It’s been almost a decade since Jennifer Lee became the first woman to helm a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film, 2013’s “Frozen.” She partnered with Chris Buck, and the duo co-directed and co-wrote what would become one of Disney’s all-time biggest hits. The film won an Oscar for animated feature.
In 2018, Lee was upped to chief creative officer and sought to find new voices. She would help burst open the door for other female directors at the studio.
This month, Variety will bestow its Creative Leadership Award on Lee for not only her work on animation but also for helping other women follow the opening she made.
Before she could even speak, Lee, a Rhode Island native, was exposed to her grandparents’ Disney records and the books that came with them. “One was ‘Mickey and the Beanstalk’ and the other was ‘Cinderella,’” she says.
She also owned a VHS tape of “Cinderella.” Disney was always there for Lee.
Talking about her favorite rides at Disneyland, she says: “It’s a toss-up between Pirates and Haunted Mansion. I have to go with Haunted Mansion because that one had the greatest impact the first time I went on that ride. I have to go on it every time.”
Even as a child who drew and used art to escape, Lee was always modeling it on these characters. She says, “I wanted to be an animator as a kid, but I can’t draw to save my life.” So she wrote strong stories, and it was the storytelling part that cemented her path.
Lee never thought she would end up working at the studio, never mind becoming someone who has a powerful voice and seat at the table at Disney. Rich Moore’s 2012 “Wreck-It Ralph” saw Lee team up with her film school colleague Phil Johnston, a writer on that movie.
“He asked if I could take over a draft [for eight weeks] while he was doing another movie,” Lee recalls.
It was Disney and she couldn’t resist. She connected with the story and it would alter her path forever as she ended up staying longer. What started as eight weeks “turned into 11 years. ‘Frozen’ came up a year later. They asked me to jump on that.”
The film didn’t just bring her an Oscar — it changed her life.
“I came in in a way that wasn’t the traditional path into animation,” says Lee. “A lot of folks took a chance on me, not just on ‘Ralph,’ but certainly ‘Frozen.’ I found out I was the first female director of an animated theatrical release. That had a huge impact on me.”
Lee seeks to pay it forward. “Talent is universal, access to opportunities is not,” she says. “Our job is to find talent — some of it is in-house, but some of it needs mentorship to make sure they get access to part of the pipeline.”
Disney Plus has immensely helped expand those opportunities for enhancing diversity and inclusivity, beyond what the studio already had in plan. “The most important discovery is our rooms are stronger. The more diverse the room is, [the more] the conversation goes to a more sophisticated and deeper meaning.”
In turn, that shared experience can lead to greater progress.
“We are cutting deeper into the heart of our storytelling, and that was just by opening that room up,” Lee says. “I can’t underestimate the opportunities with Disney Plus to help push us further.”
This year alone, in a notable effort to broaden diversity in its films, the studio released “Raya and the Last Dragon,” a monumental landmark for the studio. The animated feature, executive produced by Lee, boasted a majority Asian-American voice cast and fused Southeast Asian culture to the story of Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) on her quest to find a dragon gem to save her people from the Druun. Next up, Lee is executive producing Thanksgiving release “Encanto,” set in Colombia; it follows the magical Madrigal family.
Lee has made good on her promise. In 2018 she said, “I hope to support the incredible talent we have, find new voices and work together to tell original stories.”
The projects are countless. In the works are animated musical series “Moana” and “Tiana.” The series “Iwájú” is in production and is a collaboration with the pan-African comic-book company Kugali. Josie Trinidad and Marc Smith, both veteran story artists from Disney Animation, are now working on their feature films. Additionally, Carlos López Estrada and Suzi Yoonessi, two independent directors Lee brought in, are working on their animated features.
Lee is proud of the Disney Plus Pitch Program. At the time, it was short-form ideas. She received more than 200 pitches. “Even if they weren’t someone ready to be a director, they would have access and get to grow through the process,” she says.
In its second year, Lee is currently reading 125 pitches. “We are shooting for long form … and to be able to create those opportunities is so much fun. We’ve got new talent that we’re getting to work with and new opportunities. We cast this wide net and it created this wonderful energy in the studio.”
While her own animation capability hasn’t improved — “My drawing skills have gotten far worse,” she says laughing — “if anything, I know how to surrender to the talent around me.”