Disney’s Jennifer Lee on World of Frozen and Co-Creating a New Heroine in Wish

Disney’s Jennifer Lee on World of Frozen and Co-Creating a New Heroine in Wish

It all starts with a classic “wish upon a star” in Disney’s centennial animated release Wish.

io9 recently sat down with Jennifer Lee, Walt Disney Animation’s Chief Creative Officer—she’s also the writer and co-director of the Frozen films—to discuss her writing on Wish and her excitement for World of Frozen at Hong Kong Disneyland. As Disney fairytale fans, we were especially excited to dig into a movie that’s set to define the origins of Disney lore, centering around Asha (Ariana DeBose), a young woman who hopes to become the apprentice to Magnifico (Chris Pine), the wish-granting ruler of her kingdom. As she gets closer to discovering the malevolent truth about the king’s magic, she makes a wish that brings magical help in the form of a sentient star, setting in motion the mythology of Disney’s first 100 years in animation.

Sabina Graves, io9: I’m already obsessed with Star and Asha. I can’t wait to see more of their magic. What inspired the idea for Wish as you were getting closer to Disney’s centennial, and how did the themes of hope take form in Star and Asha?

Jennifer Lee: It’s interesting because we think about what Disney means to a lot of us. When we would ask, “just say what words come to mind,” [the responses are things like] hope, possibility, joy, fun wonder—you know, all of those ideas [that] help you get through hard times. I think part of why we escape into Disney is because it reconnects with those themes but it does so through storytelling that doesn’t ignore challenges. It’s storytelling that looks at how life can push on you when you don’t feel that powerful and how it gives you clues for how to cope. When we think of those concepts, they’re evocative to us.

But the idea with Asha is when you think about what a wish is—the hopes and wishes and dreams, they’re really about finding a purpose in the world and finding that thing that drives you. And to have a young woman watch her journey as she tries to figure out who she wants to be in this world, connecting to that moment in your life where you look at the world and all of the rose-colored glasses fall away, what we see is incredible generosity—not selfishness. “I want to do better things for this world, for the people of this world, for my family, for my friends.” It’s a moment with incredible opportunity, so when we looked at that and created and got down to that specificity, I knew there was a story. Obviously Star represents that hope and wonder and possibility, but Asha represents the truth of of how we persevere in the world.

io9: I love that dynamic. and how Magnifico comes into the situation as a foil. We love a complex Disney villain, and it seems he has a complicated relationship with Asha. As both are sort of chosen by magic, are there ways in which they align that might surprise audiences?

Lee: In many ways, the villains in the past, what they really informed is that there’s a selfishness or an exploitation of an idea usually for a means to a greater end for them. And those qualities that we talk about in fairytales you’re taught to to triumph over—even in yourself. You know, I think that we talk about those abstractly. But when it got to Magnifico, we also acknowledged that as modern audiences [have] evolved, they want more complex characters. The number one thing we felt kept being asked of us as we talked to folks about the story, even in the studio, was “Why does he do what he does? What motivates him?” They must want to see the human inside the character to navigate it in [a] not so black and white [way], but something more dimensional. And so we go on this journey with Magnifico, where we say, yes, there’s a moment where the protagonist and the villain align, like philosophically people can align, we can find our common ground, but it’s in our actions that we reveal our character. So it’s in our choices we make. When he’s tested and challenged, he makes very different choices from the queen, from Asha, from her friends. And that’s the thing that it was so fun to to look at, but to do in a different way than we’d done before when it came to a villain.

Image: Walt Disney Animation

io9: Yes. And I just love the chemistry that Ariana and Chris have. What made them stand out for these roles?

Lee: With Ariana, she’s so warm and inviting, she’s very compassionate. As a dancer she’s very kinetic and expressive with her whole body and I think stealing that for Asha was great. But also, she said she represents the vulnerability of having a very regular life and then being sort of thrown into a big spotlight. I think that brought a lot to how Asha [is] suddenly going [from] a life that’s on her terms and easy, to a life full of making big choices and [her] actions affect others. Not to mention, her singing voice is incredible and she can do anything. With Chris—I had the chance to [co-write the script for 2018’s] A Wrinkle in Time that he did. I knew he brings such depth to every character he works on. And so for Magnifico, who needed to be complex, who you needed to believe his charm, you needed to believe what he believes at certain moments, and that only came from the kind of deep work [Pine] does. He’s also charming and funny and so smart and that came through with Magnifico. He’s very smart and then also can sing. So it’s like, whoa. Another win?

World of Frozen, Hong Kong Disneyland

io9: I want to close things out with a jump into the theme park world. I’m so excited for World of Frozen at Hong Kong Disneyland. Arendelle Kingdom has come to life so quickly—I can’t wait to experience it someday. What has it been like to see this land you imagined in the Frozen films come to life, and what do you hope fans take away from visiting Anna and Elsa’s kingdom?

Lee: Well, I’m heading to Hong Kong in a couple of months for the opening of World of Frozen. I think everywhere and all the parks that have embraced Frozen has been blowing me away. I connect to that part of me as a kid [at heart] to get to feel like you’re walking in Arendelle, that you’re feeling connected to these characters and viscerally. The more we can create for the audience and any fans of of Frozen or Disney, this visceral, personal connection to the worlds—not just the characters, it’s beyond a dream come true. You’ll have to ask me again because I don’t know how I’m going to see anything cause I’ll be crying, but I’ll do my best.

io9: Will do! And congrats on Wish, I can’t wait to see the whole film.

Wish opens November 22.

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