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A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Jennifer Lee brought the heat to Disney with Frozen, which has reinvented the princess musical to critical and box-office acclaim ($266 million worldwide since opening Nov. 22). With Frozen, Walt Disney Animation Studios celebrates its 90th anniversary. Lee, 42, is the first woman in the studio’s history to act as a director on one of its animated features (she co-directed with Chris Buck).
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For her, the bigger accomplishment is that she’s the first writer, not just at Disney but at any major animation house, to become a director. Most animation helmers tend to start as animators and story artists before working their way up the ranks and eventually being handed the reins to a feature. Lee, who has been with Disney’s animation division for a little more than two years, was working on 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph as a writer when she was drafted by Disney and Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter to work on Frozen‘s script. Her vital contributions led to being upped to co-helmer alongside Buck, who directed Tarzan and Surf’s Up. “I think they really embraced my perspective coming in,” says Lee of the Frozen production team. “And a lot of people don’t realize that screenwriters are visual thinkers — but that’s what makes them screenwriters, so it’s not a crazy jump.”
One movie that the mother of a 10-year-old daughter (who sang on the Frozen track “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”) wishes she could have worked on as an animator is The Little Mermaid, the 1989 cartoon classic that kicked off Disney Animation’s modern renaissance. “There was something so magical about that film,” she says, adding that she would have loved to work with renowned Disney artist Glen Keane, who designed Ariel, the mermaid.
Looking forward, Lee has her sights set on one barrier yet to be broken: “I would love to be the first female director to do a giant sci-fi movie. I have a real love of sci-fi. A pretty obsessive love of sci-fi, actually.”
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