Mark Henn: Disney Animator on Frozen, Christian Faith and Fairy Tales
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Disney animator Mark Henn is a 30-year veteran of Mickey Mouse-backed animated movies since his first contribution to the famed studio's Mickey's Christmas Carol. Having animated almost all of Disney's beloved princesses, Henn is continuing his longstanding tradition at Disney by lending his artistry to their new fairy tale film, Frozen.
Based on stories by Hans Christian Andersen, Frozen follows the story of young princess Anna as she searches for her sister, Elsa, after their kingdom is blanketed in an icy winter. Moviegoers will see Henn's handiwork in the animation of Olaf, a lovable and funny little snowman who befriends Anna.
Recently, Henn spoke with CBN.com about working on Frozen, what he loves about Olaf, why he got into animation, his faith in Jesus and what he thinks Christians can get out of this new fairy tale movie. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Hannah Goodwyn: One of the first Disney animated movies you saw was Cinderella. What about that movie captured you as far as wanting to become a Disney animator?
Mark Henn: Ooh, that's a good question. I always liked to draw. I was probably six, seven, eight years old when I saw that... I drew all the time, and I was just fascinated by… I knew animated films were drawn. I didn't quite understand how it all worked, but I knew they were created by drawings. I was just captivated by the characters. I fell in love with Cinderella. I was fascinated by her evil stepmother and Lucifer was so funny. And of course Gus Gus and Jaq, the mice, were fabulous. So, to a young boy, it was just magic to know that behind that somebody had made some drawings that brought these characters to life.
Goodwyn: Olaf, the character you animated for Frozen, is a little like Cinderella's Gus. What's he like?
Henn: Olaf is very loveable and our comic relief. He definitely fits that bill in the film. But I think what's unique about him is if really think back and you look at the film… he's kind of an interesting connection between Anna and Elsa, because Elsa created Olaf…. He has this kind of a unique bit of a bridge to their relationship. As Elsa has grown in dealing with her fears and things, she's forgotten all this…. So she's surprised to see Anna and Olaf show up at the ice palace. She's very surprised to see that. But he reminds her, ‘You made me, remember'. It's a crack in her armor at this point. She starts to remember back until those memories become painful. So he's a unique little bit of a bridge between the two characters. And he's innocent; he's a child. He represents that childlike trust and love that children have.
Goodwyn: What first interested you in this story of Frozen, and Anna and Elsa's relationship?
Henn: Well, I came on board a couple years ago in some of the first versions of the story. I love the idea of doing a fairytale, for one thing, or it may not be an exact fairytale, but that genre is certainly very appealing to me.
Eventually when they came up with the idea to tell the story through two sisters, it still held my interest. I thought, well, that's a really interesting approach to a story like this that we haven't done. I mean, we've done the prince and the princess story. Now, you've got essentially two leading ladies, and that's certainly a very unique opportunity. I think telling a sisters story, it was very fun and fresh.
Goodwyn: Without giving too much away, what does the movie say about love?
Henn: Well, it says a lot of things about love. It's hard to boil it down to one particular sentence, because you see different types and different levels of love that are culturally prevalent throughout. You've got the very shallow instant gratification kind of love that Anna feels. You've got the element of sacrifice. You've got the innocent childlike love that Olaf brings to the film. So it really paints a very broad picture of different aspects of love and maybe what's true love versus what's really kind of a pretend or a false love. It appeals on a lot of different levels.
Goodwyn: There are just certain aspects of a Disney fairytale movie that you can just tell it's Disney. From your perspective, what might be new or fresh in this story that people who grew up watching these fairytale movies should expect to see?
Henn: Well, to start with, of course, you're telling this sister tale. Certainly, you had sisters in Cinderella, which is arguably a sister story. But, really, the movie revolves around Cinderella and her plight, and her stepsisters are just mumbling comic relief. Whereas the relationship isn't "is the guy going to get the girl," as much as it is, "how are these two sisters who start off very close and due to various enduring circumstances, their relationship is broken and is strained to its maximum, how are they going to get back together? How are these two going to reconcile?"
It's a broken family. That's certainly a very unique type of story for us to tell against the backdrop of a classic, Disney fairytale. We've got the great music that supports it, and the story. Great musicals can tell the story through the music, and Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have definitely done that. They understand that, and they really fashioned these songs that tell you about the character, tell you about the story, tell you how they feel. That's classic with a lot of our films.
Certainly, just telling a sister story is very unique in what we're doing. And there are a few twists and turns along the way. We take people on a fun ride with this adventure. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but there may be a few surprises along the way.
Goodwyn: The evolution of female characters in Disney animated features from Cinderella up until now is clear. What does Frozen say to young girls?
Henn: Part of the big evolution in terms of the role of our leading ladies and our princesses, for lack of a better term, have "undergone" is that early on a lot of times the girls tended to be more reactionary to things that would happen to them. They needed somebody to come alongside and save the day, so to speak. And that may have been true years ago, but nowadays, the stories are a little more complicated. The characters are more proactive. It's not things necessarily happening to them alone, but it's their decisions, their wants and dreams and desires that propel them forward, that propel the story. They make decisions and there are consequences good and bad that move the story along. That's been a big jump in the way we've told our stories and the types of stories that we've told, starting with The Little Mermaid, which was kind of the prototype of that new type of story, or new type or heroine where she's making decisions. The world isn't just happening to her and she's just like, "Oh, help! Somebody help me!" She's saying, "I'm not happy with this and I'm going to do something about it." Then she's going to deal with the consequences good and bad of those decisions. That's probably been the biggest swing that I've seen over the course of our films.
Mulan is another great example of that. Her story is she's making a decision because she loves her family. She loves her father so much, but she makes this decision to essentially defy him to protect him. So, those are very deep dilemmas, and very real for some people. We all, boys and girls, men and women, we all have to face those kind of decisions. So I think that kind of storytelling, it's just enriching the films that we're doing these days.
For young girls today, I hope that they look at them as the same way little girls and little boys looked at the characters from the past, as good, positive role models with decisions. There may be consequences good and bad, but that there's a strength there. There's a desire to follow your dreams and follow your heart. Again, you may have to suffer consequences good and bad depending on what those decisions are, but those are very applicable types of role models for kids today, and particularly young girls.
Goodwyn: What in Frozen do you think will appeal to Christians?
Henn: Oh, well, there are a lot of things. It's not always very obvious in the stories, but I think whether it's obvious or not, I think one of the aspects is the whole notion of the different types of love that are demonstrated, are portrayed in the film. You have a variety of types of love shown from Olaf, very naïve, childlike love and affection, to Anna's very reactionary, very seemingly true love, but it's a bit shallow when she meets Hans.
Christian families can use [Frozen] to talk to their kids ultimately [about] honest, sacrificial love. We all understand that. The love of Christ is sacrificing His life because He loved us so much. God so loved the world through Christ. That's sacrificial love. Those are elements that, while not so blatantly, "here's a Christian message", but they're there. For Christian families in particular, they can just peel back the layers a little bit and then be willing to, as parents, talk to their kids and just have conversations about that.
Those things are always prevalent in our films, more in some and less in others. But certainly love is a big part of that, and trust, and the risks involved with love, and within a family structure, and all those things can be talked about.
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