How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Olaf
I saw Frozen for the first time on December 31, 2013. I don’t remember a lot of the details of the evening, but clearly my wife and I had a wild New Year’s Eve. I logged the viewing on my Letterboxd account, and left this brief review:
Someone should Phantom Edit the talking snowman out of this thing. Do that, and we might really have something.
This part, I do remember: My wife and I, both long-standing Disney fans, generally enjoyed Frozen. We immediately admired the beautiful songs, the sparkling voices of Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell, and the richly textured computer animation.
And we hated Olaf.
We didn’t understand why a film needed two cutesy anthropomorphic sidekicks and vastly preferred Sven, the loyal (and mercifully quiet) reindeer. We groaned as this surprisingly intense musical drama about sisters and their repressed feelings turned into a showcase for an obnoxious living snowman who yearns to feel the warm summer sun on his frosty face. I recall palpable excitement when Olaf got a little too close to a fireplace and started to melt. Soon, we were actively rooting for his death. “Gaze deep into the fire, Olaf. That’s it. Closer. Closer.”
Olaf survived, as he always does. At the end of Frozen, Queen Elsa created a permanent flurry around Olaf, so that he could enjoy sun and summers, and all things hot. By that point, Olaf was as integral to the Frozen universe as “Let It Go.” He played a key role in the first Frozen spinoff short, “Frozen Fever,” and an even bigger part in the next, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” which sidelined the rest of the series’ cast and put him front and center for a story about holiday traditions. In Frozen II, my wife and I briefly got our wish when Olaf actually died — at least for a few minutes.
Except this time, when Elsa restored Olaf to his bubbly, icy glory ... I got choked up. When he returned in yet another short film, Disney+’s new “Once Upon a Snowman,” I can honestly say (with a fair amount of embarrassment) I was kind of happy to see him.
Admittedly, the change may have as much to do with me as Olaf himself. In the seven years since that first Frozen viewing, I had two daughters who subsequently subjected me to approximately 14,000 viewings of the collected Frozen Cinematic Universe. They dress in costumes and perform the films’ soundtracks as two-woman shows. (Let me tell you, the subtle nuances in “Show Yourself” really start to emerge after you’ve heard it scream-sung by a pair of tone-deaf toddlers 45 times in a week.)
My kids love everything and anything Frozen, which means my kids love Olaf. Where I groaned as his antics, they giggled. When I snuck out of the room during “In Summer,” they sang along even louder. They have Olaf toys, Olaf plushes, Olaf pajamas. Olaf Olaf Olaf. As it turns out, it’s difficult to hate anything that gives your children this much pleasure. (Believe me, I tried.) Seeing Olaf through their eyes makes me appreciate the positive parts of the character that I overlooked: The sweetness and innocence of Josh Gad’s vocal performance; the clever physical comedy of Olaf’s disconnected body parts.
Still, if I can speak frankly for a moment: My children have terrible taste in pop culture. I’ve watched many television shows and films with them against my will, and most of them do not improve upon multiple viewings. No amount of repetition could turn me into a YooHoo to the Rescue stan. My change of heart about Olaf is the exception, not the rule.
My initial suspicion about my Olaf reversal — particularly since much of it has occurred during coronavirus quarantine — is that I was experiencing a form of cinematic Stockholm syndrome. I spent months trapped in 1,000 square feet with my wife, two children, and a sentient ice monster. Under these sort of emotionally fragile circumstances, it was only natural that I might begin to identify with my cutesy, carrot-nosed captor.
Then my kids finally eased off on the endless Frozen viewings, and upon their occasional return, I realized that Olaf’s portion of Frozen II significantly improved upon his role in the original. His solo song, “When I Am Older” by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, is a witty little number about how our cruel existence is a random accumulation of chaotic events, and how we respond by pretending everything is fine while the world around us crumbles. In other words, it is the best song about life in 2020 by a very wide margin:
Though never quite as incisive as “When I Am Older,” “Once Upon a Snowman” does continue its themes. It’s also an amusing eight minute showcase of goofy Olaf antics. The short is set during the events of Frozen, and shows Olaf’s first moments of consciousness after Elsa creates him during “Let It Go.” In a style that recalls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Olaf wanders through the background of various scenes from Frozen, while digging into enormous existential questions about his identity: How could a snowman be alive? Why doesn’t he have a nose? “Who am I?”
Viewers like my daughters will focus on Olaf’s pratfalls. Parents may find recognize a deeper truth. Forget the icy queen with incredible powers, the brave princess who risks her life over and over for her kingdom, or the hunky orphan raised by trolls who schleps ice through the woods. The most relatable member of this cast is the hapless goofball who loves his friends, genuinely has no clue what he’s supposed to do with his life, and pinballs from one crisis to another. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all Olaf. And he is us.
So while I fully expect to hear many jokes about Olaf’s this week as “Once Upon a Snowman” arrives on Disney+, I won’t be making them myself. I will be probably be rewatching “Once Upon a Snowman” at least a few more times with my kids. And I will be totally fine with it.
Gallery — The Best Animated Shorts Available On Disney+: