"Coco" and Olaf's Frozen Misadventure
The Disney short heard 'round the world.
Disney has a long, convoluted history when it comes to portraying foreign cultures and characters of color in their films. In the early 1940s, the U.S. government sent Walt Disney to South America with the hope of creating a culturally sensitive film that might serve as a bridge between the United States and countries that, at the time, had close ties to Nazi Germany. The result of this effort was Saludos Amigos, Disney’s sixth feature film, composed of four vignettes across Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru. The film was first released in South America to a largely positive response and was a hit with North American audiences as well. As film historian Alfred Charles Richard Jr. put it, Saludos Amigos "did more to cement a community of interest between peoples of the Americas in a few months than the State Department had in 50 years."
It wasn’t until this year that Disney again set the initial release of one of their feature films south of the States. Coco, released in time for Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and over the Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, has been met with both critical and financial success–in less than a month it has earned 43 million dollars, unseating the more traditional box office darling, Marvel’s The Avengers as the highest grossing box office film in Mexico’s history. To date, the film has gone on to gross more than 50 million dollars in Mexico. As co-director and writer, Adrian Molina said in an interview with NPR’s Latino USA, “…we wanted to have this policy of ‘think of Mexico first.’”
But production got off on the wrong foot in 2013 when Disney attempted to trademark the phrase, “Dia de los Muertos” for the film that would become Coco. The move was met with immediate and rightful backlash, with Mexican-American political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz stating in a CNN interview, "I couldn't believe they would let someone in their legal department let this happen. On the surface, it looks like Disney is trying to copyright the holiday." Alcaraz accompanied his criticism with a one panel cartoon dubbed, “Muerto Mouse,” which depicts a monstrous, skeletonized Mickey Mouse rampaging down a city block, headlined with, “It’s Coming For Your Cultura!” in bold red letters. In response, Disney pulled its request for trademark and hired Alcaraz to be a cultural consultant on the film.
And since its release, Coco has somewhat laid to rest (no pun intended) concerns about how Disney has treated characters of color: the monochrome cast of Aladdin and its culturally insensitive (and ridiculous) lyrics of Arabian Nights (“Oh, I come from a land / From a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam. / Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”), and the propagation of the “Good vs. Bad Indian” stereotype in Pocahontas serve as examples. Beginning with The Princess and the Frog and continuing through Frozen, Moana and Coco, Disney seems to have entered, as Slate writer Aisha Harris, calls it, “its third golden age, one in which progressivism and a commitment to inclusion are not only powerful artistic decisions but profitable business ones.”
So it seems doubly strange that Disney would make the decision to precede their feature film with the 21-minute not-so-short, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” which has been met with such extreme criticism that, early on, some theaters in Mexico stopped running it and issued an apology to filmgoers. The criticism has been similarly severe from U.S. critics following Coco’s domestic release and less than 3 weeks into its run Disney pulled the short from theaters.
While “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” has been lambasted for its length, there should also be concern over its treatment of cultural appropriation. The short largely follows Olaf, the hapless snowman sidekick of Frozen, as he investigates the holiday traditions of families from the fictional Scandinavian kingdom of Arrendelle. But this investigation amounts to essentially a series of uncomfortable interviews via song between Olaf and those people. Olaf goes from house to house gathering up cultural objects and symbols in the back of his sled while some citizens hide behind locked doors—imagery that conjures some frightening historical associations.
Of course, it is not the aim of the film to portray Olaf’s ideas as a viable, or even as a sane response to the characters’ conflict. The sled catches fire and careens off a cliff—a welcome and not-too-subtle hint at what the filmmakers actually think of Olaf’s plan. But there’s a problem here. While the scene may be funny (and a relief), it sidesteps the issue brought up by Olaf’s actions. He is, very literally, attempting to appropriate the cultures of others and instead of offering Anna and Elsa the opportunity to reject such an idea. The short takes that decision out of their hands. Anna and Elsa have no say or onus in the story. Would it not have been funnier or even cathartic after 21 minutes of not watching Coco if Anna and Elsa, horrified by their friend, called Arrendelle HR to schedule Olaf for sensitivity training, before piloting the sled back through town to return the people’s cherished objects?
Harris is absolutely correct when she writes that Disney has entered into a new golden age of filmmaking, and Coco is only more proof of that. But that success and increased cultural sensitivity throws a light on “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure,” which serves only as a small, strange step backwards in Disney’s recent 21st century revitalization.