The Disney studio has famously attempted to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen as far back as the 1940s. However, it wasn’t until the late 2000s when director Chris Buck (Tarzan, Surf’s Up) took a pass on the story that it started to come together as a fully realized idea upon which Disney would create Frozen.
Paul Briggs, story department supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios and the Head of Story on Frozen, sat down with Cartoon Brew to talk about the importance of finding a place of truth when developing an animated film and the different paths that must be explored in order to discover the characters. In his role, Briggs is part of the studio’s story trust, and “keeper” of the “safe room,” which is the nickname for the Disney’s writer’s room where artists and writers feel safe to share personal things from their own lives to help inform the stories they are telling. (Spoilers follow.)
Elsa and Anna
One of the biggest changes that Chris Buck brought to the production was turning Andersen’s distant, abstract character of the Snow Queen, and Gerda, the protagonist trying to rescue a loved one from the curse of a frozen heart, into the sisters Elsa and Anna. This fundamentally changed the dynamic of the story to something more grounded and relatable.
“Chris started with the simple idea of love,” says Briggs who has four sisters of his own. “The strength of familial love vs. romantic love.” The concept was then expanded to “love vs. fear,” which provided clearer guidance for the motivations of the principal characters. “Elsa lives in fear because she’s afraid she’s going to hurt the ones she loves, while Anna has so much love in her, but is never able to give it to anyone.”
“I knew before the film was released that people would have that reaction: ‘Oh. He’s the comic relief character,’” Briggs says of Olaf, the optimistic snow man that the two sisters build together as children. “[But] he’s serving a stronger purpose; he symbolizes the love between them.” Earlier versions of Olaf had him as the general in the Snow Queen’s snow man army, but as the story evolved, so did he, until the filmmakers hit upon the idea that he would represent the pure, fundamental connection between the two women.
The presentation of this theme in the final film may be fairly subtle to some viewers as there is no big scene where Olaf is first brought to life and his purpose is illustrated. Was the decision to leave this moment out a conscious choice? “We never actually had that [moment],” says Briggs.” We never got notes, we never felt the need to address it.”
“It took a while to find him,” says Briggs of Kristoff, the loner ice deliveryman who helps Anna on her journey. Since Kristoff doesn’t exist in the source material, he went through a good deal of changes before they settled on the character in the film. “We played with the idea of him being a man of few words with a deep connection to nature, really true grit, gruff and rough around the edges. But it just got really boring and didn’t get the interaction with Anna that we wanted.”
Hans is the fairy tale prince from a far away land who steals Anna’s heart, and then, in an unexpected twist, plots to steal the kingdom of Arendale by attempting to murder the two sisters. The storytellers spent a great deal of time questioning his motivations and received a lot of feedback requesting that they give the audience a clue of his real character earlier in the film.
“In every screening, we were burying this secret and people always wanted us to tip our hand,” Briggs says. “But we stood our ground.” When asked if he believed Hans’ arguably light punishment in the finale fit the severity of his crimes, Briggs thought it was appropriate. “We never wanted him to go down the path of falling on his own sword or dying.” However, he does admit to personally wanting a little bit of chivalry in the end. “I always wanted Kristoff to come in and punch Hans in the face.” Director Jennifer Lee insisted, perhaps rightly so, that it should be Anna who takes a swing.
Paul Briggs is currently working on Big Hero 6, the upcoming Disney/Marvel Comics feature, which by definition alone, will be action-packed and visually thrilling, however, he’s quick to point out that the same rules apply to every story. “I’m really excited to work on a Marvel superhero movie,” he says, “but finding a pure, emotional, universal truth that everybody can relate to is what excites me the most.”