How Empathy Rescued Disney’s Frozen from the Cutting Room Floor
Empathy with its characters is an essential ingredient of a successful film – or a successful venture of any kind, for that matter. One of Disney’s biggest hits, Frozen rose from certain disaster to become the highest-grossing animated film of all time. That is, until the sequel overtook it six years later.
The behind-the-scene story was only one among a treasure chest of stories that inspired me to write my latest book, Mean People Suck. It focuses on two important elements I think we need now more than ever: empathy and the ability to work on your brand storytelling.
- The Disney hit Frozen almost never saw the light of day due to a serious plot flaw.
- The creative team in charge of bringing its story to life channeled empathy in their own lives to give depth to its characters.
- Not only did the film become the most popular animated film of all time, but it also inspired a host of others to rise to meet their own challenges.
The Perfect Disney Flick
Can you imagine a toy aisle without the aftermath of Frozen? Can you even imagine a world in which this family favorite had never come?
It would almost be like a world without Santa Claus. Or Barbie dolls. Or a thousand and one icons of pop culture.
However, that depressing scenario was almost a reality. Here’s how empathy brought Frozen to life.
As Charles Duhigg put it in a Reader’s Digest excerpt from his book Smarter Faster Better, “the Disney megahit was almost a disaster, until a series of creative brainstorms saved the day.” The catastrophe happened – as many do – out of the blue. A sudden jolt. A kick in the pants. Shock without the awe.
The final screening began, as all Disney movies do, with the usual ingredients: a heartthrob of a prince, princesses in their finery, a BFF whose specialty is wisecracks, and peppy songs with uplifting lyrics.
And then there’s Anna, the heir to the kingdom’s crown. There’s a clash, of course, with an older (you guessed it, evil) sister, Elsa, who wants the title for herself. Even though she’s older, Elsa’s strange ability to turn everything she touches into ice frightened the powers that be, driving them to make Anna the heir apparent.
Elsa, of course, as in all Disney films, goes behind Anna’s and the kingdom’s top brass’s back to plot to regain her rightful place. Her partner in crime, a wisecracking snowman called Olaf, helps her populate their kingdom with snow monsters.
You get the picture. Snow monsters do what monsters always do – take over the town and threaten to undo the kingdom. So, Elsa and Anna cooperate to rid the kingdom of these pests. Of course (since it’s a Disney movie), they triumph.
Happily ever after, right?
Not in the screening room. Where there was supposed to be cheering, crickets.
And Then… Disaster!
The director, Chris Buck, along with several Disney execs, filed out of the room, dejected. The post-screening meeting began. Although the creative heads saw potential, it wasn’t enough to give the film a go.
Witty dialogue, terrifying monsters, and a fast pace weren’t enough to impress the studio heads. With a prissy Anna and an evil Elsa, there wasn’t anyone to cheer on, the execs pointed out.
Not only that, but the plot was leaking like a sieve full of ice on a hot July day. No matter how hard Buck, the screenwriters, and the songwriters had tweaked it, it just didn’t cut it. And deep down, Buck knew it before he even walked into the screening room.
A Brainstorm that Gave Birth to Empathy and Innovation
Their original intent was to turn the usual saved-by-a-prince Disney formula inside out with a couple of kick-butt women who could solve their own problems without a man, thank you. The problem lay within the tension between the two sisters. Neither of them was likable – and the Frozen team wanted them both to be.
So, they went back to the drawing board. It turned out that it wasn’t just the fictional sisters who needed to learn to solve their problems – it was the entire creative team.
It was producer Peter Del Vecho who came up with an idea. He ordered the team to brainstorm about what hopes they had for the film. The brainstorm session was more like group therapy, delving into not only the makers’ girl-power dreams but also into the team’s relationships with their own siblings.
They realized that to make their dream work, they needed to find the secret that gives rise to cooperation: a realization that neither of them could solve the problem on their own. Instead of the good-evil dichotomy within the princesses’ relationship, they created a couple of lovable hot messes.
The team brought their own experiences into the mix – and the rest is history. They put themselves into Elsa’s shoes – a life where everyone is judging her for something she couldn’t help – a life that all too many kids with ADHD and autism, among other conditions, experience every day of their lives.
Instead of the myth of perfection, the team delivered a dose of reality. In a single song, “Let It Go,” Elsa sets herself free from everyone else’s expectations to be perfect. In that moment, Elsa becomes a woman – capable of cooperating with someone unlike herself to conquer the frozen monsters of her own creation – and the monsters inside her head.
Anna, on the other hand, conquered the fear of abandonment that had turned her into an ice princess. Instead of dealing with her fear by hopping into a shallow relationship with a narcissist prince, she channels her strengths to become a formidable hero in her own right.
A little empathy goes a long way to solve problems. In the case of the Frozen team, their ability to put themselves into the shoes of both Elsa and Anna gave them the kind of magic that galvanized audiences.
A Happy Ending for the Crew…
That magic landed them two Oscars: one for the film itself, and another for “Let It Go,” as the best original song. For the members of its creative team, the finished film wasn’t only another notch on their resume, but it became a milestone in their personal development.
…And a Dose of Inspiration for Its Fans
For fans of the film, including Olympic figure skating medalist Gracie Gold, the story became an inspiration to conquer their own challenges. And it all started with a little empathy.
So, what do you think? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today. While you’re at it, get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And — I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy! Get in touch with me to learn more!