Why the Frozen short playing before Pixar’s Coco kicked up so much controversy

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure was a big misfire on Disney’s part.

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 AdventureDisney
Olaf gets goofy with a candy cane.

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 ever 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.

A scene from Olaf’s Frozen Adventuredisney
Olaf and Sven go looking for a tradition.

Who decided to move the short from TV to the big screen? In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in June, John Lasseter (then head of Pixar and of Disney Animation, though he recently took a leave of absence after revelations of sexual misconduct) indicated that after seeing Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, he and the filmmakers decided it should run before Coco because it was “too cinematic to not inhabit the big screen.” Lasseter also liked the idea of both the short and Coco being about holidays:

“When we put shorts in front of features, I always love to have shorts that contrast, that aren’t about the same subject or setting or environment, but with this, both stories are incredibly emotional and so much about family that they really fit,” Lasseter says. “And both celebrate two completely different holidays, so I think that was also fun to put them together.”

Lasseter also mentioned another reason for running Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, a non-Pixar short, before a Pixar feature for the first time in Pixar’s history. (Pixar shorts have sometimes run before Disney Animation films.) Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, and thus cross-promotion makes sense. In the interview, Lasseter talks about keeping the excitement alive for the upcoming Frozen 2 with shorts like Olaf’s Frozen Adventure and Frozen Fever (which ran before Disney’s Cinderella in 2015), as well as other Frozen merchandise.

Lots of people love Frozen, of course, many of whom were likely in the opening weekend audience for Coco; even those who aren’t as fond of Frozen might have gritted their teeth and borne it (or made a quick trip to the concession stand) if they knew how long it would be. But the pairing of the two properties is also frustrating to those who love the work of Pixar and felt that the work of a different studio owned by the same company was being pushed on them; Pixar is a trusted brand in a way that Disney Animation is not, and mixing the two feels like naked advertising.

Disney made a halfhearted effort to warn moviegoers what they were in for

Disney did try to warn people. The move from TV to pre-Coco short was announced in June, through news outlets and Lasseter’s interview. On June 13, Disney also released a trailer for the “featurette” Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, which ran before Cars 3. The fourth paragraph below the trailer’s description on YouTube mentions the 21-minute runtime, but otherwise the trailer seems to lean on the term “featurette” to indicate to audiences that it’s not just a short film.

“Featurette” is industry lingo for a film that’s not a short, but not full-length either, but your average moviegoer likely wouldn’t know that. Furthermore, most audiences aren’t used to watching trailers for featurettes, and most of Coco’s promotion didn’t mention Olaf’s Frozen Adventure; the fact that Olaf’s Frozen Adventure isn’t advertised on the ticket or in many cinemas likely added to the confusion. People with good memories who saw the Olaf’s Frozen Adventure trailer before Cars 3 in the theater this summer might have remembered what they were in for, but they likely still weren’t prepared for it to be the length of an episode of TV.

A scene from Olaf’s Frozen AdventureDisney
Elsa, Olaf, and Anna discover that the holiday tradition they sought was there all along in Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.

Furthermore, Coco clocks in at 1 hour and 49 minutes, which is relatively lengthy for a kids’ film. Some families have to calibrate for their young children’s attention spans when going to see a full feature-length movie. The extra 21 minutes extended that period substantially — especially if you calculate for trailers, which add nearly 20 more minutes — and the result is that Coco actually started about 40 minutes after its posted runtime, which could ruin the experience entirely for some families.

Some suspect Disney didn’t think a nonwhite cast would attract an audience

Some audiences had an additional reason to be irritated about Olaf’s Frozen Adventure beyond its length. Coco is the first Pixar film set in Mexico, with an entirely nonwhite cast and deep roots to Mexican culture. It’s gone over like gangbusters not just in the United States, but also in Mexico, where it opened on October 27. Olaf’s Frozen Adventure played along with it.

That sparked an outcry. Mexican moviegoers complained on social media; someone created a Facebook event to march on Paseo de la Reforma in protest. And within days of release, Cinemex — a major cineplex chain in Mexico — announced via their Twitter account that they would no longer be showing Olaf’s Frozen Adventure before Coco.

Coco has been a massive success in Mexico — in fact, it’s now the biggest box-office hit in Mexican history. But combining it with Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, which takes place in a fictional country based on Norway and stars two lily-white girls, has been interpreted by some as an attempt to make white audiences more interested in a film starring nonwhite characters. Whether or not that’s true, the optics were pretty bad, especially coupled with the landmark that Coco’s Mexican setting represented for the studio.

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure was a massive misfire by Disney

Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that Olaf’s Frozen Adventure has not gone over the way Disney intended. There’s no Tomatometer score for the featurette, since critics weren’t able to see and review it before release, but its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is a dismal 39 percent. (Coco, by contrast, has a 97 percent Tomatometer score.) And there’s speculation that the short may be pulled entirely from US theaters on December 8.

What can Disney learn from this experience? First of all, it’s wise to respect the audience’s expectations, especially when a sizable swath of that audience are children. Keep shorts short — and if you’re going to mess with the playbook, do a lot of marketing footwork to make sure that people aren’t taken off guard.

And second, consider more strongly how it looks to pair one short with another feature. It might not be the best idea to smash together a strong brand like Frozen, the source of scads of merchandising, with a film from Pixar, which has its own brand loyalists. And it doesn’t look great to lead into the studio’s first film about non-white characters with an interminably long featurette about white characters, either.

Meanwhile, if you’re headed to see Coco in the United States and you’re not looking for a featurette-length romp with Olaf, Anna, and Elsa, consider showing up about 38 minutes after Coco’s posted start time. You’ll miss the trailers, but you might end up appreciating Coco a lot more.