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“Frozen” Story Head Paul Briggs Talks About Truth in Storytelling

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.”

  • Was my face red.

    Whilst I totally understand all the shifts and changes that are needed to turn a relatively short fairy story into a relatively long Disney film, I do wish people wouldn’t talk as if the source material was flawed and needed fixing – as in “This fundamentally changed the dynamic of the story to something more grounded and relatable.” Clearly there was already something already somewhat grounded and relatable in Anderson’s original tale or we wouldn’t still be telling it two hundred years later.

    • AmidAmidi

      Though it’s already clear in the article, Briggs isn’t saying that, the writer of the piece is.

      • Was my face red.

        So the writer of the piece just felt like chipping that in as their own contribution? It reads totally like they are paraphrasing something Paul or Disney felt, rather than their own critique of the source material.

    • Rob

      As a fairytale, the Snow Queen, Little Mermaid, Snow White, etc. may not be flawed, but as a story for the screen needing to capture the atttention of audience – yes they are flawed. Apples and oranges. The essence of the story is intact, but the movie doesn’t NEED to end with the evil queen being forced to dance on hot coals in red-hot iron shoes.

  • tedzey71

    Only because it was brought up in the last paragraph, but the fact that Disney Animation has the mindset of treating “Big Hero Six” like “a Marvel Superhero Movie” only makes me more excited to see it! Elsa in “Frozen” was written like a Marvel character, more specifically an X-man like Jean Grey. It would be great to see good Disney story telling mixed with good Marvel action!

  • LrsDude

    This whole thing is dead-on, emotional truth is what makes a story good. And it was right that Anna be the one to punch Hans at the end. It’s not Kristoff’s story, it’s Elsa and Anna’s story.

  • kelseigh

    Disney marketing once again fails to grab me. One look at that damned “comic relief character” and it makes me never want to watch this movie, ever. I’m not a big fan of the idea that films like this need silly characters in the first place, even though they work out sometimes. In this case though, I am utterly repulsed by the image and want to go nowhere close to it.

    • Santiago Casares

      Then you are missing out on a great film. Your loss.

      • kelseigh

        I know, I hear that it’s quite good and that is indeed my loss. It’s just that I don’t know how much I can enjoy it with a grotesquerie like that in the way.

        • otterhead

          You have no way to know what his character is like unless you’ve actually seen the film.

      • Hankenshift

        It’s a decent cartoon, but certainly NOT “great.” Terrible alleged music and lyrics, and the film has many dangling and unresolved (an unexplained) themes. As a piece of children’s entertainment, it’s OK. It’s certainly beautiful.

        • Varg2000

          This film is more than “great”, and far away from a “decent cartoon” (of all things!). It’s an incredible masterpiece that brings you on an amazing and adventurous, emotional epic journey with a mind-blowing story and effects and characters to really admire and care about, no less than that! There’s really no movie like it if you havent realized it yet. The music and lyrics are beautiful and really touching, something unique compared to all other films I’ve seen.

          This is THE ONLY film of all the thousands that I’ve seen by now that really brought tears to my eyes and presented to me an obsession like nothing before. I honestly have no idea what supposed “unresvolved/unexplained themes” you’re talking about, I’d say this sounds like you’ve merely watched the film in a mere simple way and not really been thinking deep into it to understand and experience it properly.

          It’s a film that suits children very well and teaches them great lessons, but it’s actually also directed a lot at adults and involves some surprisingly adult themes which one might not realize at first, and that’s maybe also a reason why it’s so popular and why it has recieved such great reception. This movie is likely to become the greatest film Disney has ever produced, and in my mind, it IS the greatest film I’ve ever seen. Film-makers could learn from this incredible film, I know I will. All I ask for you now is, give it a second chance, and try to look at it in a different way.

          May you have a nice day!

          • Spacing

            Very well put. Seems like you enjoyed it as much as I did haha.

    • Revy

      I shared you viewpoint 100% until I finally saw the film. I still think the movie could have been just fine without the snowman, but he doesn’t ruin the show as much as the marketing trailers make it out to be. In fact, he’s rather inconsequential and surprisingly charming.

      Trust me, I HATED him in the trailers, too. So if you’re a Disney fan, particularly of Tangled and early ’90s era storytelling, then do yourself a favor and go see Frozen. It’s a wonderful film.

      • TheRealSibsy

        Olaf was the one shared memories the sisters had from youth and helped bring them back together as adults. I thought it was kind of interesting that he was the thing that jogged Anna’s memory about her forgotten past. He was more to the film than just a little bit of comic relief here and there.
        The trailers portrayed him as annoying, but he wasn’t in the slightest…at least to me.

    • Adrian vom Baur

      I felt the same way about Olaf after seeing the marketing materials, but ended up absolutely loving him in the movie.

      Have a look at his big song and see if that changes your mind a bit:

    • SarahJesness

      I thought I’d hate him too, but he’s not nearly as obnoxious as the trailers make him out to be. He’s actually pretty funny and not annoying at all.

    • MC

      What’s odd is that while the character is nowhere near as awful in the film as in all the advertising, he has absolutely no story function whatsoever, and no reason to be in the film at all except for jokes/merchandise. NONE of the justification for his character given in this story comes across in the film, and in fact, both Anna and Elsa seem confused as to why he even exists. Not to mention he has a big song about his lifelong dream to see the summertime, when in the story his life is about 2 hours old at most.

      • “..he has absolutely no story function whatsoever,..”
        “..both Anna and Elsa seem confused as to why he even exists.”
        “..he has a big song about his lifelong dream to see the summertime, when in the story his life is about 2 hours old at most.”

        Now I’m intrigued! I still have to see the movie but these points sound like his existence is at least a bit distracting and therefore a lot of fun. I think it’s a big misconception that everything needs to serve a clear purpose.That’s like our real lifes, we get distracted all the time.

  • Rufus

    “But we stood our ground.” – and jarringly changed the Prince into a villain without a hint of foreshadowing. I admire people who follow their artistic vision and congratulate Mr. Briggs on following his. OTOH, for me that was part of the film’s mediocre appeal.

    • tedzey71

      How did you not see that coming? They had a song and two scenes describing that you shouldn’t trust true love at first sight and getting to know each other.

    • talestry

      agreed with tedzey71, as soon as the prince said he had multiple older siblings, I knew he wanted the throne.

  • storyfan

    ” Is it truly a truth when the plot is structured to he solely centered
    on making a statement that it specifically avoids contradictions to it?”

    THIS. Too many big features are beating a single thematic drum, instead of playing several themes off of each other to triangulate a larger truth.

  • Jonah Sidhom

    Paul Briggs is awesome!! Always sharing awesome story stuff on twitter and tumblr.

  • Pennyjpie

    I’m sorry, but that Hans plot twist was pretty useless. There was no reason at all for it to happen. Why did this movie need a physical Villain? I thought the “villain” was fear but NOPE it was fear AND this guy. I don’t get it. Also, it shows even more of how much of a plot point he was when he disappeared for the last part of the movie up until the (kickass) Anna punch thing. But as awesome as the punch was…Is that really ALL they’re going to do to the man that almost murdered their Queen? Seriously? I agree he shouldn’t have “fallen on the sword” but…He gets a bit wet and a black eye? Wouldn’t, I dunno, jail be a better solution? (Please tell me I’m not the only one thinking this.) The only thing I enjoyed from that plot point was the reveal scene. I wish they’d saved that for another movie where it would’ve made more sense.

    I’m sorry, I liked this movie too, but gosh…there were so problems. I can’t even begin to state how many issues there were here with this..

  • Axolotl

    SCHINDLER’S LIST, in particular, wouldn’t have been the same without that hilarious talking duck.

  • George Comerci

    Love it <3

  • tedzey71

    I thought about Gaston in regards to the Disney Archtype of “Prince Charming” getting a turn-over. I still think it was a good job at handling Hans giving subtle clues that leads to his true intentions versus a character like Lord Barkis from “Corpse Bride.”

  • Matteo Ceccotti

    I really loved this movie. Before I was like “no thanks”…watching the snowman sidekick in the marketing material just gave me metaphorical skin rashes. But once I saw the movie…WOW. All fits together, and yes, good thing Anna is punching the prince, and the snowman DOES represent the love between the sisters, you just need to pay a liiiittle more attention than usual. I spent the following days trying to convince my equally musical-hating colleagues to go watch it, and I am happy to say those who relented were really pleasantly surprised. Except the one guy who told us “beauty and the beast” was overrated, but we punched him in the face. Hard.

  • G.A

    While I really liked the idea of prince charming being a bad guy, I felt the execution was lacking, and he ended up a pretty anemic villain. Lots of wasted potential there. He should’ve at least gotten a nice villain song.

    • Clay J Pena

      The songwriters said his official villain song was “Love Is An Open Door,” though it was merged with Anna’s love song. I think the concept is a clever thing, but they could have made it a lot better in execution. I dunno, more subtle and ambiguous lines/non-verbal cues in the song perhaps? A scarier reprise of it (like in Mother Knows Best)? I’m a candy scientist, I dont know much about story telling or song writing. :P

      • S Powers

        Yeah, I actually think an evil short reprise of “Love is an open door” would have been pretty awesome. I definitely didn’t see it as his evil song while watching the movie – even the second time, when I knew that he was just lying to her. Didn’t occur to me until you said that, that it could be interpreted as him saying: “Your love for me is an open door to possessing a kingdom.”

  • Cheese

    Reminds me of Brenda Chapman’s references with her relationship between herself and her daughter for Disney and Pixar’s “Brave.”

  • canimal

    Oh I absolutely agree with the third paragraph. Rewatching the movie a second time and knowing who Hans really is, a LOT of the things he does do not make any sense at all if he was really pretending the whole time. For example, at times when no one is watching him and he has no reason to believe anyone is, he still looks genuinely completely lovestruck. I’m not saying his expression should have switched to a cliche evil smirk in these shots, I’m saying maybe these shots weren’t necessary at all or maybe the hammy love-struck puppy-ness should have been turned down just a tad? Also, why on earth would he have even bothered to stop Weselton’s henchman from just killing Elsa up in her castle? What was the point of that if he was just planning on killing her anyway? It was Weselton’s fault, so Hans could have turned a blind eye as she was killed and pretended like he didn’t see it coming. Then he’d be free to eventually marry Anna and carry out the rest of his already pointless evil plan. It makes NO sense at all that he’d protect her in that moment. I don’t understand people praising the film for that twist. It was not clever at all, if anything it was just a lazy 180 degree flip of character with no explanation whatsoever. A clever twist is one that is so subtly hinted at throughout the entire film that you smack yourself upside the head at the end for not seeing it sooner. A clever twist is one that makes you want to rewatch the film just to find all the puzzle pieces that you didn’t put together on the first watch. What Frozen did was NOT a clever twist.

    • jabroniville

      A few of his decisions make sense from some perspective. By saving the men from Elsa, then “trying” to save her (note that he’s aware the chandelier was there- he looks up quickly before he redirects the guy’s crossbow into it), he looks like the hero. He was probably hoping it’d kill her, but when it didn’t, he brought her to the castle jail, where he asked her to undo the powers.

      Plus during most of this, he didn’t know that Anna was injured. He couldn’t very well have been responsible for murdering her sister if he thought she’d find out about it.

    • Clay J Pena

      Yeah I agree with jabroniville. Hans needed Elsa to thaw “his” kingdom first, then get married to Anna. When he realized that Elsa do esnot know how to remove the curse, and learned that Anna will die, he went after Elsa to end her.

  • it is strange because the artist might use the same girl-face-shape-morph from Tangled character (othger disney animation movie). Even my own aikoscence have a “similar” face structure. it was a time when disney artist always use and draw different form on character, now they seem re-use their own draws.

  • MyLinda Butterworth

    Truthfully I was a bit disappointed in this film, while my 20 year old daughter and her friends really connected with the sisters and they loved the music, except for Olaf’s song. On this point I agree, I hated Olaf’s song it was over the top and totally felt like he was trying to steal the limelight, as it were, I would have preferred to see this song as an extra or something that happens during the credits. I understand why Olaf was there but felt that his character was too much, they needed to tone him down just a bit. The moose on the other hand gave subtle humor and did not cross the line of being bigger than life.

    When the movie was over I came away thinking that this movie was created as a coming attraction for doing a Broadway musical. The song that Elsa sings as she is creating her castle reminded me of “Wicked,”which might have something to do with the actress singing it, however some of the other songs felt the same way. Don’t get me wrong some fabulous songs have come out of Disney animations, but I don’t want to see your hand in advance.

    For movies where the female character is strong and determined give me Brave or Mulan anytime. Actually I appreciated Brave the most because the story was not cluttered with a lot of magical creatures, like Olaf, and Meridah was not overly thin and she looked liked she belonged in Scotland in the time period. IMO

  • Varg2000

    Tangled is nothing compared to the pure masterpiece that Frozen is.

  • Olaf was more awesome than I could’ve ever anticipated–a most effective, hilarious, truly lovable “comic relief sidekick.” That was the role he inevitably had to fill, but the fact that he represented a connection between the sisters from their early childhoods made him even more special.

  • geezboyz

    Wondering why Sven was not made to speak. Was this to elevate the status of Olaf, by contrast, from mere comedic sidekick to symbol of sisterly love?

  • Varg2000

    So much misunderstanding and unecessary negativity here in your comment. Oh good God. I don’t really want to go into this, but still, good God!

  • Emma

    THE TRUE STORY OF FROZEN/!!!!There is alot going on in Frozen… But not only that! There is a family tree!!!

    So it starts with Rapunzal getting married to Flynn RIder than 3 years later which is funny ’cause tanlged got released 2010 and Frozen released in 3013 see what I mean and if you see the part where Anna is sing “First In Froever” Rapunzal and Flynn are there! BUt I forgot When Anna’s and Elsa’s parents ” DIE” They don’t they land on a tropicall island/ jungle and have a baby. But gett eaten when that child is born. This baby they had is known as Tarzan… MIND BLOWN!

  • rj berger

    it was pretty average. sub par in my opinion. they had many plot holes that were never explained or never actually resolved. the songs were decent, but many were unnecessary. the writing was very questionable too. ive seen movies 1000x worse, but when people saying its as good as lion king (check toy story 3, up, the incredibles, wall-e, etc if youre looking within the last 10 years), that is beyond a joke. its arguably the sloppiest disney movie ever made (by that, i mean major disney movies).

    some of the unresolved/unexplained themes are like the scene where kris actually was there with the gnomes in the beginning and never went anywhere with that (dramatic irony). or pretty bad set ups… so im shocked my daughter accidentally killed my other daughter so im going to lock her up in her room with no interaction until she controls it… but we’re not gonna help her. hell, the gnome said that she had a great gift and only caused bad things if she was left alone basically and came out of fear. instead of fearing people, why not let her embrace it? while i know what it symbolizes, its really stupid considering the gnome literally warned them of the consequences…

    as for life lessons, its very cliche. the difference is that they went around disney’s traditional notions and botched it completely. nor are they original. they made it out to be a feminist movie by having literally useless men in it instead of actually showing how everyone is equal. both mulan and tangled actually did a good job without being “in your face” about women empowerment. same thing with mulan on being different.

  • Generalissimo

    You want analysis on truth? I recommend you take an hour off to watch this “The Truth About Frozen”