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Frozen in Time: Disney’s Adaptation of a Literary Classic

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Seventy years. That’s how long it’s taken Disney to produce an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Snow Queen. With Disney’s 53rd Animated Classic about to hit screens soon, we at the Rotoscopers are taking you on a trip through Disney history to bring to light how a timeless literary classic became a modern-day Disney classic.

The Story

“Now then, let us begin. When we are at the end of the story, we shall know more than we know now: but to begin.”

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen is a beautifully written fable about a little girl and boy– Gerda and Kay–who love each other dearly as close friends. Together they would play among the roses, and Kay’s grandmother would tell them stories about the mysterious Snow Queen, who would come in the biting winter and freeze the windows:

“Many a winter’s night she flies through the streets of the town, and peeps in at
the windows; and they then freeze in so wondrous a manner that they look like flowers.”

The Snow Queen flies over the town in this illustration by Elena Ringo

The Snow Queen flies over the town in this illustration by Elena Ringo

One day, Kay’s eyes get pierced by shards from an evil, magic mirror, so all he can see is distorted beauty. Kay wanders away from the town, and is abducted by none other than the Snow Queen herself. It’s now up to little Gerda, who with the purity of her heart must find her beloved Kay and rescue him from the Snow Queen’s icy palace before it’s too late.

Long acclaimed as a masterpiece, the original story is dark yet hopeful. It is poetic and moral. It features numerous religious undertones and features a classic “love conquers all” plot. The epic pace and the mystical setting lend themselves well to a cinematic adaptation, so naturally Disney was first in line to make the story their own. If the Snow Queen permitted them to, that is.

Beginnings

“It was a lady; her cloak and cap were of snow. She was tall and of slender figure, and of a dazzling whiteness. It was the Snow Queen.”

Back in 1943 (around the time Saludos Amigos released), Walt Disney was in talks with Samuel Goldwyn regarding a potential collaboration about the life and works of Hans Christian Andersen. The idea was to let Goldwyn handle the “story” aspect, while Disney and his artists would contribute animated segments based on Anderson’s stories. The Little Mermaid was another story Walt was interested in adapting, but ideas fell through.

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Concept art for the planned Hans Christian Andersen biopic that Disney and Goldwyn were collaborating on (Copyright Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The issue wasn’t with the animation–it was the story. Anyone who has read The Snow Queen will agree that it has huge potential for a cinematic adaptation. The problem lay with the titular character herself. The Snow Queen is described in the story as:

“… a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together. She was fair and beautiful, but made of ice — shining and glittering ice. Still she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance”

The Snow Queen looked beautiful, sure, but there was nothing in her character that would make her an interesting, intriguing villain–or even a dimensional character. Her motives were not explained, nor was she even present in the book’s climax when Gerda rescues Kay. How could you make an entire movie around her? Not just the Snow Queen character, the story itself was very symbolic and implicit, unlike the much easier to adapt The Little Mermaid.

The Renaissance

1989 arrived, and Disney’s animated The Little Mermaid hit theatres, beginning an awakening for the Walt Disney Animation Studios after a long slump. Fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and works of literature like Hamlet and The Hunchback of Notre Dame once again became a popular basis for the Disney features throughout the 90s.

One particular fairytale became the elephant in the room. Everyone was aware of it, but unsure of how to give it life. This fairytale in question, was undoubtedly The Snow Queen. Attempt after attempt led to failure. A version was pitched during 1997 by Harvey Fierstein (the voice of Mulan’s Yao), but Disney didn’t pick it up. Disney Legend Glen Keane made it his duty to adapt the story, but after months of hard work, the characters remained impossible to draw, the story remained frozen. Yet again, animation fans were disappointed as the movie got shelved.

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Concept art for an early 2000s version of Disney’s Snow Queen adaptation (Copyright Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Even more people jumped on the Snow Queen bandwagon. The Brizzi brothers, Dick Zondag, Dave Goetz. But alas, nothing ever worked out and a movie refused to thaw.

Skip ahead to 2010. Tangled- the 50th Disney Animated Feature-is in the middle of production and coming along just swell. Disney hopes it does well. In the midst of the excitement, Disney decides to whip out the old problematic story and hopes that this time around, something works. Beauty and the Beast directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale are brought on board, along with an all-star production team of John Lasseter as executive producer, Don Hahn as producer, Linda Woolverton as writer, and Alan Menken and Glenn Slater for music. Essentially, a Beauty and the Beast reunion. Could this fresh new energy finally bring The Snow Queen to life?

Nope.

After months of struggles, including a rough song by Menken (“Love Can’t Be Denied”) the project ended yet again, this time more bitter than ever before. It seemed The Snow Queen was doomed to never see the big screen as a Disney feature.

But Disney was not one to give up on this. After all, The Snow Queen is arguably one of the last “gift-wrapped” fairy tales, and for Disney to not adapt this unique story would be sacrilege. Tangled released in 2010 to critical acclaim and commercial success, and Disney had new hopes for The Snow Queen.

One Step Closer

On December 22, 2011, Disney announced their new slate of upcoming movies. In the pile of Pixar and Marvel films, lay a certain one-word title. “Frozen”.

Fans were led to conclude that Frozen was the title of Pixar’s upcoming dinosaur movie, but that turned out to be The Good Dinosaur. In a pleasant surprise, Disney fans were excited to know that Frozen is, indeed the title of the new Snow Queen adaptation! One thing led to another and the pieces of the puzzle came together. Disney had assembled an all-new crew, John Lasseter and Peter Del Vecho as producers, and Tarzan director Chris Buck to helm the resurrected project. The hope was that this time around, they would finally be able to defrost the frozen tale.

The Snow Queen once again attempted to thwart their plans. The character remained difficult as ever to turn into a full-fledged animated villain. The character Gerda was easily adapted into a girl named Anna, and a mountain man named Kristoff was born from the ‘robber-girl’ figure in the original tale.

Early concept art for Kristoff and Anna (Copyright Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Early concept art for Kristoff and Anna (Copyright Disney Enterprises Inc.)

So they had the Snow Queen (kind of), Anna and Kristoff. That was it. Nothing more. The characters weren’t well rounded, and the Snow Queen figure was as flat as ever, stuck up in her castle the entire time. One day, during an early storyboard screening, someone (nobody recalls who), made a simple suggestion, one that would change the direction of the movie forever:

“What if Anna and Elsa were sisters?”

Eternity

The story dynamic was given new life with the suggestion of making Anna and the Snow Queen- now named Elsa–sisters.

The new adaptation would feature a “young dreamer” named Anna as she sets off to find her estranged sister Elsa, who has cursed the kingdom of Arendelle to suffer an eternal winter.

Peter Del Vecho, on the topic of adapting the story and making new changes, said:elsa-concept-frozen

“Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Snow Queen is a pretty dark tale and it doesn’t translate easily into a film. For us the breakthrough came when we tried to give really human qualities to the Snow Queen. When we decided to make the Snow Queen Elsa and our protagonist Anna sisters, that gave a way to relate to the characters in a way that conveyed what each was going through and that would relate for today’s audiences. This film has a lot of complicated characters and complicated relationships in it. There are times when Elsa does villainous things but because you understand where it comes from, from this desire to defend herself, you can always relate to her. “Inspired by” means exactly that. There is snow and there is ice and there is a Queen, but other than that, we depart from it quite a bit. We do try to bring scope and the scale that you would expect but do it in a way that we can understand the characters and relate to them.”

Jennifer Lee, writer on Wreck-It Ralph, was then made co-director of the movie–the first woman in history to direct a Disney Animated Feature. On developing the character of the Snow Queen into one who is relatable and resonant, director Jennifer Lee stated:

“The Snow Queen in the original story is not a well-drawn character, she’s very symbolic. We had to discover who she was and what she would be like and the more we [talked], the more exciting it was to think about these two [as sisters].”

Anna retained the Gerda role, while her sister, Elsa, was given a more believable back story and a motive for her actions. This new dynamic was a go and Frozen was officially on the way to fruition.

Anna finds Elsa in this still from Disney's FROZEN (Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Anna finds Elsa in this still from Disney’s FROZEN (Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Film, TV and Broadway stars Kristen Bell (voice of Anna), Idina Menzel (voice of Elsa) and Jonathan Groff (voice of Kristoff) were cast in speaking as well as singing roles. More supporting roles were created: Olaf the snowman (voiced hilariously by Josh Gad), Sven, Kristoff’s lovable reindeer, and Prince Hans (voiced by Santino Fontana), Anna’s love interest. Broadway composer Robert Lopez (renowned for his work on The Book of Mormon) and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez (both of whom had worked on songs for 2011’s Winnie the Pooh) were called to contribute original songs, against an epic score composed by Christophe Beck.

Frozen–a new Disney musical fairytale was born, The Snow Queen story finally adapted and finding a new home at Disney.

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The resulting story is but a shadow of the original story, but still features the integral themes that made Hans Christian Anderson’s story so immortal: love, family and finding your inner strength. As a result, Frozen can stand on its own as well as allude to its source material. It tells a story that is for the ages, just as the original book does, but with a contemporary vision. The focus isn’t on boy-meets-girl love for once–it’s about the tender relationship between two sisters torn apart. It’s the story of love overcoming fear and the power of family.

After seventy years of on-and-off development, countless failed attempts and innumerable story variations, The Snow Queen finally comes to life in Disney’s Frozen, a musical fairytale that will go down in history as one of the greatest Disney animated events of all time. The film releases in the US on November 27.

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