Olaf is back. And the 'Frozen' short 'Once Upon a Snowman' explains why he loves summer

Nardine Saad
·5 min read
Olaf the snowman stars in Disney's latest animated short, "Once Upon a Snowman."
Olaf the snowman stars in Disney's latest animated short, "Once Upon a Snowman." (Walt Disney Co. )

Olaf, the summer-loving snowman of “Frozen” fame, has been stealing scenes since Queen Elsa conjured him with her ice powers in Disney’s Oscar-winning 2013 animated blockbuster.

Now the toothy favorite gets the spotlight to himself to reveal his previously unknown back story in “Once Upon a Snowman,” the latest chapter in the "Frozen" franchise canon. It’s filled with the same zingy one-liners and emotional insight that made him Anna's and Elsa’s lovable sidekick in the feature films.

The idea for the eight-minute short, which begins streaming on Disney+ on Friday, dates back to writer and co-director Trent Correy's crowd animation days on “Frozen” when he was a trainee.

“[Elsa] creates life and she walks away and I was like, ‘There's got to be a story there,’” Correy said, “I want to see what Olaf's first steps are like.”

As fans will recall, we don’t see them in “Frozen.” In fact, after he's created, we don’t see the three-tufted snowman for another 20 minutes in that film. It’s during that off-camera gap of time in which “Once Upon a Snowman” unfolds — between Elsa’s “Let It Go”-tuned liberation and before Olaf encounters her sister Anna in the icicle-filled mountains outside Arendelle.

Olaf the snowman in the Disney+'s "Once Upon a Snowman," a short film that tells the fan favorite's origin story.
Olaf the snowman in the Disney+'s "Once Upon a Snowman," a short film that tells the fan favorite's origin story. (Disney+)

What "Snowman" is missing in original songs it makes up for in visual and musical references calling back to the feature film. The creative team pulled sketches from the original feature and began the re-animation process, opening with Elsa’s throwaway cape, which slaps Olaf into existence during the short.

In the vein of “Bambi” and “Pinocchio’s” iconically animated first steps, Olaf takes his first as well, then proceeds to search for his sense of self in the giggling, chuckling, savant-like way only Olaf (and Josh Gad’s improvisation) can really pull off.

He realizes that he’s made of snow and is also somehow walking on snow, tries out names like Fernando and Trevor and briefly tests out a fish for a nose. Along the way, he learns a major lesson in kindness, which comes by way of a “warm hug.”

The creative team re-animated existing “Frozen” scenes from the snowman’s perspective for the short, filling them with familiar faces, plenty of physical comedy, and sight gags involving Olaf’s near-misses with other characters and his easily collapsible body. The short also gives a nod to those already clued in on the anagram for Wandering Oaken’s trading post — something Disney animation studio head Jennifer Lee has been trying to work into the films since directing “Frozen.” (Hint: It’s "Naked Norwegians." Olaf figures it out right away.)

At the heart of the film is the snowman's “little bit of crisis of identity.” In those brief moments before encountering Anna, audiences learn how he comes to love summer. Without spoiling the reveal, it involves a retro stereoscope contraption in Oaken’s shop, which is filled with Easter eggs from co-director and writer Dan Abraham's work on “Moana” and “Tangled.”

“He is obsessed with summer, yet he doesn't know he would melt,” Abraham said of Olaf's inexplicable love of the warm season. “How does that work? How does he know what summer is? He was just created. So, there was a very logical explanation for that ... it kind of wrote itself.”

"Frozen"
The moment in the original "Frozen" film when Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Kristoff (voiced by Jonathan Groff) meet the snowman Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad). (Disney+)

Eagle-eyed fans will also learn what became of Anna’s green coronation gown, and how Olaf’s hijinks with some deli meat catalyzed the wolf chase that led to Kristoff’s cliff-diving sled.

That’s a moment that calls back to a previous short in the franchise, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” in which the snowman was established as the embodiment of love between the two sisters. Olaf's widespread appeal is one of the reasons he keeps making his way back to the screen — aside from animators loving to work on his amorphous body — and why he enjoyed a generous amount of screen time in last year’s follow-up “Frozen 2.”

“If I could work with Olaf the rest of my life, I’d be quite OK with that,” Correy said.

At a minimum, the filmmakers are becoming Olaf specialists. During COVID-19 lockdowns last spring, right around the time “Frozen 2" landed on Disney+ months earlier than originally planned, Correy and Abraham helped craft 20 “At Home With Olaf” shorts — created and directed by Hyrum Osmond — to show how the fan favorite kept busy in isolation.

“The studio really wanted to do something to help people struggling to find some happiness and stable ground and familiarity,” Abraham said.

By that point, they had already finished “Once Upon a Snowman,” which was greenlit for Disney+ as “Frozen 2” was being finalized. Completed in January of this year, the "Snowman" cast and crew were able to celebrate with a wrap party in February, just before stay-at-home orders went into effect.

And just like in the films, when things seem like they can only get worse, Olaf was there to make them a little bit better.

“Olaf has this overwhelming optimism and sincerity about him. And that just never gets old. It's something that we all sort of aspire to and sometimes fall short,” Abraham said. “But Olaf is always there charging ahead with just this eternal optimism and sweetness that I think is a part of all of us, but maybe we wish we had more of.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.