In Praise of Olaf, the Actual Character

I recently saw Frozen for the second time. I understand this puts me behind the average Frozen fan by about ten viewings, but in my defense I am rather broke. It’s popularity makes me very happy; it has thoroughly earned it’s reputation. The story is great, the sisters are wonderful characters, and “Let it Go” is somehow still great even on the three hundred and fifty-seventh listen.

Also it has Olaf.

(spoilers lie ahead)

When I saw Olaf in the first trailer, I expected to hate him. I wasn’t even consciously aware that I didn’t expect to like him, until he sang “In Summer,” and completely won me over. The reason for my prejudice was that he fit into a particular subtrope of plucky comic relief; the child-appropriate buffoonish wisecracker. The type is easily identified by being short, either exaggeratedly scrawny or chubby, and a bit ugly. Nearly every animated children’s film has had one since Timon in The Lion King. There is nothing wrong with a character fitting a trope, but a trope alone doesn’t make a character. Characters have motivations and goals, for example. They help move a story along. They should, unless they are extremely minor, have a couple different character traits that contradict each other; it’s this contradiction that people mean when they talk about rounded, complex characters. The interaction between two or more seemingly incompatible traits is what gives each character a unique fingerprint. Aurora and Cinderella are boring because they don’t exhibit any character traits beyond what that Disney Princess type requires. Belle is simultaneously a romantic daydreamer, and an independent pragmatist, which makes her a character.

Even more so than the Disney Princess, this character type tends to be written to trope specifications, written for marketing considerations rather than to serve the story.  He makes the little kids laugh, and so he sells a lot of toys (I can’t think of an example who isn’t male). Over time, Mushu from Mulan, Donkey from Shrek, Phil from Hercules and everyone else of their ilk have blurred together into a mega-character. They lack any personality traits that make one significantly different from another or interesting in their own right, they rarely do anything in the story besides deliver a few lines of exposition and punch out some mooks in the final showdown, and they rarely have relationships with the other characters beyond following the protagonist’s lines with witty commentary. They are the trope itself, changing shape to photobomb the stories of characters who actually have something to do.

With his first song, Olaf established himself as a character, not a caricature.

Olaf’s buffoonery comes from a well-meaning naivete. He’s gregarious to a fault, so as he rattles off he says things that are unintentionally farcical. Unlike most characters of his type, he doesn’t intend to be snarky. His intentions collide with his utter cluelessness, so in the same sentence he can be polite and impertinent. In contrast to his childlike innocence, he also has a protective sense of responsibility, shown early on when he tries to protect Anna and Kristoff from the evil snowman. He’s an optimist who wants the people in his life to be happy and healthy, which is why, despite being a snowman, his ideal time of the year is summer. His traits contradict each other, but in a harmonious way that create an image of a whole person.

He also actually serves the plot, particularly at the end. If it were not for him, both protagonists would have died, Anna because she would have frozen and Elsa because Anna wouldn’t have been there to save her. Furthermore, he doesn’t just act as a body who happened to be in the right place at the right time, but as Olaf.  might do some things, but will rarely do something that is in their character to do. When the average Disney buffoon provides exposition, it’s not because they are wise, but because because the writers shoehorned some information in their heads to justify their presence. When they attack a mook or provide distraction in the climax, it’s not because they are brave, but because this is the scene where everybody is fighting, so of course they are too. Olaf proactively makes his way into the castle, picks a lock with his carrot nose and lights a fire for Anna despite her protests that he will melt, because what else would someone as protective and kind as Olaf do?

In addition to serving the story, he serves a unique thematic role. Early on in the story, building snowmen is set up as a symbol of Anna and Elsa’s relationship when they were happy and together. Olaf’s personality combines that of young Anna (innocent and playful) and young Elsa (has a responsible, protective streak). He accompanies Anna on her journey because she’s the one looking to make things right between them again. Both sisters knew what love was when they were children, but their isolation has made both lose sight of it, so of course it’s the snowman from their childhood who reminds Anna what love really is. He’s the essence of the story personified. He just happens to also fulfill the buffoon’s role, because he’s funny.

More like him, please!

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