Is Frozen feeling the thaw ?

Over the past two weeks or so, in movie theaters and multiplexes across the continent, the same strange event has been occurring: moviegoers and families buy tickets to see a movie together. They settle into their seats, popcorn and soda in hand. And after the trailers finish, the movie begins.

A few minutes in, they start to wonder if they’re in the right place. Ten minutes in, they really start to wonder. A few people leave the theater to check that the film they’ve sat down to see is, indeed, Pixar’s Coco. Yes, it is. Then why, 20 minutes after the trailers ended, are they still watching a musical short about the characters from Frozen?

It’s a question that many moviegoers faced in the days following Coco’s theatrical release — and one worth looking into. Why, exactly, was Coco preceded not by the traditional Pixar short film, but by a 21-minute-long featurette called Olaf’s Frozen Adventure? And why was the backlash so severe that Disney is reportedly pulling the short entirely from theaters in the United States by December 8?

People who went to see Coco got a 21-minute Frozen featurette first
Over Thanksgiving weekend and into the next week, people got mad, on the internet and elsewhere, about Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a 21-minute “short” featuring Anna, Elsa, and most of all Olaf, the snowman voiced by Josh Gad, as they search for a holiday tradition to make their own; due to the events of Frozen, the sisters don’t have traditions of their own, so Olaf goes off to find some for them.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure alternates between grating and occasionally charming, with some mildly funny slapstick bits in the middle. There are four original songs, none of which are memorable. It certainly lacks the creativity one expects from the short films Pixar typically runs before its feature movies, but it wasn’t, on its own, the most heinous animated entertainment I’ve been subjected to this year.

A scene from Olaf’s Frozen Adventure
Olaf gets goofy with a candy cane. Disney
Olaf’s Frozen Adventure didn’t screen for critics before Coco, so I had to seek it out separately, which I did about a week after its theatrical release. Judging from reports people sent to me on Twitter, my viewing experience was similar to many others. A family with two small children sat a few rows behind me, the parents talking to each other in Spanish, the kids chattering excitedly. A couple in their late 20s walked past me and settled down in my row while the trailers were playing. It was a small early evening crowd, typical for a weekday in midtown Manhattan.

I knew what was about to happen — I was there to see Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, after all — but the rest of them were ostensibly there to see Coco. About 10 minutes in, as Olaf was knocking on the door of another villager’s house, the 20-something man sitting in my row got up and started walking toward the exit. He paused before passing me and asked, “Is this Coco?”

“That’s what I wanted to know,” the father said from three rows back.

When I nodded, he sat back down, but the father stood up and walked out and didn’t come back.

We all watched, mutely munching our popcorn, as Olaf got lost, then found, then discovered that he was the Christmas tradition they sought all along. (How a sentient snowman can be a “tradition” is still a little beyond me, but by the end I wasn’t asking questions.) The Olaf’s Frozen Adventure credits rolled, I packed up and slipped out of the theater, and outside, I nodded to the father, who was sitting on a bench outside the theater scrolling on his iPhone.

Coco audiences were not prepared for Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, much less 21 minutes of it
The confusion my fellow moviegoers experienced in the theater, about whether they’d accidentally slipped into Frozen 2 (due out in late November 2019) rather than the whimsical story about a young Mexican boy in the Land of the Dead they were expecting, was shared by many moviegoers:

There’s one big reason for that, and it has to do with what I, a New Yorker, think of as the “subway platform principle.” In the 12 years I’ve ridden the notoriously unreliable New York City subway system, signs have been installed in many stops that update riders on how many minutes remain before their train arrives. It’s a helpful development for subway riders, but it’s also a savvy move on the MTA’s part; most people are more willing to wait for a train they have some assurance is 10 minutes away than they are to wait half that time for a train with no sense of whether or not it will arrive. It’s easier to endure a period of time if you have a sense of when (and if) it will end.

Most people’s problems with Olaf’s Frozen Adventure run along a similar principle. The typical Pixar short is between two and eight minutes long; Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is 21 minutes long. Most anyone who’s seen a Pixar film knows they’ll see a short before the film — that’s not the problem. And if Olaf’s Frozen Adventure were, say, four and a half minutes long, even those who are sick to death of Frozen would probably have forgotten about it by the time Coco was over. But if you’re not prepared for that 21-minute runtime, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure feels interminably long, as if it will never end.

In reality, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure is the length of an episode of network TV, which is not what most people expected, but helps explain the strangeness of its placement before Coco. The film was originally slated to be a Christmas special on ABC, which is owned by Disney. That accounts for the length, but it also explains the rhythm of the short, which feels as if it has distinct lulls in the action — precisely where the commercial breaks would be placed.

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