Disney, Opinions, Pixar

Jennifer Lee: Disney’s First Female Feature Animation Director

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Did you know that the year is 2013 A.D.? How about that women’s suffrage gave women the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920, which was 93 years ago? Maybe you’ll know this one: Disney Animation Studios was founded in 1923. Do you know where I’m headed with this? No?


© Jennifer Lee by David Gilson, which he made for Jennifer Lee for her birthday www.davidgilson.com

Jennifer Lee, co-director of Frozen, is officially the first female director to grace any of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ theatrical feature animated films. What makes her story unique, aside from that fact, is that she was a writer who became a director. Usually, at least in the animation world, you work your butt off as an animator for years before being handed a major project. But for Jennifer Lee, it only took one project, Wreck-It-Ralph to gain the trust of the powers that be at WDAS. As a co-writer on WIR, she proved her worth by helping shape the dynamics in the story, and adding complexity to the characters, which proved to be a match made in heaven considering how successful the film turned out to be.

While Frozen began development, Lee was finishing up her tasks with WIR, which was when Peter Del Vecho asked her to join the Frozen team as a writer, and eventually co-director. Apparently, this move paid off as Lee helped “[create] some of the best female characters we’ve ever done, the most fully realized, the most three-dimensional,” at least according to Chris Buck, fellow co-director (Fandango).


Now Disney has also had its share of female animation directors in shorts and in its various entities. For example, Peggy Holmes directed The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning as well as Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas for DisneyToon Studios. Stevie Wermers is also noteworthy for directing some recent theatrical WDAS shorts such as How to Hook Up Your Home Theatre and The Ballad of Nessie. Each of those women paved the directorial paths at Disney, which now has culminated with Lee co-directing Frozen.

Also notable, Get a Horse!, the short that plays before Frozen, was directed by Lauren MacMullan. So Disney is not only giving us a double dose of princesses with this film, it’s also giving us a double dose of women directors!

A couple of years ago, Pixar had a woman heading one of their features, Brave, but for whatever reason, reasons that neither Brenda Chapman nor Pixar will disclose, Pixar decided to “go in a different direction” (though she is still credited as a co-director).

While this is mostly shop-talk, this is also a discussion we should all be having in terms of the future of animation, as well as the past. How many countless times have people complained about the lack of complex female characters? Or the fact that romantic love tends to be the central focus of most animated movies? Having a balance in the man to woman ratio in the story room can help create better stories, stories that attract both girls and boys while having the heart that we all seek when we go to the theaters.


Nicole Sperling over at the LA Times points out that one of the biggest reasons women have had such a hard time breaking into directing, is because of the lack of mentors, or predecessors. That could all change now: Even though Chapman lost out on finishing her project, and now that we have Lee to add to the list, hopefully other women will find their way to the storytelling podium to share the stories that can truly capture the human condition, and inspire us all to be better people, not just better men, or better women.

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About Mayra Amaya

Mayra Amaya is a Theater graduate from Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ where she also learned filmmaking. Amaya now resides in Brooklyn, NY where she works as an actor, writer and sandwich maker. You can follow her on Twitter (@amayasunwizard).