In defense of Olaf, Frozen’s contentious snowman


He’s onna boat! | Walt Disney Animation Studios

WhenWhen Frozen 2 was announced, the cast and crew promised a darker, more mature sequel that aged along with its audience. And boy, did they deliver. Writer and co-director Jennifer Lee touches on colonialism, environmental justice, and race reparations, turning Frozen 2 into one of the most complicated Disney films of the past decade. But most perplexing of all is the film’s treatment of its comic relief. Olaf, the lovable talking snowman sidekick, returns ... and interrogates the nature of existence itself.


Oh Olaf, our sweet summer child. How did we get from loving warm hugs to contemplating the nature of aging and death?


Olaf’s existential crisis has many adults puzzled. It doesn’t help that he’s been a polarizing character — to some, the scene-stealer of the Frozen franchise, to others, a shrill annoyance. But Olaf has always played an essential part in these movies, serving as an access point into the films’ themes for younger audience members. In Frozen 2, those themes are particularly heavy, which makes his role more important than ever.


He still likes warm hugs.| Walt Disney Animation Studios

THE CHILD IN DISGUISE: OLAF INTERROGATES THE UNKNOWN


In kids’ stories in any medium, animal characters and object characters (like Forky from Toy Story 4, or classic toy characters like Winnie the Pooh and friends) almost always represent a child in disguise. In How Picturebooks Work, children’s literature scholar Maria Nikolajeva says the popularity of these characters in children’s literature “suggests that little children, from an adult’s perspective, have much in common with small animals, and that their behavior is closer to that of animals than of civilized human beings [...] To represent main characters as animals or toys is a way to create distance, to adjust the plot to what the author believes is familiar for child readers.”


The popular joke about Pixar’s film philosophy (“What if toys had feelings? What if fish had feelings? What if feelings had feelings?” and so forth) demonstrates this hypothesis in action. Writers assume children will relate to animal and object protagonists more easily than to human ones, even when they’re navigating human experiences.


In Frozen 2, the most central experience that’s being navigated is death — the death of Elsa and Anna’s parents, the threatened and actual loss of relationships between characters, and the way all things inevitably change and eventually end. Parents often have reservations about discussing death with their kids, but kids face death, change, and loss all the time. Frozen 2 is bold to acknowledge that, and it does in what may be the best possible way — distilling these themes down into Olaf’s preoccupation with his own existence.


One especially touching example: After Elsa pushes Olaf away in a moment of grief and worry, he confesses to Anna that he feels angry and hurt. Happy-go-lucky Olaf hasn’t ever experienced these feelings before, but Anna recognizes his confusion and validates his feelings.


Their conversation mirrors the kinds of talks an adult might have with a child who’s struggling to understand how death affects us and the other people in our lives. By making space for Olaf to process his emotions over the changes happening around him — and to him, as he ages — Lee lets him act as a guide for kids who might have similar questions, teaching them how to ask these questions for themselves.


Whooooooaaaaaaa, dude. | Walt Disney Animation Studios

OLAF AS META-NARRATOR


Olaf’s philosophical pondering isn’t the only way he acts as a bridge between children and Frozen 2’s main themes. In the opening number, the cast of beloved characters catches the audience up on what’s been going on in the kingdom of Arendelle. Anna is now well-adjusted and in a comfortable routine. Kristoff is planning to propose to Anna. Elsa is swiping left on the mysterious voice she keeps hearing. And that’s when Olaf looks directly into the camera and tells the audience, “You all look a little bit older!” Within the first 10 minutes, Olaf has shattered the fourth wall.


It’s a significant moment, because this fourth-wall break is no mistake or one-off gag. It sets up Olaf’s new role not only as Frozen 2’s child-avatar, but as a meta-narrator. Most of Olaf’s lines from that point on continuously point back to themselves, acknowledging the fictionality of the narrative.


At first, all the meta-narrative jokes might seem to be targeted exclusively at adults. Olaf’s most world-weary remarks (“This is fine!”) mimic popular nihilist memes, while his solo number “When I Am Older” evokes the laments of “adulting” that run rampant on Twitter, Tumblr, and beyond. Olaf discusses death multiple times. He can come across as didactic and heavy-handed when he blatantly states the movie’s themes, or points out tropes like the forest as a place of transformation. But mostly, the film draws comedy out of his naïve assumptions — squarely aimed at an adult audience — that growing up will give him all the answers and erase his anxiety and confusion.


So it’s interesting how his meta-narration serves its child audience in a drastically different way.


For kids, Olaf’s meta-narration is a lot like a warm hug. It’s a reassurance that everything’s going to be OK, because this is just a story. From a child’s perspective, the Olaf-recaps-Frozen gag in the middle of the film isn’t just hilarious; it’s a reminder to kids that stories are funny, and fun, and they may get scary, but can still have happy endings. This can be the comfort a younger child needs when Elsa freezes and Olaf begins to flurry away later in the film. The post-credits recap of Frozen 2 similarly reframes the events of the past hour and a half, familiarizing children with popular story conventions and encouraging them to engage with the film even after it’s over.


Although that might sound like pandering to a younger audience, Frozen 2’s use of Olaf in both these ways is impressively sophisticated. Lee does something with her script that many adults struggle to do: She trusts that kids are smart enough to handle complex themes and ideas, even if those ideas come from the mouth of a talking snowman. Ultimately, that trust in the child audience elevates Olaf from simple comic relief to something greater than the sum of his rearrangeable parts. Even for the people who hated his spinoff short film.

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