The minds behind ‘Frozen,’ ‘Lion King’ on their endurance

Jennifer Lee and Irene Mecchi are a part of an especially rarefied membership. They have been integral to the success of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ three top-grossing movies of all time: “Frozen,” “Frozen II” and “The Lion King,” which have cumulatively earned greater than $3.8 billion globally.

Lee wrote and co-directed the primary two, and Mecchi co-wrote the latter. Both girls wrote the librettos for the stage variations of their respective movies too. All of which is exceptional not only for the gorgeous success of the franchises they helped domesticate, but additionally as a result of they’re girls in industries (each theater and movie) which have infamous histories of being unwelcoming to girls. The two stay dedicated to giving different girls within the discipline recommendation and serving to them get a foot within the door.

On a current weekday afternoon, Lee and Mecchi sat collectively within the Disney lot’s Animation constructing in Burbank to rejoice a singular second: the truth that their stage exhibits are operating concurrently in Southern California — “The Lion King” on the Pantages, by March 26, and “Frozen” on the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which runs by Feb. 19.

The girls had met just one different time — when “Frozen” opened on Broadway in 2018 (“A very intimate evening of 1,200 people,” Mecchi quipped). But they giggle and joke — and relate — as in the event that they’ve been pals for all times. It’s the form of bond that solely shared expertise, and creating world-dominating artwork, can domesticate.

Mecchi recollects feeling supported when she joined the inventive staff for “The Lion King” in 1992. Brenda Chapman was the top of story — the primary girl to serve in that position on an animated function movie. (In 1998, Chapman turned the primary girl to direct an animated function for a significant studio with DreamWorks Animation’s “The Prince of Egypt.”) And Lorna Cook (“The Land Before Time,” “Mulan,” “Beauty and the Beast”) was key story artist. Linda Woolverton served as one in all Mecchi’s co-writers, and had made historical past a yr earlier as the primary girl to write down an animated function for Disney with “Beauty and the Beast.” (She went on to write down the ebook for that musical as properly.)

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“We were with a group of men who heard women,” Mecchi says of “The Lion King,” which was directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff. “And I think that was one of the keys to [the film]. From the beginning it was very, ‘Yes, and?’ There was never a ‘No, this is a terrible idea.’”

Lee, too, remembers a receptive room of creatives when she was engaged on “Frozen.” At the time she was new to Disney, having simply co-written the screenplay for “Wreck-It Ralph,” and he or she says she was “desperate for the job.”

Lee says she was employed after she noticed an early screening of a draft of “Frozen” and voiced some issues about character: “I don’t understand — these women are sisters, but they’re jealous? Why? Why is Anna so persnickety? Why does she demand butter-colored flowers instead of the yellow? They’re not likable. I don’t relate. And I’ve seen this before,” Lee recollects saying at a gathering afterward.

That was all it took for co-director Chris Buck and songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez to need Lee on board. From there, says Lee, the staff dove into the methods girls can really feel misunderstood, the facility that love and concern maintain, and the way concern can usually take over, in addition to “how much we mess up in love all the time.”

When “Frozen” was launched in 2013, Lee turned the primary feminine director of a Disney Animation Studios movie, and the primary feminine director of a function movie that crossed the $1-billion mark on the field workplace. Today she is Disney Animation Studios’ chief inventive officer. To say her rise by the ranks on the storied studio was supersonic could be an understatement.

Lee nonetheless remembers the day a decade in the past when “Frozen” had simply been launched and he or she attended a displaying with a pal in New York City round Christmastime. There was a promotional Olaf statue within the foyer that was wearing a hula skirt, and it was wrecked.

“Someone stole his ukulele, and his skirt was gone, and he had no arms. He was just standing there in the corner broken,” Lee laughs, including that she felt it didn’t essentially bode properly for the success of the movie. But when she sat within the viewers, she realized everybody was not solely singing alongside, however they have been additionally really reciting the strains.

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“It was after that I think people really started paying attention,” she says. “It was like, ‘This isn’t going away. It’s getting bigger.’”

Mecchi says she had the same second of realization in regards to the scope of what she had helped to create with “The Lion King” the primary time she noticed the opening sequence minimize collectively as a trailer. It was undeniably shifting.

The movie’s success was all of the extra thrilling, Mecchi says, as a result of on the time Disney had what she referred to as “an A-B” system, “where they were going to do one big movie, and a small one. And ‘Lion King’ was going to be the smaller one.”

Mecchi remembers then-Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg remarking, “If this makes $45 million in its life, we’ll be happy.”

The anecdote makes Lee giggle.

“I won’t tell you what the diapers still make!” she says.

Irene Mecchi, left, and Jennifer Lee.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Despite the myriad methods “Frozen” and “The Lion King” have impacted popular culture and knowledgeable the childhoods (and parenthoods) of hundreds of thousands of individuals, Lee and Mecchi each maintain a tender spot of their hearts for the stage musicals. To them, musicals signify an intimacy and an immediacy that may’t be achieved by movie.

“The Lion King” opened on Broadway in 1997 and gained six Tony Awards, together with greatest musical and greatest route of a musical for Julie Taymor — who turned the primary girl to nab the glory. (Mecchi was nominated for a Tony, for greatest ebook of a musical.) “The Lion King” has gone on to develop into the third-longest-running present in Broadway historical past, and the highest-grossing, having crossed the $10-billion mark worldwide.

The COVID-19 disaster compelled the “Frozen” musical to shut in March 2020. It had value $35 million to mount and grossed greater than $150 million, making it one of many greatest hits of the season. But pandemic pressures made it untenable to maintain on Broadway alongside “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”

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Lee says she nonetheless will get the stage supervisor stories from each single present, and although she doesn’t essentially learn them, she will be able to’t carry herself to filter them.

“Every now and then I just go, ‘Oh, what happened in Australia today?’” she says.

Lee loves seeing the names of the present stage managers as a result of she acknowledges them from the Broadway manufacturing — and lots of of them weren’t stage managers then. She says she feels so pleased with them for progressing of their careers.

That’s what she hopes to maintain doing for ladies, she says — opening doorways to allow them to step in.

“For many women I speak to in the industry, access is the issue,” Lee says, including that she’s engaged on constructing an setting at Disney Animation “with more creative leaders being women — and not just women, but people of color. The more they’re in the room, the more they support each other, and our rooms are stronger.”

Lee’s recommendation for ladies striving to achieve male-dominated fields?

“It’s the work, it’s the discovery, it’s being willing to fail, but also a willingness to listen to criticism, and to let go of what hurts,” she says. “It’s really hard in a world where you feel like you have to do more just to be considered average. But it’s the best thing you can do.”

Mecchi nods in settlement, including a little bit of knowledge that might have been culled from a Disney script. As darkish and dreary as issues might generally appear, she says, “Keep an open mind, and an optimistic heart.”


Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays by Fridays; 2 and seven:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, by Feb. 19

Cost: Starting at $29


Running time: 2 hours, quarter-hour with intermission

‘The Lion King’

Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and eight p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Cost: Starting at $33. Best availability: weeknights in March


Running time: 2 hours, half-hour with intermission