Just past the halfway point is where our most controversial Christmas special appears: Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. It’s not controversial for anything fun. No alluring scenes or hints of violence or anything like that. It’s controversial because of how poorly received it was when it was paired last year with the Pixar film Coco for it’s theatric release. Pixar and Disney films often have a short film that leads them off, but usually that short is from the same studio and it’s, well, short! Pixar may be owned by Disney, but the audience doesn’t entirely overlap. Pixar attracts an older audience while Disney still appeals more to children and families. And Coco was a pretty important film for a lot of people. Centered around the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, a lot of people and families of hispanic origin were delighted to see Disney recognize their culture with such a film. That it was attached to a Frozen short that wasn’t very short could have been viewed as the studio not believing in Coco, that it needed the marketing might of Frozen behind it, in order to succeed. I like to think it didn’t, as Coco is one of the finest films ever released by Pixar. The backlash against the Frozen short though was enough to cause Disney to pull it after only a couple of weeks. It was then shown on television shortly after, where it belonged as a Christmas special considering it’s the exact length one would expect a half-hour television special to run at.
It’s possible that Disney didn’t believe in Coco, but I think the placement of Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is a bit less cynical. When Frozen was released in 2013 it was a huge success. Disney probably knew it had a hit on its hands, but you’d forgive the company if it was a bit hesitant. Frozen had a long, tortured, development cycle when it actually began as a 2D feature that ran into lots of problems, technical and with the story. Movies, music, video games – these things happen with art and entertainment that has long development cycles, but usually when a project runs into the problems Frozen did the end result is often underwhelming. Frozen bucked that trend though and it was pretty obvious this was the start of a new franchise. The problem is, no one really put much thought towards the future, so a Frozen sequel would be many years in the making. To try to keep Frozen in the hearts and minds of its audience, Disney commissioned some shorts. First was Frozen Fever, a true short released in 2015 (where it was more logically paired with the live-action Cinderella movie) followed by this one in 2017 (there was also a Lego Friends television special in 2016 called Frozen Northern Lights). This particular short seems to obviously have begun as a television special, but Disney wanted to give it the big-screen treatment, which obviously didn’t go so well. I did see this with Coco and I agree with those who felt it was far too long for that setting. I have no real affinity for the franchise, my kids love it and so does my wife, but I think it’s fine. I imagine those suffering from Frozen fatigue found it hard to sit through this one when they just wanted to see Coco. When are they going to get to the fireworks?!
With Disney making the move to television with Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, I’m more optimistic this story can find a home. I’m running it this early in the countdown in hopes that this beats it to air for 2018, if it is to air at all (check the bottom of the post if you’re only interested in that detail). It has the talent of Walt Disney Studios behind it so it looks every bit as good as other animated works to be released in theaters, and even looks better than the feature Frozen. And as the title implies, it’s going to feature a heavy dose of the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad). It’s sometimes dangerous to make the comedy relief character the main attraction, but considering this is a shorter piece than a movie it’s a safer move than say what Cars 2 did with Mater. And while it is a Christmas special, the actual holiday is rarely mentioned as it tries to be a catch-all for all of the winter solstice holidays.
The special opens with Olaf trying to surprise various attendants in the castle. They’re setting up for a big surprise party of some kind and the snowman is a little too eager to get the festivities underway. Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) soon approach (in new winter attire; gotta think about the real world toys!) to explain to him that the surprise occurs after the ceremony unveiling the holiday bell. The characters break into song, “Ring in the Season,” and if you didn’t assume it let me explicitly state this thing is a full-blown musical. The songs aren’t written by Robert and Kristen Anderson Lopez this time around though, but by Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel. The pair manages to capture the sound of the film’s musical stylings, which is actually admirable considering they had less time to work with.
As the pair sing, we see a crowd of people enter the courtyard while Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Sven bring in the bell. It’s hoisted to the top of the tower and rung and everyone rejoices. Anna and Elsa then try to welcome everyone into their surprise party, but to their surprise, no one notices as they’re all leaving. When they go running up to individuals inviting them inside they’re basically met with the same response; they all have to return home to tend to their family’s holiday tradition. A sweet old couple even suggests they wouldn’t want to intrude on the royal family’s traditions. Olaf remarks that the surprise was that everyone left.
Kristoff tries to cheer everyone up with our second song, “The Ballad of Flemmingrad.” In a style similar to his “Reindeer are Better than People” routine from the movie, Kristoff sings about some troll idol you stuff grass into the nostrils of and lick. Anna is almost delighted by the grossness of it, especially when Kristoff unveils the idol itself. Olaf just reminds her that she’s a princess and doesn’t need to settle. Elsa is legitimately grossed out and not at all interested in Kristoff’s tradition, but is at least polite. Kristoff assures them they’ll come around when they try his Flemmy Stew and takes his leave.
Olaf is left to ask Anna and Elsa about their family traditions, which leads into a reprise of the “Ring in the Season” song in which Elsa remembers the bell ceremonies from their youth, before Anna’s accident. The two realize they don’t have any traditions, as they were never together for Christmas due to Elsa locking herself in her room. She rather dramatically apologizes to Anna for being the cause of their tradition-less solstice, and hastens off to (where else?) her room. Olaf’s a bit downtrodden to see his surrogate family so glum for the holiday, so he decides to set off into town with Sven and a sled to find traditions they can enjoy.
Olaf then goes door to door to every house in Arrendelle in search of traditions. Like some sort of anti-Claus, he collects traditions to fill his sleigh along his way. The people all seem helpful and cheerful, but I wonder if they fear reprisal if they deny the queen’s loyal attendant? As Olaf does this he breaks out into song, “That Time of Year,” in which Olaf asks what people do at that time of year. It’s a cute way to basically avoid saying Christmas so that they can include families that have obvious Jewish and even Pagan celebrations. This bit is mostly played for laughs as Olaf first receives a candy cane that gives him an intense sugar rush when he replaces his carrot nose with the candy cane. He also gets to comment on the dangers of leaving socks over an open flame and even encounters adorable kittens. Olaf plus kittens is indeed a cuteness overload. There’s also a fun sequence during the song’s climax where the visuals switch to resemble a Christmas sweater.
Olaf’s last stop ends up being the home of Oaken (Chris Williams) who invites Olaf into the sauna with his family. Olaf enjoys it, even though it causes him to melt leading to a fun visual of Oaken tossing a bucket of melted Olaf into the chill night air causing him to refreeze instantly. Oaken gifts Olaf a portable, personal-sized, sauna for his sleigh and one of his tastefully revealing towels. Olaf is excited and he and Sven head off back to the castle while Olaf improvises some words to the tune of “Jingle Bells” to show his excitement. While he rubs the towel across his rear he disturbs the sauna behind him, causing a piece of coal to pop out and hilariously find it’s way out of the sleigh, off the cranium of a squirrel, and back into the sleigh where a fire commences. Olaf is blissfully unaware as the flames roar behind him and the sleigh breaks off on one side from Sven’s reigns. As they were about to head down a hill, this poses a problem for poor Sven as the sleigh loops out in front of him and pulls him down. Olaf remains unaware of their predicament, instead remarking how they’re making wonderful time, until the sleigh breaks off from Sven completely and goes off a chasm. Olaf is tossed to the other side, but the sleigh does not make it and the tired joke of the sleigh falling out of sight down a cliff, only to explode upon impact with the ground, is recycled from the movie.
The setting shifts back to the castle where Elsa is approaching Anna’s room to apologize for apologizing earlier about being the cause of their lack of traditions (I guess?). She finds Anna is not in her room proper though, but above it in the attic. She’s rummaging though her old things looking for traditions. They try to make this scene cute and sweet, but it’s not really felt. There’s a joke made at Elsa’s expense regarding her gloves, but the two do find an old jewelry box. Elsa seems hopeful when she finds it and gives it to Anna imploring her to look inside. When Anna opens it she reacts with delight, but the audience doesn’t get to see the contents of the box (yet).
With Olaf and Sven separated by the chasm, they’re forced to split up. Sven has a direct path back to the castle, but the cheerful snowman does not. Even though he lost all of his traditions, Olaf is at least comforted by the fact that he was able to save one: a fruit cake. He then cheerfully tells Sven he’ll see him back at the castle, sensing there’s a harmless shortcut lurking in the doom-laden woods behind him. As he disappears into the darkness he exclaims “Oooo, puppies!” before the sound of wolves savaging the poor snowman are heard.
Sven races back to the castle fearing his buddy’s life is in danger. He barges in on Kristoff who is happily finishing his stew. He presents Sven with a bowl, but when Sven puts a carrot in it to make the stew resemble Olaf’s face Kristoff just confuses the gesture for Sven wanting more carrots. Sven then mimes the danger Olaf is in and the visuals are pretty funny. It’s a bit awkward though since one of Kristoff’s gimmicks in the original film was that he had little trouble understanding the reindeer, but he’s now oblivious. Fortunately for Olaf, Anna and Elsa were in the doorway and they understand him perfectly, for the sake of humor. They quickly sound the bell to organize a search party, while Kristoff scolds Sven for sitting around while Olaf is in trouble.
Back in the forest, a battered Olaf is running from some hungry wolves while trying to hang onto his fruit cake. He dives through the thick hemlock and emerges on the other side looking worse for ware, but he’s happy still because he was able to save the fruit cake. As he raises it in triumph to the heavens, a hawk swoops in and snatches it. Olaf now allows himself to feel sad and reprises “That Time of Year” but in a somber fashion. Blaming himself for failing to secure traditions for his friends, he wanders off into the darkening woods and slumps down beside a tree as the snow whips up.
Elsa and Anna are shown, montage style, going door to door to organize a search party to find Olaf. Soon the whole town is out in the woods looking for Olaf. As Anna calls out for him, Olaf responds with a “Not here,” as the snow drifts have covered everything about him save for his nose and “hair.” Recognizing he’s a bit down, Anna and Elsa smile and play along with the game as they ask aloud where Olaf could be. Olaf responds in the third person explaining he set off to find traditions, and that they then caught fire, as Sven shows up to pull him out of the snow drift by the carrot. Olaf apologizes for losing the traditions, but they urge him to cheer up, and Anna pulls out that box from earlier. When Olaf looks inside he sees dozens of pictures of him, and even a crudely made doll. The sisters explain that when Elsa was exiled to her room, Anna would make her an Olaf card every year and slide it under her door. Olaf is their family tradition, and they embrace the little snowman and he starts to cheer up.
Elsa then breaks into song, because of course this is going to end on a song. “When We’re Together” is the special’s big song that sums up its message. Elsa and Anna lead the townsfolk back towards the town and to the harbor coated in ice. Elsa magics up a banquet while people mostly just watch the sisters dance while some kids get involved a little bit. A big ice tree is created by Elsa’s magic, and Olaf gets to place the star on top and sing the song’s closing line. Their special photo-op is broken up though when the hawk from earlier returns the fruit cake, dropping it out of the sky to land on Olaf. He declares the return of the fruit cake a Christmas miracle as the special ends.
Olaf’s Frozen Adventure was certainly misplaced as a caddy to an unrelated film. It’s a TV special with feature quality presentation that’s best enjoyed by those who actually like the characters from Frozen. Disney had done this before with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, but that was paired with a re-release of The Rescuers and was included as a way to offer patrons something new. And even so, that special is best enjoyed on TV as well, even though it’s no longer an annual feature. This special leans heavy on its music and the Olaf character and the attempted humor through Olaf works quite well. He’s a very optimistic and excitable character, but he’s also prone to deadpan humor. It’s an interesting dichotomy that works. I don’t know if he could anchor something longer, but for a half-hour television special he’s suitable. The humor and drama shared between the sisters is less successful. It’s forced in there because it has to be. Anna and Elsa are mostly here to sing, and when they stick to that the special is more successful.
Anything based on Frozen is going to be judged by its songs. After the likes of “Let It Go” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” were so well-received in 2013 it became clear that anything else involving Frozen would need songs to match. The “Ring in the Season” song is well-suited as a light opener, while the Olaf vehicle “That Time of Year” is cheery and the visuals that go with it help to make it an enjoyable song. “When We’re Together” feels like it’s meant to be the showcase. It has a nice melody, though some of the song’s drama, like the narrative of the short, feels forced. It’s trying too hard to be the special’s biggest moment. It’s redeemed by the big ending, but it feels like the kind of song made for TV as opposed to one intended for the theater.
As a Christmas special, this one is plenty good enough. Perhaps those who feel there is a war on Christmas will turn up their noses at the sometimes reluctance of the special to even mention the holiday. Inclusivity is a virtue, and in being so inclusive the special is able to find interesting visual elements for Olaf’s journey through town. The special shows Jewish traditions, but it’s not as if it doesn’t show Christian ones as well amongst the townsfolk. They even allude to Santa at one point.
Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is available to purchase digitally and should also be available on Blu Ray and DVD when this post goes live. Since it was shown on television last year, it’s my expectation that Disney intends to include this with its annual holiday specials on ABC. It would be strange if it did not as the 21 minute runtime is perfectly suited for prime time viewing and the popularity of the franchise will likely equate to solid advertising revenues for the Disney owned network. If it’s anything like Disney’s other major Christmas specials, it will first air on ABC then receive encore runnings on either Freeform or The Disney Channel during the lead-up to Christmas allowing viewers plenty of opportunities to catch it. And if you couldn’t tell, I recommend this one. While I don’t think it’s as good as the excellent Prep & Landing, it’s certainly worth an annual viewing.
Olaf’s Frozen Adventure aired Thursday November 29th, but if you missed it then good news as it’s being shown again this coming Wednesday, December 19th, on ABC at 8:00 PM EST.