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Jennifer Lee Talks Walt Disney Animation Studios’ ‘Wish’

Reflecting on 100 years of moviemaking, the studio’s Chief Creative Officer and writer/executive producer of its new animated musical – hitting theaters today - discusses the return of the classic Disney villain, using modern animation technology to create a throwback visual style, and how Walt Disney’s push to always evolve as storytellers and innovators still guides her efforts today. 

The holiday season would feel empty without a Disney animated feature film release, so its comforting that, right on cue, the studio’s latest effort, Wish, hits theaters today, November 22.

Helmed by Oscar-winning director Chris Buck (Frozen, Frozen 2) and Fawn Veerasunthorn (Raya and the Last Dragon), produced by Peter Del Vecho (Frozen, Frozen 2) and co-produced by Juan Pablo Reyes (Encanto), the 3DCG musical is executive produced by studio Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Frozen 2), who also co-writes with Allison Moore (Night Sky, Manhunt). The film’s wonderful, original songs were created by singer/songwriter Julia Michaels and producer/songwriter/musician Benjamin Rice, accompanied by a score from composer Dave Metzger.

Wish introduces Asha, voiced by Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, a sharp-witted idealist who makes a wish so powerful that it is answered by a cosmic force—a little ball of boundless energy called Star. Together, Asha and Star confront a most formidable foe—the ruler of Rosas, King Magnifico—to save her community and prove that when the will of one courageous human connects with the magic of the stars, wondrous things can happen.

Featuring the voice of Alan Tudyk as Asha’s favorite goat, Valentino, the film also stars Victor Garber as Asha’s grandfather, Sabino; Natasha Rothwell as Asha’s mom, Sakina; Jennifer Kumiyama as Asha’s dearest friend, Dahlia; Evan Peters as Simon; Harvey Guillén as Gabo; Ramy Youseff as Safi; Niko Vargas as Hal; Della Saba as Bazeema; and Jon Rudnitsky as Dario.

We had a chance to speak with Lee about her work on the film. She shared her insights into the welcome return of the classic Disney villain, thoughts on how the throwback, almost 2D visual style was chosen, and how Walt Disney’s push for studio artists to always evolve as storytellers and innovators still guides her and the studio’s efforts today.

AWN: As far as the challenge of crafting a story that captures the tone, the feel, and the cadence of a classic Disney animated film, that doesn't feel derivative - which it easily could - tell me how, as a writer, as you're crafting this giant film, what are the things you're looking for that tell you, “We’re finally at a point where I'm comfortable we're going to get this story where I want it to be?”

Jennifer Lee: It's funny, because I think you're always questioning every moment all the way to the end. You're looking for anything you could have missed, or you're thinking about every choice you've made, because as artists, you're constantly analyzing your work.

But the one thing we knew with this film from the beginning was we wanted to tell an original fairytale… but a fairytale. There are certain things about fairytales, as you said, so they’re not derivative, having spent a lot of time with fairytales, that they have the ordinary hero who perseveres through incredible challenges. That was always very sincerely there.

And then, as an original story that focuses on the drive of this young teenage woman as she confronts a challenging world, and all of a sudden, she has a wish that she's now accountable to, it really felt like it was creating its own more contemporary drive and originality.

For me, those are the things that you start with very broadly when you think about it conceptually. Then, the minute you connect with that character, everything grows out from there, instead of the other way around, from then on out. And then I always say that balance, I think, helps it to find its freshness. But you still have some sort of stakes in the ground, so you don't lose your way.

AWN: There's a contemporary feel to the characters, yet there's a classic fairytale-type feel to the setting for their story. How do you judge that balance? We live in such a glib world. It's so easy to be glib and snarky. You want to be funny. You want people to relate, but yet you’ve designed the story to feel like a classic Disney animated film…

JL: Yeah. I think what's interesting, and we had the same feeling with Frozen, is sincerity is the important driver, not parody. And when you start there, though we can all laugh at ourselves as characters, we're pretty open and connected as real people, and you grow from there.

I think the playfulness of the characters, the humor of the film, I always say, has to grow out of the situation itself. Towards the very end, we added a few fun nods because we were having fun at a delicious moment and we were like, “This is a moment to have fun and just go for it, and it doesn't pull you out of the film or disrespect the film. It actually ties very directly with that character's behavior.”

We were careful to do the nods respectfully, but also having fun when we felt like it wasn't going to distract from the story. But we also grounded it again completely in its own narrative when it was critical.

AWN: You brought the Disney animation villain back, which was a wise move. What's the challenge in crafting such a villain, this kind of slow burn? You know something's amiss, but it's not obvious right off the bat. A villain that brings real emotional peril, but not too much that it's freaking kids out as they're sitting and watching. How do you thread that needle?

JL: I'd say at first, the idea, in an homage way, to bring back the concept of the classic Disney villain, what does that mean? Because all villains are quite different. But yet, there’s a definite feeling. To make King Magnifico wholly his own, that was probably the most daunting part of the story for me as a writer.

What was interesting was when we'd work with the story teams and people would talk about how modern audiences, even if they want a powerful villain, they want to understand why he makes his choices. It's not enough that he's bad. That in and of itself only takes you so far.

But the concept of having this very dimensional character who had incredible loss as a child that drove this sort of noble but determined idea of protecting wishes, and then to see his philosophy gets tested, that's when you learn the makeup of his true character. And I think as always, in life, the measure of someone's character is when they're tested.

AWN: How they handle adversity.

JL: Yeah. It's not when things are going well. One of the things that I always do is have your protagonist and your villain completely aligned at the beginning, so the minute the first knock happens of disagreement, you see how they start making different choices. Getting to do that with Asha and Magnifico was a little wish I'd had.

AWN: It set the stage for that divergence very well. It was nuanced. It wasn't in your face.

JL: Thank you.

AWN: Let's talk about the music for a minute, which I know we could talk about all afternoon. Obviously, Disney animated films and music are so intertwined. But this film felt like a musical and not like an animated film, where at various times, characters break out almost like they were stepping onto a stage to sing a song. And to me, that felt very, very different. It flowed nicely. Was the approach to music on this film any different than the way you approached the music on recent films?

JL: We actually leaned in harder to do exactly what you just described, which is the idea that it's not stop and sing, that the song is integrated into the story, and it's moving the story forward, and there's a fluidity to that. That was the goal.

What made it so special for me is that Julia Michaels, while she's young, she has had a long career of writing songs for artists like Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Dua Lipa. She will talk to them, take their story, and bring it forward in song. As a collaborator, she was already there.

That idea as a writer, when we talk back and forth about a moment, the emotion of a character, what the situation is, she then takes all that inspiration and gives you a song that tells the story, as much as it emotionally kind of gives you those chills or makes you laugh.

That was so in her already. It was one of the most fluid experiences we’ve had working with a songwriter because of her incredible talent of bringing other people's vision forward enough to be a perfect collaborator.

AWN: How early on did you decide you wanted this, as I say, “throwback” look, with elements of 2D, the watercolor look, the muted color scheme, minimally shaded textures. Was there any doubt that you'd be able to capture this almost classic Disney animation look?

JL: Well, it's interesting, because I think at the very beginning, there wasn't a conversation, “Do we do this hand-drawn as an homage to the very early films, very specifically?” One of the things that was important to Walt [Disney], he'd say, “Always evolving as storytellers and innovators of technology.”

And when we were talking to our production designers, who love all the opportunities that CG has given them in terms of being more visceral, being able to go deeply into that environment, what they missed was the artist's original touch, the sort of brushstroke on paper that really says, “This isn't a real world. It's a transcendent world. You're going into the artist's vision.”

The idea then became, “Well, okay, then our task at hand is to have there be no degree of separation anymore. We have the most modern technology possible, and in that, you get the artist's vision clearer than ever before.” And that's what they wanted.

With all the innovators at the studio, the technologists, we didn't have the technology built to capture that intensity. We'd done a little bit of work on shorts. But they want challenges. That's what makes their job exciting. And they figured it out along the way over and over again. They blew me away.

But it was kind of this wonderful way to celebrate the artists that have inspired us for the last century that we all grew up with, and that we have in the studio as well. The technologists have done an incredible job developing these powerful technologies. And I felt like that's everything that Walt would say we should be doing, so it felt really like a beautiful marriage of ideas.

AWN: I'm one of these people who feels that Disney has always been held to an unreasonable standard compared to other entertainment companies. You used to own the animation field, but it's a crowded space now in every area. There's always pressure on films like this. You guys don't make that many animated films. As a chief creative officer, a writer, an EP, you're one of the key people at the studio that people look to to help them navigate the long haul of a film. How do you handle what I feel must be more pressure than on your average film? And what skills do you use to help others handle that pressure as well?

JL: First, for me, the fact that there is a big animation world out there is a great thing, because the worst would be if people didn't want to see animation anymore. And to see how robust it is is good for all of us, and it's good to be challenged and to see great work out there and be inspired by it.

I think sometimes the narratives of the world out there, the chatter of the world makes it seem like, as you said, there are harder eyes on Disney. And I'm like, “But you know, it's partly because everyone feels Disney's theirs.” And I think we have to respect that, and that's part of being 100 and being part of Disney… all these Disney films and characters belong to people because people have connected with them.

And so, with that, you're going to have a lot of opinions. And I think what I try to do now is what was done for me. When I came in, I was working on Frozen, and I had no idea the good, the bad, and the ugly of what could happen to a film out there. I started on Wreck-It Ralph, but I was writing on it and jumped right to Frozen before it even came out.

At that time, all I was charged with was to do the best storytelling you can possibly do. Don't rest on your laurels. Every second, question. If it's not strong enough and it's not authentic, you've got to change it. You have to listen to a room of folks who have incredible ideas and mine it for gold, but don't get confused by it. And the task at hand was so present in the creative environment.

When I stepped into this role, I really felt like the best thing I could do was make sure we're providing that environment for all the artists that are here in much the same way it was held for me. A safe space to create. We have to take risks. They're not all going to pay off. That's okay, because if we stop taking risks, that's when we actually won't find our way.

When Chris [Buck] and I worked on Frozen together, he knew not to sweat the small stuff. He'd been through so many films, but he also knew when to make space for new vision and to encourage new artists in a way that was saying, “Let's take that risk.”

I take that, and hopefully I bring that forward. And I feel like Disney, if we can do anything, it's keep trying to do our best, to tell the best stories we can at this time, to keep advancing the technology. Start with the formula that Walt set, because it has allowed us to survive for 100 years.

We are in a new environment where the world is more cluttered. There's more chatter. There's social media. There's so much that so separates us. But storytelling always brings us together. Always.

And so, when we can remember that our stories are there, our films are there, to be a light in any storm, and hope is the number one thing we want our stories to tell, we can hold onto that while we try to navigate through all that chaos ourselves.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.