Once the credits of Frozen were scrolling and the reprise of “Let it Go” was rolling over them, I felt pretty good about the movie. Our toddler had been attentive and engaged and learned all the names. It didn’t hurt that we both liked it well… “Dada, dance!”
Our toddler had climbed off the couch and was, yes this was really happening, was singing along. “Mama, sing. Mama, dance!” And we had a little dance party. As if by magic, liking it well enough became the first stirrings of enduring love.
There’s really nothing worse than liking something, let alone loving it, for Gen-X. So, independently, we both started checking out reviews and criticism; sharing articles and thoughts. In that context I encountered the following in The Dissolve’s review.
At its worst, Frozen feels clumsy, rote, or even pandering, in the case of that superfluous singing snowman, an adorable kid-pleaser with little story function except butt jokes and physical comedy.
That’s, like, and I’m being generous here, maybe 40% true. I’ll allow pandering kid-pleaser. Still, we can agree that this is a Disney animated feature, right? This bizarre misconception was echoed in several reviews. Olaf has no function? With respect, you weren’t paying attention. Our toddler was.
I have to think that maybe the teaser was part of the problem.
Kids went nuts over the adorable snowman and the goofy reindeer while adults affected exasperated sighs. I’ll admit it, that made me certain I never wanted to see the film. Watching it again I feel differently. Now I’m kind of impressed that they focused on the nose.
Olaf’s detachable nose illuminates the relationship between Elsa and Anna. Mirrored scenes mark its shift. When they’re kids, Elsa sculpts Olaf based on Anna’s silly expression and add’s the carrot nose. Later, when she encounters the now sentient Olaf, Anna swipes a carrot from Sven’s stash and clumsily fumbles it into his face. His greeting, “Hi, I’m Olaf and I like warm hugs,” not only defines his personality, it urgently recalls those simpler times.
That snowman is there not just to entertain kids, but to teach them how to watch the movie. That’s not pandering; it’s edifying. And it works. They’ve seen the snowman at the beginning and during the “Let it Go” sequence already. When he shows up as Kristoff and Anna are blundering through the woods, there’s grateful recognition. I quote, “Oh! Snowman talking!” They’re hooked.
And that’s perfect, because Olaf is going to drive, foreshadow, and interrogate the action from then on. That can get boring, though, hence butt jokes. Eyes down here, kids.
But who’s the comic relief in the scene where Anna and Kristoff contemplate climbing the mountain to get to Elsa’s ice palace? Is it Anna trying to climb in inadequate gear? Is it Sven looking on mockingly? It’s not Olaf.
“Hey, Sven? Not sure if this is going to solve the problem, but I found a staircase that leads exactly where you want it to go.”
Scenes like that are excellent. They condense the action in a legitimate way. Elsa made him right before making the stairs. Of course he knows where they are. Olaf picks up some authority there. Eyes down here, again.
He also delivers a couple strangely prescient lines. The first comes as they’re following him to the ice palace. “I bet Elsa’s the nicest, gentlest, warmest person ever.” “Oh, look at that. I’ve been impaled.” That’s basically what Anna’s headed for. Boundless optimism and faith in her sister rewarded with a shard of ice to the heart. Thanks for the heads up, Olaf.
The second warns the audience ever so subtly that their perceptions are still off. Following a visit to the trolls, Kristoff concludes that they need to get Anna to Hans for true love’s healing kiss. Olaf enthusiastically agrees. “I’m coming! Let’s go kiss Hans! Who is this Hans?!” The screen darkens and the question echoes.
I haven’t met anyone who caught that the first time through. Olaf’s preparing the audience for a particularly nasty reveal. On the one hand, he just doesn’t know who Hans is. On the other, neither do you.
Once it all goes down in Arendelle, Olaf explains love to Anna and by extension to kids. “Love is…putting someone else’s needs before yours,” is tucked in before the final action so that when Anna puts herself in front of Hans’s blade and subsequently thaws, a child can understand it.
That would be enough, probably. But what about true love’s kiss? Olaf uses Kristoff’s obvious, to the audience, affection as an example of love and Anna jumps to the wrong conclusion. Olaf becomes the kindred viewer.
No, no, no, no, no. You need to
stay by the fire and keep warm.
I need to get to Kristoff.
Oh, oh, oh, I know why.
He hops around in an excited display of hope.
There’s your act of true love,
right there, riding across the
fjords like a valiant, pungent
reindeer king! Come on!
But, no, that’s not it. Finally, just in case your toddler is two, Olaf explains what happened with Anna, how risking her life broke her curse. In the story, it nudges Elsa into awareness. As the story, it nudges the audience.
…You sacrificed yourself for me?
…I love you.
Olaf realizes what’s happened. He’s so excited about it, he
lifts his head right off his body and exclaims–
An act of true love will thaw a
I respectfully disagree with the assertion that Olaf has no function beyond comic relief or manipulative marketing. While he’s certainly representative of both of those things, he’s also integral to the plot and content of Frozen. He’s essential to younger audiences for understanding the action. He’s probably, with all his earnest functionality, helpful to understanding future stories. And c’mon, the Olaf toys are the ones you can actually find.