70 years?

Concept painting for the aborted Hans Christian Andersen bio pic that Walt Disney and
Samuel Goldwyn once considered collaborating on. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Yep. As far back as 1943 (Which was when Walt was in discussions with Samuel Goldwyn about their two studios possibly collaborating on a feature-length biography of Hans Christian Andersen. With Goldwyn handling the live-action portion of this proposed co-production, while Disney artists would have created animated segments that would have then brought some of Andersen's best-loved stories & characters to life), Walt was already taking a long, hard look at the Snow Queen. Trying to find a way to turn this character -- who, when she initially appears in this classic tale, is described as being ...

... a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together. She was fair and beautiful, but made of ice -- shining and glittering ice. Still she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance.

-- into someone that you could actually build a movie around.

A stamp honoring the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth shows
the Snow Queen flying over Kay's house, listening as this small boy makes his
ill-considered boast.

Even back in the mid-1940s, Disney artists saw the obvious cinematic possibilities in this source material. But the Snow Queen herself (as written by Hans Christian Andersen, anyway) was somewhat problematic. Given that she was the character who had spirited Kay away from his parent's home all because this poor young boy had once idly boasted that he'd " ... set the Snow Queen on the stove and then she'll melt." And then given that icy sorceress used her snowy magic to turn this formerly sweet kid into a self-centered brat who ...

... was quite blue with cold, indeed almost black, but (Kay) did not feel it; for the Snow Queen had kissed away (his) icy shiverings, and his heart was already a lump of ice.

... it was always easy to cast the Snow Queen as the villain of the piece. Especially since it was Gerda (i.e., the little girl who lived next door to Kay) who was the obvious hero of this tale. Given that it was poor, good-hearted Gerda who faced all sorts of dangers, traveling hundreds of miles and battling harsh winds & freezing temperatures before she finally reached the Snow Queen's ice palace. Where Gerda eventually saves Kay by weeping ...

... hot tears, which fell on (Kay's) breast and penetrated into his heart, (which then)  thawed the lump of ice (that had formed there).

Given that this fairytale -- as Hans Christian Andersen had originally written it -- didn't feature any final showdown / confrontation between Gerda & the Snow Queen (When this brave little girl eventually enters the Snow Queen's icy castle, the Snow Queen herself is nowhere to be seen. She is -- in fact -- thousands of miles away, having flown to " ... the black craters at the tops of the burning mountains, Etna and Vesuvius, as they are called. I shall make them look white, which will be good for them, and for the lemons and the grapes"), this story had kind of a flat ending. With Kay & Gerda journeying back to their childhood homes when they are then magically transformed into these grown-ups who are children at heart.

You get what I'm saying yet? The setting of the Snow Queen (i.e., the frozen north) is certainly cinematic. Likewise this story's title character (i.e., a beautiful, mysterious stranger who can magically manipulate ice & snow). But as for the actual storyline of this particular fairytale, there just wasn't enough real character conflict to build a full length film around.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which isn't to say that Disney didn't keep trying to find ways to turn the Snow Queen into ... Well, something that could entertain the public in some way. In the early 1970s, Disney Legend Marc Davis designed the Enchanted Snow Palace, an elaborate ride-thru attraction for Disneyland Park which was to have been built where the Fantasyland Theatre is currently located. This elegant, air-conditioned, Audio-Animatronic-filled extravaganza was to have climaxed as your ride vehicle rolled through the Snow Queen's throne room. Where (as Marc envisioned this Hans Christian Anderson character, anyway) she was supposed to have looked like one of those showgirls that Erté designed gowns for the Ziegfeld Follies and/or George White's Scandals back in the early 1920s.

But that project for Disneyland Park never really made it past the concept art phase. Meanwhile over at Walt Disney Animation Studios, artists and storymen there (especially as the second golden age of Disney animation was getting underway in the late 1980s) made repeated runs at this Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Trying to find a way to crack the Snow Queen's passive & problematic storyline and then turn it into something that you could actually build a feature-length film around.

You'd be amazed at some of the talented folks who tried to make the Snow Queen into a Disney movie and ultimately failed. Take -- for example -- Harvey Fierstein. Back when he was recording the voice of Yao for "Mulan ," this Tony Award winner reportedly pitched Mouse House execs a version of this Hans Christian Andersen story that the Company ultimately took a pass on.

Glen Keane working on the character of Rapunzel for Disney's
"Tangled." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Likewise Glen Keane. Before this master animator turned his full attention to adapting the tale of Rapunzel for the big screen, Glen supposedly spent months exploring the cinematic possibilities of this frozen fairytale. But in the end, Keane just couldn't find a way to turn the Snow Queen into the sort of fully realized character that could actually support a feature-length story. Not without severely departing from the fairytale that Hans Christian Andersen had originally written, that is.

Next add to this list  the Brizzi brothers, Dick Zondag, and Dave Goetz. They all made attempts to translate "The Snow Queen" to the big screen only to eventually meet with failure. And yet executives at Walt Disney Studios just refused to give up on this project. As James B. Stewart recounted in his great behind-the-scenes-at-the-Mouse-House book, "DisneyWar " (Simon & Schuster, February 2005), on ...

... June 11, 2003, (Then-Disney CEO Michael) Eisner has invited me to a creative meeting of the feature animation team, led by (Thomas) Schumacher's replacement, David Stainton. Eisner usually attends these meetings once or twice a month.

Copyright Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved

The discussion turns to Christmas 2007. Eisner has just read a script for Rapunzel. "Someone told me a woman with long hair is old-fashioned," Eisner says.

"That's why this has to be a Legally Blonde -type comedy," replies Mary Jane Ruggels, another creative vice president.

"Sleeping Beauty was 1938," Eisner says. "The ending was forced. Like Treasure Planet -- it just ended. It wasn't funny or clever. Are you sure you can save this? Is Ice Queen better?"

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"You mean Snow Queen," Ruggels says.

"I love The Taming of the Shrew idea," Eisner says. "Take Martha Stewart. She's tough, smart -- a worthy adversary. If she were a doormat of a woman, no one would go after her. Marlo Thomas used to call me about marketing 'That Girl .' She said, 'If I were a man, I'd be president of the network."

Eisner expresses some reservation about the team assigned to Snow Queen, then adds, "John Lasseter. If we make a new deal with Pixar ... "

Michael Eisner and John Lasseter talk on the red carpet at the world premiere of
Pixar's November 2004 release, "The Incredibles."

Stainton jumps in: "You mean when we make a new deal with Pixar."

"I said to John, you can have Snow Queen. He loved it. John said, 'I want to do a princess movie.' "

Eisner asks for the Snow Queen synopsis.

Storyboards from the aborted Eisner era version of Disney's
"The Snow Queen."
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

"The Snow Queen is a terrible bitch," Ruggels says. "When her suitors try to melt her heart, the Snow Queen freezes them."

"Each one should be a phony, but different," Eisner says of the suitors.

"Then along comes a regular guy," Ruggels continues.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"This is perfect!" Eisner exclaims. "I'm afraid to hear more."

"The regular guy goes up there, he's not that great, but he's a good person. He starts to unfreeze her ... she melts."

"It's great," Eisner says. "Finally. We've had twenty meetings on this."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"We'll have a treatment in two weeks," Ruggels promises.

"Can we have this for 2006?" Eisner asks.

"No way," (Pam) Coats says.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

More ideas are tossed around: Frog Princess , Rumpelstiltskin, You Don't Know Jack about the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel (with a twist: the kids are obnoxious, the witch likable), Mother Goose as a sassy, Queen Latifah type; and something, maybe Aida, that would feature an African "princess." Eisner worries that Aida is still too live-action. "What's the Howard Ashman piece we can layer on?" he asks, one of several times Ashman's name has come up in the meeting.

"This is good," Eisner concludes, "a good start." He gets up to leave. "I love Snow Queen."

But even with Michael Eisner's blessing, this 2003 version of "The Snow Queen" fell apart at some point. For the next time that this Hans Christian Andersen story comes up in a Disney-related way is March of 2006. Which is when Walt Disney Company officials announced that they had ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

...  signed composer Alan Menken, an eight-time Oscar winner and one of the driving forces behind "The Little Mermaid " -- which helped resuscitate Disney animation in the '80s -- to a nonexclusive, multi-picture deal.

For Disney Creative Entertainment, Menken is creating a stage musical of "The Snow Queen," set to debut (next summer) at Tokyo DisneySea with Amon Miyamoto directing, John Weidman as (this show's) bookwriter and Glenn Slater the lyricist.

And that version of "The Snow Queen" (which was supposed to have been presented in that theme park's Broadway Music Theater as a replacement for "Encore!") seemed to have some real momentum for a while (Not to mention a lovely score. Check out this ballad that Menken & Slater wrote for "The Snow Queen," "Love Can't Be Denied." Which -- on this recording, anyway -- is performed by Tony Award nominee Brian D'Arcy James).

Copyright Tokyo Disney Resort. All rights reserved

But then in August of 2006, just months after Disney revealed that this live stage version of "The Snow Queen" was in the works for Tokyo DisneySea, the production was abruptly cancelled. As to why ... Well, I've heard two different stories from Disney insiders. One version suggests that the theme park version of "Snow Queen" got cancelled because Oriental Land Company executives reportedly balked at what it would cost to shut "Encore!" down and then load this elaborate new, effects-filled stage show into the Broadway Music Theater.

The other explanation that I've heard was that WDAS execs suddenly had second thoughts about "The Snow Queen." And that -- rather than having this new take on Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale debut as a theme park show -- they now wanted WDAS to produce a movie version of this classic story. And once the big screen version of "The Snow Queen" had been released to theaters, THEN OLC would be allowed to produce a stage version of this project which could then be presented to TDS visitors inside of the Broadway Music Theater.

So Menken & Slater teamed with Mike Gabriel (i.e., the co-director of Disney's "Pocahontas ") and begin developing a new animated version of "The Snow Queen." But that production too eventually wound up getting tripped up by the same exact story problems that derailed all of the other, earlier versions of this Hans Christian Andersen story. Which Menken was somewhat philosophical about when he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal in November of 2010:

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

For years, (Disney had been) working on "The Snow Queen," first as a stage piece, and then as an animated film, but that got shelved. Clearly, animated films are big commitments and it takes a lot for Disney to greenlight one.

Now jump ahead to 2011. Walt Disney Animation Studios is making yet another stab at using Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" as the jumping-off point of a full-length feature. At this point, Chris Buck is the only director assigned to this WDAS production and Peter Del Vecho has just come on board as this project's producer.

"In that earlier version of this story, the Snow Queen character really was more of a villain. But it was very hard to relate to her, to understand her and why she was doing what she was doing. She was sort of isolated up there in her castle," Del Vecho said during a recent interview.

Peter Del Vecho addresses the press at last month's "Frozen" long lead media event.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So as WDAS does every 12 weeks or so when they have a new animated feature in development, they got all of its storyboards up on reels so that they could then show John Lasseter what sort of progress had been made on this project. And afterwards, the entire production team adjourned to a conference to hear John's thoughts on this work-in-progress.

" That was the game changer. John sat down at this long table. And his first words were, I'll never forget this, 'You haven't dug deep enough,' " recalled Michael Giaimo, "Frozen" production designer, during a September roundtable session. "And I remember John saying that the latest version of the Snow Queen story that Chris Buck and his team had come up with was fun, very light-hearted. But the characters didn't resonate. They aren't multi-faceted. Which why John felt that audiences wouldn't really be able to connect with them."

So Buck and his story team once again returned to the drawing board. They came up with several different variations on the Snow Queen story as they tried to address Lasseter's main concern with this project. Which is that the audience really wouldn't connect with these Hans Christian Andersen characters.

(L to R) Peter Del Vecho, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee at the Disney "Frozen" long lead
media event. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Mind you, this was before Jennifer (Lee, the co-director of "Frozen")  joined Chris on this project. So the Anna character (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is what the Gerda character is called in Disney's version of "The Snow Queen") was there. And we knew that there would be a Snow Queen in the picture. That we knew," Giaimo continued. "There was definitely a Kristoff character (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the character that Hans Christian Andersen called Kay in the original version of this fairytale). So those three were in place. But that was about it."

And then -- no one remembers who exactly came up with this idea -- someone on the story team said "What if Anna and Elsa (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first name of the Snow Queen in the Disney version of this story) were sisters?" From that moment forward, this WDAS project began to jell in some very exciting ways.

"Once we realized that these characters could be siblings and have a relationship, everything changed," Del Vecho enthused. "I mean, you may not always like what Elsa does or the choices that she makes. But given that she could now have a real emotional connection with Anna, that these two characters -- now that they were sisters -- would obviously have some history ... Well, you could now at least understand the whys behind this story."

Lasseter also immediately saw the wisdom in taking this approach to adapting the story of "The Snow Queen" to the big screen. That a sibling dynamic like this had never been explored in an animated feature before. Which is why making this particular story change would definitely bring new to that table.

Mind you, John wanted to make the most of this new opportunity. Which is why Lasseter then ordered that Walt Disney Animation Studios hold a sisters summit.

"And what's a sisters summit?," you ask. Well, we'll discuss that next week in the next installment of JHM's "Countdown to Disney 'Frozen' " series.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

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  • In regards to one of your editor's notes, I think it's pretty clear that Kristoff isn't meant to be playing the role of Kai. He can only be see as an entirely original creation, as is much of the other story elements in this film. At a stretch, one could see him as a combination of all the assorted characters that helped Gerda along her journey.

    Also pretty clear, I think, is that Elsa herself is the one playing the role of Kai, as the object of the Gerda/Anna's rescue attempts, as the one who has isolated him/herself, one through an external malevolent force and the other through her own self doubts. Similarly, they both have to redeemed through love. What they've done is basically combine the characters of Kai and The Snow Queen, which I think is a masterstroke.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Qindarka, I got to sit down with "Frozen" 's producer and its two directors three weeks ago Friday. And while you're right, the current storyline of this WDAS production does depart significantly from the fairytale that Hans Christian Andersen originally crafted. But this film's storyline prior to that point did in fact at least echo the shape of "The Snow Queen." In that the Snow Queen was supposedly to have lured a male character away from his village and then uses her icy magic to bewitch him. And it was then up to this male character's childhood friend -- the girl next door -- to make her way to the Snow Queen's icy palace and then use the power of love to save him / melt his icy heart.

    Okay. I know. That's not exactly the story of the Snow Queen as Hans Christian Andersen originally wrote it. Especially since in the Disney version the Kai & Gerda characters were supposed to be kids. But -- rather -- young adults. Because -- given that this is the modern Disney Company -- they weren't looking to craft an animated film that only had kid appeal. But rather they wanted to make a movie like "Tangled" that appealed to adults AND kids.

    Anyway, that was the story that Walt Disney Animation Studios was trying to get work. But the moment that they came up with the idea that Elsa & Anna were sisters, WDAS pretty much stepped away from doing a movie that at least followed the rough shape of Hans Christian Andersen's original fairytale and then began producing a film that was "inspired" by "The Snow Queen."

    As to why Disney changing Gerda & Kay's names to Anna & Kristoff, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe they thought that these names would be more appealing to modern audiences.

  • What was Mike Gabriel's involvement with the Snow Queen? Was he the director in an earlier version before Chris Buck came on board? Around what time was this? Before 2008?

  • "a sibling dynamic like this had never been explored in an animated feature before"

    Prince of Egypt ?

    EDITOR'S NOTE: That's an interesting point, BrnardM. Moses and Ramses were indeed brothers (Well, foster brothers) in that DreamWorks Animation film. And there were tensions between those two, just as there are tensions between Elsa & Anna in Disney "Frozen." But I think the point that the team working at WDAS was trying to make was that this is the first full-length animated feature that is going to explore the unique emotional dynamic that sisters can have in their relationships, rather than brothers. That said, there is an obvious parallel between these two productions.

  • Sisters?  Like in the Oz, the Great and Powerful? Sisters/Witches falling for the same man. Changing to sisters is a cop-out. It turns the story into something else, but not the original. At least the movie will be known as Frozen. Tangled is no longer Rapunzel.

  • Didn't Lilo and Stitch already prominently feature a story about two siblings?

  • Any animated film that presents two named female characters who do something other than talk about marriage is a step up in my opinion.

  • I'm so glad to read an article on this! I'd sent in a question to Why For (a few times) to see if you could shed any light on why Disney completely discarded Andersen's story in favor of a new one (which, don't get me wrong, sounds good and I am looking forward to it).

    But it's still a little baffling--what would have been harder in the end, to simply write a more decisive ending confrontation with the Snow Queen, or to completely write a whole new story? As I'd said in the Why For query, Andersen's story was already chock-full of classic Disney movie elements--the strong, active heroine, the quest story with lots of interesting side characters (especially that Robber Girl), the talking animals. So it seems a bit of a shame to have discarded all that when it could have been realized onscreen. (As in, for example, the Russian-animated version from the fifties that was dubbed into English with the voices of Sandra Dee and Tommy Kirk. It was the best Disney movie Disney never made!)

    After all, couldn't they have kept the bulk of the story the way it was, but kept in the "sisters" element? I dunno...what do you think?

  • Did I miss that upcoming "sisters summit" article, Jim?  Or is my google-fu that weak?

  • Where is the third addition to this article? I've searched everywhere and couldn't find it.

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