Posted Saturday night, December 30, 2017.
Olaf the snowman and Sven the reindeer prepare to set off in search of Christmas “traditions” to bring home to their friends Queen Elsa and Princess Anna who are at a loss as to how to celebrate the holiday in Disney’s not very short short film or overlong commercial Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, depending how you look at it.
We saw Pixar’s latest masterpiece, Coco, the weekend it opened, which means we saw Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, the Disney-made “short” that ran in the place of a traditional Pixar short before it. Disney pulled it the next week claiming that that was always the plan and audiences’ outrage had nothing to do with it. But we had to sit through it and I’m only now feeling I can write about the horror. If I’d liked Frozen as much as most people, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure would have made me hate it retroactively. Oliver Mannion says that the only fun he had was glancing over from time to time to see how much farther I’d sunk in my seat as I slowly lost the will to live.
Enough other people have expended enough pixels on the many things to hate about Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. The main complaint is that it’s not a short. It’s a long. Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is twenty-one minutes long. Twenty-one long minutes long. Pixar’s shorts typically run between four and six minutes. For The Birds is three minutes. Parents of small children were especially put out by this. At an hour and forty-five minutes, Coco is a bit on the long side for a Pixar feature. Toy Story ran an hour and twenty-one minutes. Monsters Inc. a hundred and thirty-two. Inside Out a hundred and thirty-five. (The Incredibles, on the other hand, clocked in at an epic one hour and fifty-five minutes.) Those ten extra minutes are hard on small children. Add in the trailers and the commercials and that’s already a long night at the movies for the littlest kids. Twenty-one more minutes of Olaf and you’re going to have parents who goofed and didn’t take the kids to a matinee carrying their crying, cranky, and falling asleep preschoolers out of the theater well before Coco reaches its denouement.
And those are twenty-one long and empty minutes. Not much actually happens in Olaf’s Frozen Adventure. There’s the thinnest of plots, little characterization, and not much in the way of action and adventure. It’s sloppily written. The dialog is insipid. The songs are inane. And the jokes aren’t funny. On top of this, it’s obvious.
I mean that it’s obvious why it was made---to sell Frozen merchandise. It’s a twenty-one commercial timed to get kids to put toys with the Disney brand on their Christmas lists.
Worst of all, at least from my point of view, there’s Olaf.
Most people found Olaf adorable in Frozen. Not me. Somebody on Twitter described him as this generation of moviegoers’ Jar Jar Binks. I think that’s going a little far. But as frozen snowmen go, Olaf is no Frosty. Or Sam. Or Leon. The best I can say for him is that he isn’t as horrific a screen presence as the snowman Michael Keaton’s character’s ghost inhabits in Jack Frost. Still, that’s not saying much. He’s plucky comic relief but I didn’t find him either comic or relieving. He hasn’t gotten any funnier. But here’s the real problem with centering a story around Olaf.
He’s a second banana.
Now, some second bananas are actually second or third leads and they’re strong enough characters to carry a plot or at least a subplot on their own. It’s stating the obvious to say Jar Jar Binks wasn’t one of those. But R2-D2 is. Sticking to cartoons, Disney’s and Pixar’s in particular, the genie from Aladdin, Mushu from Mulan, and, as we’ve found out to our delight, Dory from Finding Nemo can carry a movie---an even better movie---by herself. As it turns out, she’s a more compelling lead than Marlin, who, as voiced by Albert Brooks, doesn’t lay there on the screen like a lox. (No, I’m not sorry.) Of course it helps that the genie, Mushu, and Dory are voiced by Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Ellen DeGeneres. Murphy and Williams are lead actors in their own right as well as great comic actors. Ellen is…Ellen. Josh Gad is a promising youngish character actor but he’s not a natural lead and not in their league as comic actor. But it’s not his fault that the writers of Olaf’s Frozen Adventure didn’t give him a lot of good lines.
But here’s what finally truly infuriated me about Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
It’s a Christmas story that doesn’t know what Christmas is all about.
I’m not talking about its religious significance as related in the verses from Luke Linus quotes in A Charlie Brown Christmas. I’m talking about the lesson that follows from the last lines of the passage:
And on earth peace, good will toward men.
These days, as opposed to King James', that’s usually improvisationally translated as good will toward all which isn’t quite technically correct but fits with the angels’ announcement that the tidings of great joy are meant for all people. The lesson isn’t spelled out in A Charlie Brown Christmas but it is acted out when the whole gang gets together to rescue and decorate the not such a bad little tree and to wish in one voice Charlie Brown a merry Christmas. They’ve become a community that includes all the people they know including that formerly ostracized blockhead, and they celebrate their community by singing together. They sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" because they're reiterating the angels' good news to the shepherds, but they could be singing "Row, row, row your boat" for all that it matters what they're singing. What matters is that they're singing together.
This is also what happens at the end of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Although the moment when the Whos gather around the empty spot in the town square where the Christmas tree used to stand and, heart to heart and hand in hand, they celebrate their togetherness is heartbreakingly beautiful, it’s the great feast at the end that carries the lesson through. When the Grinch himself carves the roast beast, it’s symbolic of his recognizing himself as a member of a community from which he’s never really been excluded, but from which he’d excluded himself, not just denying himself company, that is, companionship, but denying there is such a thing as company.
And that’s the lesson of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol too.
Scrooge’s sin isn’t that he’s stingy. His stinginess is a symptom of what’s truly wrong with him. He’s been denying he’s part of a community. He’s “secret, self-contained...solitary as an oyster”, keeping to the edges of society and warning away all company. What he wants most isn’t money. It’s to be left alone. The first thing he does Christmas morning, after buying the turkey for the Cratchits, whom---and this is important---he does not visit on Christmas day. He has Christmas dinner with his nephew and niece-in-law who are spending Christmas with their friends, who become Scrooge’s friends, which means that through them Scrooge’s family now includes people to whom he is not related, that is, it extends into society, the community.---The first thing he does, I say again (I’m echoing one of Dickens’ favorite narrative ticks.) is take a walk through town, looking into the shop windows, wishing passersby a Merry Christmas---as his nephew Fred says, Christmas is when we open up our shut up hearts and recognize each other as fellow passengers to the grave instead of seeing each other as different races of creatures bound on other journeys---and even going to church, where, presumably, he joins in the singing. Scrooge becomes part of the community again and the community welcomes him back.
And it’s more than that. Things work the other way as well. Their communities become Scrooge’s, the Grinch’s, and Charlie Brown’s responsibility. They take leading roles in creating the community---communities need to be re-created continually---and maintaining it. Charlie Brown, having provided the tree, and the example, that brings the gang together, continues to direct the play, which we can assume goes more smoothly for him now. The Grinch sits at the head of the table, where traditionally the head of the family sits, suggesting the Whos now see him as a leader, which is a natural role for someone whose heart is now a size larger than normal and who has the strength of ten Grinches plus two. The Grinch is the George Washington of Whoville. And Scrooge uses his wealth and the influence money brings to take care of the wide and expanding circle of people he’s responsible for, becoming as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew.
Almost the exact opposite appears to happen in Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
To celebrate Christmas, Anna and Elsa---and Olaf---don’t join the community. They withdraw from it.
When they were small children, Anna and Elsa’s family celebrated Christmas. After their mother and father died, the girls tried to celebrate on their own but without their parents’ guidance they weren’t sure how to go about it or even what they were going about and why. They seem to have improvised every year until Elsa grew so self-isolated she and Anna were barely communicating, which put a crimp in their celebrations. Now that Elsa is back in the palace and has assumed her duties as queen, with Anna as essentially her prime minister, the sisters have decided not just to start celebrating Christmas again themselves but to make it a national holiday and they expect the people of Arendelle to be thrilled at the news and join right in the celebrating. In point of fact, Elsa and Anna are hoping the people will show them how to celebrate.
The problem is that the people of Arendelle didn’t know they were Christian and hadn’t been celebrating Christmas while the royal sisters were preoccupied. There appear to be a few Christians among them. We see a family whose children are hanging stockings by the chimney with care but it’s not made clear if they’re expecting Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St Nicholas, or the Hogfather to fill them. There’s another set of older children who are either in church or a family chapel---I have to admit, I wasn’t always looking at the screen as attentively as I should have---at any rate, they’re dressed like choirgirls and there’s an altar with candles on it that looks like one you’d find in Catholic and some mainline Protestant churches. There’s also at least one Jewish family and they celebrate Hanukkah. But in the main, the citizenry appears happily and contentedly, although not particularly religiously pagan, and what they’ve been celebrating every year in the bleak midwinter is the Yule. And that’s mostly been a matter of individual families shutting themselves up in their houses and doing whatever they can to stave off a bout of seasonal affective disorder.
The sisters are left alone and disappointed, with no idea how to make a merry Christmas for themselves. This is where Olaf slides in. He comes up with the idea of borrowing holiday “traditions” from as many people as he can visit by sleigh in a day (or maybe in a week. I’m not sure if the script actually makes the time frame clear. Like I said, I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have been.) and bringing them home to the castle for Anna and Elsa to assemble their own Christmas traditions with. This means packing up his sleigh with evergreen trees, yule logs, fruitcakes, candy canes, toys, dreidels----he doesn’t know from Judaism---and even a sauna. When he can’t heap anymore onto the sleigh, he sets off for the castle through a dark and dense forest, traveling downhill, at night, while stalked by wolves.
This doesn’t work out so well.
But all is not lost. Olaf survives the ordeal and, even though he has nothing to show for his troubles and travails, his efforts inspire Anna and Elsa and remind them that they do in fact have their own Christmas tradition---celebrating the satisfaction they take in each other’s company. In the end, the sisters shut themselves up in the castle with Olaf, which, as you remember, was the predicament Anna, at least, was trying to escape at the beginning of Frozen.
The people of Arendelle return for a final big production number, but only as a background chorus. They’re there to help the sisters celebrate their sisterhood. The focus is on the one little self-contained family and not on community. In the Christmas story, the one Linus recites, the little family at its center welcomes the whole world into that stable in Bethlehem. Anna and Elsa shut it out. Even Anna’s quasi-love interest Kristof is excluded. He’s become a sexless clown anyway. So there’s no prospect of the family expanding in the immediate future either. It’s just Anna and Elsa and Olaf. Merry Christmas!
There is no war on Christmas, of course. But there might be growing ambivalence about it. The problem for a pluralistic nation like ours is that our biggest national holiday is also a very important holy day for one segment of the population. So how do you make an exclusive holiday into an inclusive one? Conservative Christians say you can’t and you shouldn’t try. It’s a Christian holy day and it should be celebrated as one. What they mean by that is “It’s ours! Hands off! Don’t even think about making us share!”
But what is Christmas about if it’s not about the birth of the Christian Savior? And how can people who don’t believe Jesus is the Savior be included in the celebration?
I can tell you this. It’s not about giving each other toy Olafs and sending cards with Olaf’s picture on them and decorating the tree with little Olaf ornaments. All these things turn out to have been Anna and Elsa’s Christmas traditions growing up, they just didn’t realize that that’s what they were. “You are our Christmas tradition!” one of the two, I can’t remember which, if I was aware---in this movie it’s hard to tell them apart by what they say---exclaims to Olaf when it dawns on her. No, I wanted to say to the screen, your tradition was Olaf-themed merchandising.
My answer to what Christmas is all about ought to be pretty obvious by this point. It’s about what the ghost of that good man of business Jacob Marley says ought to have been his business when he was alive: charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence. It’s about what Scrooge’s nephew says it is, kindness, forgiveness, charity, sympathy, and compassion. It’s about carving the roast beef for everybody with everybody, even the grinchiest, welcome at the table. It’s about singing together. Christmas is about coming together as a community. Christmas is about the tidings of great joy the angels brought to the shepherds. Peace on earth, good will toward all.
Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is pretty to look at and stills from the film, like the one up top, would make nice Christmas cards. But the actual animation is uninspired and, in spots, almost lifeless. There’s one scene in particular that’s nowhere near as exciting as it should be. It’s when Olaf’s overloaded sleigh runs away with him. Naturally, it reminded me of a far better cartoon sleigh ride; the Grinch’s midnight run down Mount Crumpit into Whoville. And when you consider that it was hand-drawn for television fifty years ago, you can see why Chuck Jones was an animation genius and the CGI artists who worked on Olaf’s Frozen Adventure aren’t in his league: