Living the Disney Magic
When Jennifer Lee ’92 was a small child, Disney movies were her escape. She’d prance around, caught up in that Magic Kingdom magic, pretending she was part of the story. Later on, older, a friend told Lee that she should work for the Walt Disney Company—that she’d be a perfect fit.
Turns out, that was no fairy tale.
In March, Lee won an Oscar for the mega-doesn’t-begin-to-cover-it hit “Frozen,” the highest-grossing animated film of all time. She wrote the screenplay and co-directed the movie, becoming the first woman to direct an animated feature film for Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Perfect fit personified.
Lee even has the looks. Not so much princess-y as vibrant; energy-loaded, with an I-think-I-can aura that she says is new. That she says was hard crafted. Earned partially in her days at UNH when, like many new college students, insecurity was imbedded into her psyche.
But college was also a time of challenge and stretching and growth, and UNH, Lee said, is where it all began.
“So much happened here,” said Lee, who returned to campus last week to deliver the 2014 commencement address. “Some of the most significant changes in one’s life happen in college. It’s letting go of anything that’s left of childhood. It’s where friendships that last a lifetime are made. Where you find, and often lose, your greatest loves.”
Academically, Lee says, UNH was where she felt her way along, exploring her passion for books. Not knowing where that would lead but knowing it was a path she wanted to follow.
“I knew something was brewing but I didn’t know what,” Lee said, adding, “A liberal arts education just fit me.”
In the beginning she thought that fit would be in education and declared English teaching as her major. That lasted about one internships-worth, ending after a stint at a middle school.
“I knew it was absolutely not for me. I came into college looking for a career because I thought that was what I should do—lawyer, doctor, teacher,” Lee said. “After that experience, I threw myself into the arts, taking every creative class I could.”
When she graduated in 1992, Lee took her English major credentials to New York City, a place, she says, where a “liberal arts degree gets a job.” Her first, in advertising on Madison Avenue, lasted three months. Then she moved to publishing, working as a production assistant. She got into indie films, a new love.
“I still wasn’t sure where I fit. I was making abstract videos and writing my own stories but I thought I was a horrible writer—I wrote a novel that was terrible,” Lee said. “I didn’t know I was a writer. I wasn’t born a writer. I was seeing stories visually, in my head. Finally I realized, ‘Oh, this is the way my mind works.’ One day, it all came together.”
Her acceptance at Columbia University School of the Arts was, Lee says, her first validation as a writer. Second was when her first feature screenplay, “Hinged on Stars,” won the Columbia University Film Festival. She went on to receive a master’s degree in film from the school, and her career took off. She was still working on her first big hit, “Wreck It Ralph,” when she signed on to write “Frozen.”
“I’m still trying to process it,” Lee said of all that has happened since her work on the animated film. “Something pops up every once in a while and it hits you. Like, you’re in an airport and a little girl is singing a song from ‘Frozen.’ And you’re in Mexico.”
So, there is this: the balancing act of trying to take it all in while, at the same time, feeling like she is still “trying to figure everything out.” And yet, in one of life’s spectacular juxtapositions, there is no ignoring that she is exactly where she belongs.
“The opportunities that have been presented to me; the different projects, different people I’m getting to work with—I can’t get my head around what it means yet,” Lee said.
“When I was three years old, if someone had said to me, ‘you’re going to work for Disney someday,’ I would have said, ‘absolutely.’”