Unsung Auteurs: Jennifer Lee

August 4, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: curiously unheralded Disney heavy hitter and Frozen director Jennifer Lee.

Jennifer Lee is the co-director/co-director of Frozen and Frozen II, and the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios…and yet she isn’t a household name. You’d think that being the co-director of one of the most successful animated films of all time (as well as being the first woman to direct a feature film for Walt Disney Animation Studios) would elevate you to the top of the game in Hollywood. But like other hugely successful, highly commercial female directors (such as Betty Thomas, Anne Fletcher and others), Jennifer Lee’s name is rarely brought up when discussions are opened about women helping to shift the paradigm in Hollywood. Many more people, for instance, would know names like Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola, even though the combined box office receipts of all of their films wouldn’t equal those of Jennifer Lee.

This is partly due, of course, to Lee’s chosen field of animation. With many animated films co-directed by two and sometimes three figures, this is not seen as an auteur-type medium, but rather one whose films bear more the imprint of the studio (Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks and so on) that produces them than the people who direct them. Lee’s lack of recognition is also due to the fact that she is likely seen as a cog in the massive filmmaking machine that is Disney, and in particular, Walt Disney Animation Studios. Still heavily associated with the man whose name the company bears, Walt Disney boasts decades of classic cinematic output, and it is from these films that the company derives its identity.

Jennifer Lee

The importance of Jennifer Lee to Walt Disney Animation – and to two of its biggest ever hits – cannot be understated, and while it’s strange to call the director of a film that grossed over $1 billion unsung and under-celebrated, this major Hollywood player deserves way more of the spotlight than she currently receives. Born in 1971, Jennifer Lee worked as a graphic artist before graduating from Columbia University School of the Arts’ Film Program with a Master Of Fine Arts in film in 2005. While at Columbia, Lee began to develop her craft as a writer, and won several awards for excellence in screenwriting.

Her script entitled The Round Up was a quarter-finalist in the prestigious Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition in 2009, and was subsequently optioned by Appian Way Productions, though it remains unproduced. In 2011, Lee was tapped by Phil Johnston, a former classmate at Columbia, to join him at Disney Animation where he was writing what would eventually become 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph. Lee remained on the project until it was finished, and though obviously a co-write, it rates as a wonderfully auspicious first credit.

A scene from Wreck-It-Ralph.

A truly ingenious and self-reflexive delight, Wreck-It Ralph is an energetic and intelligent riff on vintage video games packed to bursting with great dialogue and knowing pop culture references. The animated field has truly grown and matured in recent times, and Wreck-It-Ralph is a real triumph of imagination and storytelling. “You can’t just do a straightforward story anymore,” Lee told Marie Claire in 2014. “People get bored. You have to add layers to it. It has to be evocative. That creates a need for a very strong relationship between the writing and the directing, like in TV.”

After the critical and box office success of Wreck-It-Ralph, Walt Disney sensibly held onto Jennifer Lee…tight. She was ushered onto a long-in-development project by the name of Frozen. Lee’s involvement in the scriptwriting process would have a massive impact on the film, which would, of course, eventually become an epic musical about snow, ice, magic and two very different sisters. “It was much more of an action adventure, and we really wanted to go more musical, with more comedy,” Lee told Fast Company of how the film changed. “I made a commitment to writing the script with the songwriters, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. We went back and forth a lot. It’s just about creating a very powerful, emotional story, but also having it be something that is a lot of fun and something big.”

A scene from Frozen.

Jennifer Lee was eventually teamed with Disney veteran Chris Buck (Tarzan) to direct Frozen – a true rarity, with most animation directors starting out as animators and story artists. “I think they really embraced my perspective coming in,” Lee told The Hollywood Reporter. “And a lot of people don’t realise that screenwriters are visual thinkers – but that’s what makes them screenwriters, so it’s not a crazy jump.” The gamble paid off and the results were nothing short of staggering. Frozen was an absolute juggernaut, and now stands as a cultural phenomenon, with name recognition to rival even that of other Disney touchstones like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

With Frozen such a big hit, Disney sensibly retained Jennifer Lee to co-write and co-direct (with Chris Buck) both the 8-minute 2015 short, Frozen Fever, and the 2019 sequel proper Frozen II. The film was, not surprisingly, a massive success, and boasted just as much heart and feeling as the first one. And like its predecessor, Frozen II also tipped fairy tale conventions on their heard and put its female characters front and centre. “We just love these characters,” Lee told Uproxx. “We weren’t ready to leave them. We knew there was more story to tell. And we knew that parts one and two, to us, feel like one complete journey.”

Jennifer Lee with co-director Chris Buck (left) and producer Peter Del Vecho on Frozen II.

Lee also worked on the densely layered script for 2016’s Oscar winning Zootopia before her success with Frozen and uncanny facility for storytelling saw her installed as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. “The main thing for us is growing as storytellers, expanding on the legacy, and supporting the legacy, in ways that are timeless and then timely, and that’s always a juggle,” Lee told Deadline in 2019. “But other initiatives for us are, we want to tell the stories of the world, by the people of the world. We want to be creating partnerships and opportunities for a diversity of filmmakers. We say this and mean this: talent is universal; access is not. So, we work really hard to grow talent from within, and make sure we’re spotting it right – that we’re using all the tools to do that, and then finding new talent to join us.”

Though the subject of many magazine, newspaper and television profiles, Jennifer Lee still doesn’t receive the kind of attention that she really deserves. She bent Disney conventions into new world shapes with Frozen and delivered a major pop culture moment, and now she’s on the top floor with the most famous animation studio in history. Everyone should know who Jennifer Lee is…

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Paul Wendkos, Marisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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