In Disney's blockbuster Wreck-It Ralph, Vanellope is a digital princess in a video game who's stripped of her coding and mistreated as a flickering computer "glitch." Vanellope's moxie — plus help from video villain–turned-friend Ralph — saves her.
Of course, that's not how Jennifer Lee rose from the industry mists to co-write the Oscar-nominated Ralph with Phil Johnston (writer of Cedar Rapids), or how she was tapped to be the first female director of a Disney theatrical feature (the upcoming Frozen, co-directed by Chris Buck). But there are intriguing parallels.
Raised in East Providence, R.I., Lee, 41, was a flute-playing band nerd who "became a cheerleader — a nerd cheerleader." She graduated from the University of New Hampshire and went to New York to work as a graphic artist in publishing. But after the shattering death of her true love at age 20, she yearned to tell her own stories. She was shocked to be accepted at Columbia Film School as an older, married grad student. There she met her writing partner, Johnston, also married and nearing 30, on the first day of school.
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"We were very driven — because we were paying for it!" laughs the irreverent Lee. "We knew hard work." Lee now works in icicle-festooned rooms behind the enormous Mickey Mouse sorcerer's hat that's outside Disney Animation in Burbank, where the Frozen team gets "notes from up to 150 people — 150!" as they shape Disney's next big thing.
"Every day," Lee says, "it still feels like, 'Am I good enough? What am I doing here? Why are they letting me do this?' "
She gave birth to her daughter Agatha, now 9, while a student at Columbia, and won awards for socially conscious screenplays Hinged on Stars, Mothers and The Round Up. Soon, people started optioning her work — people like Leonardo DiCaprio, whose Appian Way is developing The Round Up, which landed her CAA agent Chris Till. Lee, who wears jeans "every single day" and Frye boots that barely boost her 5-foot-3-inch frame, cracks jokes about "flying to Los Angeles with my breast pump."
Living with her family in Brooklyn, in March 2011 she got a call that changed everything: Johnston needed her in Burbank, pronto, to help him write Ralph. Confronted with L.A. traffic, she and Agatha sank into depression. Still, the gig was only eight weeks. But producer Clark Spencer asked her to stay until Ralph was finished in mid-2012, and producer Peter Del Vecho asked Lee to write, then co-direct, Frozen. "I worked with Chris Buck for about a week to see if I thought I could do Frozen," Lee says. She "fell in love" with the tale of a snow queen.
Now she lives in a leafy San Fernando Valley canyon — "We don't have canyons in New York!" — and Agatha got to choose the cobalt blue paint job of their car. Lee laughs, "Agatha loves cars now."
In the socially contorted film business, where just 4 percent of directors are women, Jennifer Lee — a female success after 40 — stands out. She calls industry disinterest in female directors "part of Hollywood I don't understand" but greatly admires Disney's commitment to complex female characters and creativity. When she heard the studio was bringing in a live reindeer to inspire Frozen's animators, she smiled, "Can you believe it?"