Interview: Disney Animation CCO Jennifer Lee Discusses Honoring 100 Years of History Through “Wish” and “Once Upon a Studio”

Jennifer Lee is well aware of the legacy of Walt Disney Animation Studios. 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of The Walt Disney Company, but before there were theme parks, space operas, and epic superhero crossover events, there were pencils, paper, and celluloid. Animation is the foundation on top of which present-day Disney was built, and the segment that started it all will honor that rich legacy on November 22nd with their next animated film Wish and a touching short called Once Upon a Studio. Having seen both the short and about 20 minutes of Wish at Annecy Festival, I was given the incredible honor of talking to the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Jennifer Lee. In this interview, we talk about the emotional resonance of Once Upon a Studio, the artistic homages to Disney artists of the past in Wish, and why Cinderella holds a special place in her heart.

(Annecy Festival/L. Gouttenoire)

(Annecy Festival/L. Gouttenoire)

Alex: I’d like to start by talking about the short Once Upon a Studio, which is just fantastic. When Trent Correy and Dan Abraham pitched the idea to you, I understand you had an emotional reaction.

Jennifer Lee: Did they tell you?

Alex: Yeah. I heard you left the Zoom screen. They were worried for a moment, but you came back with a tissue to dry your eyes. Can you talk a little bit about that initial pitch and what you were feeling?

Jennifer Lee: I have to say, they reminded me because I had said, "I think I shut my zoom off," and then they were like, "No, you got up." And I was like, "Oh, I did?" Because I could not stop crying… I came back, and I just said, we have to find a way to make this. And I do give a lot of thanks to Clark Spencer, the President, who had to handle a budget unlike anything we'd seen for a short before, I won't say what it was. And to the company who said yes, even though knowing it was going to take a lot to make it happen. There was no time built into the slate for it, but the whole studio said, we have to do it. So everyone just did everything they could to make it happen. But like I said, I knew from that first pitch that this was something special. Amazing.

Alex: It certainly is. The short ends with a very symbolic handshake. The star of the first animated feature, Snow White, holds hands with Asha, the star of Wish. Can you talk about the profoundness of that moment, and what it means to you to be in the position you’re in as Disney celebrates its 100th anniversary?

Jennifer Lee: Well, we said how far do we go? And the idea of being able to invite Wish into it, and obviously, Snow White was a huge inspiration for Asha. Meaning what it took for Walt to make Snow White, how he had a wish and a dream, and he had to fight through. And there were moments where it wasn't going to happen. The budget was too big. They said no one would come, and he made it, and it made everything possible. A lot of that inspired Asha's journey where she wishes for something, and then she has to try to make it happen. The failures, how far are you willing to go, and what she has to go through. So it was so lovely to be able to put them together. Many of those nods are in our conversations and heads, but hopefully, after people see the film, they will see it more.

Alex: Speaking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, during the presentation, you talked about the influence that concept artists from that era had on Wish, specifically Gustaf Tenggren and Kay Nielsen. But in the footage shown, I felt like the tree canopy was very Eyvind Earle and the forest floor felt very Mary Blair.

Jennifer Lee: Oh my gosh, I love this. I’ve got to tell the production design team this.

Alex: I’m a huge animation nerd. I was curious to know what other artists influenced the visual style of Wish?

Jennifer Lee: Well, one thing I do have to say is the biggest evolve because even during Frozen, Mike, Lisa and David went back to Sleeping Beauty again and again and again. So that's like the biggest inspiration. They're framing in Frozen, particularly "Love Is an Open Door," So many things. And when we said “what would mean the most to you,” It's like being able to bring that look into modern technology, that was our goal. We had to do it. But other ones, I don't want to say. You'll see them.

Alex: I look forward to looking for all of those reflections of the past. The story includes a very important tree, one that Asha used to visit with her dad. It’s where she goes to wish on stars and it reminded me of Walt Disney’s dreaming tree in Marceline. Is there any connection?

Jennifer Lee: Oh, we're in trouble. You are so…

Alex: I'm sorry.

Jennifer Lee: I meant you're seeing, we were joking. We're going to put all these things and see what people see. And we have you to… Hey, maybe.

Alex: Short and sweet.

Jennifer Lee: But one thing I love is the drawings of the father and daughter on the tree. Those were all done by Fawn Veerasunthorn, the director. Now, I will say that the style she used for them on the tree do remind me a little bit of her husband and daughter. And her husband is a story artist at Disney as well, and I can see a little nod to them, but she did all those drawings.

Alex: The premise follows a character who learns that the person in power doesn’t necessarily have the best interests of the people at heart. As an adult, that feels very grounded in our present-day realities. How much real-world influence inspires you as a writer?

Jennifer Lee: Well, I think for all of us, you write what you know; write your world. But I will say one of the things that was really important to us is tracking the choices of the villain and the protagonist. We aren't declarative about one thing or another in the world because that's not what we do. We're about characters. So what I loved was building Magnifico and Asha. We didn't show the one song that was in between the two scenes yet because we're holding off on that. But what you see is they're completely aligned. And so we wanted to say, let's start with two characters. And I've always wanted to have a villain and protagonist at that moment where they're completely aligned and then watching that first crack, and then the second crack, and then each time they have choices to make. So what I really wanted to make sure of is that Magnifico owns everything. He could make different choices, and he chooses his way. And that's what I say to the world. It's like, we can make choices in this world and determine our destinies, and both of them have to face the responsibilities for those choices. And so it sort of expanded from there. But that was the core of it, was lining the two of them up.

Alex: During the panel, you emphasized that Wish is going to movie theaters and will play on the big screen. I remember experiencing Raya and the Last Dragon at home for the first time, but later getting to see it on the big screen and so much detail was lost when watching at home. If you were in an elevator with a family and were trying to convince them to go see Wish in the theater versus waiting for it to be available at home, what would you tell them?

Jennifer Lee: It's not just because it's a musical to hear it with those incredible speakers. But the look of this film, I mean it’s Cinemascope, you don't see that anymore. But I do believe so strongly that the one thing theater gives you is that moment when the rest of the world goes away. We have been so inundated and so connected. And when you're home, you can put it on the TV, but everything interrupts. Who wants dinner? Who wants this? And you get interrupted. But there's nothing like walking in, and everything falls away. This is a true fairytale, and it's an escape with some deep storytelling. Joy was a big part of this, and laughter and fun. That moment where nothing else can weigh on you, you can just escape. And this film, I think that was a big part of what we wanted for the audience.

Alex: In the panel, you pointed to Cinderella as your favorite Disney film. I have a lot of friends who feel the same way, but they all have different reasons. What is it about Cinderella that makes you connect to it so strongly?

Jennifer Lee: It is really personal. I have mentioned this before because it's foundational. It was the first book I ever got, and I loved it. And then, when I was in middle school, I was really severely bullied. I would come home every day, and I'd put on Cinderella because, to me, she was bullied. And when you're bullied, you believe the bullies over time. And Cinderella didn't. She stayed true to who she was, and good things happened. And I think as a young tween, for me, I might have been an idealist, but Disney films allowed me to be an idealist during a hard time. And so at work, they've got the drawings of her transformation in my office for me because I think it's a reminder of those hard times where you have to hold on to who you are, even when it's hard. And so I will be grateful getting to see Cinderella and Elsa and Anna and Asha all in one short. My head might have exploded.

Alex: I’m going to wrap up this interview with a really dumb question. Alan Tudyk is the studio’s good luck charm. When you’re casting a film, do you have a list of all the different animal sounds he can do?

Jennifer: Well, what's funny, I mean, I got to work with him on Wreck-It Ralph, so I've been such a fan. I mean, his King Candy was just extraordinary. But he's such an improviser, and he is the reason we have [the line from Frozen] "Like a chicken with the face of a monkey, I fly!" From the Duke of Weselton. And so we all love working with him. He's a true professional and can do anything. What he's been generous about is, yes, in films where there just wasn't a speaking part for him, he has been willing to demonstrate his chicken skills and his talk skills. And I think he's as playful as we are, but we're so grateful for us to be able to have a character that he could just take again and own… But he's just so fun.

Alex: Awesome. Thank you so much, Jennifer. It was amazing getting to talk to you, and I can’t wait to see the rest of the film.

Disney’s Wish premieres November 22nd exclusively in theaters alongside the new short Once Upon a Studio.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).