A new ‘Frozen’ song is here to help you through tough times. How it came together
Back in March, right around the time coronavirus shutdowns led Disney to bring “Frozen 2" to streaming service Disney+ months earlier than originally planned, the film’s husband-and-wife composer/lyricist duo of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez sent an email to its screenwriter and codirector Jennifer Lee, who now leads Walt Disney Animation.
They wanted it known that they were available for work.
“It was a really scary week and we said, ‘We raise our hands,’” says Anderson-Lopez on a call Wednesday morning. She was referencing the anxieties of the early days of stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Lopez and Anderson-Lopez were unaware at the time that Walt Disney Animation Studios was plotting a series of vignettes centered around Olaf, the “Frozen” franchise’s adorable savant snowman who fronts as naive and is voiced by Josh Gad. The couple’s services would, in fact, be needed.
“Jennifer Lee wrote us sort of a brain drain,” Anderson-Lopez says: “‘A letter Olaf could be writing.’”
That exchange became the basis for the lullaby-like song “I Am With You.” A short of the same name, released Wednesday, is the last of the “At Home With Olaf” online series of 20 vignettes that began streaming in early April. The clip, just under 3 minutes, is centered around Olaf writing a letter of the song’s lyrics to an unnamed recipient, leaving the message at the conclusion to be delivered by Gale, a wind spirit often represented by autumnal leaves.
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While a callback, perhaps, to the ending of “Frozen 2,” in which Anna calls on Gale to deliver a message to her sister, Elsa, the Lopezes note that this slice of the “Frozen” universe is unique for the ways in which it recognizes the outside world.
We wanted it to feel like Olaf is talking to you in this moment in time.
Due largely to the time-consuming work of animation and the limits of a studio working at home, there isn’t a full animated sequence for the song. Instead, “I Am With You” boasts scenes from other Disney works, including “101 Dalmatians,” “The Sword in the Stone,” “Moana” and “Zootopia.”
And while no doubt many will assume that Olaf is penning a note to Elsa, the reason it’s left blank isn’t some great mystery. It’s simply a desire to ensure the short is as reflective of this moment as it is of “Frozen” or the other Disney animated works that get a nod.
“We wanted it to feel like Olaf is talking to you in this moment in time,” says Robert Lopez. “In the story of this little film, he knows who he’s writing to. We don’t know who, but we wanted it to feel personal.”
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Anderson-Lopez says she wrote the song lyrics in one night. She wasn’t, however, envisioning a “Frozen” character. Her own worries were front-of-mind.
“Everything we write for ‘Frozen’ comes from a personal place for us, and we wrote this the first week of the pandemic,” says Anderson-Lopez. “I was dealing with family members who couldn’t be near anybody and I was really worried. I have two family members who are both single, both in small apartments, both quarantined and both starting to lose their minds. To me, I wrote it from the place of, ‘I can’t be with you, but I’m going to be with you emotionally and I’m going to be with you anytime you need me.’”
Of course, this is an Olaf short, and the character is often used in the “Frozen” films for some comedic relief. Thus, Anderson-Lopez admits she couldn’t resist thinking of ways to add a bit of levity. While the clip ends with Olaf’s heart-shaped letter soaring out of the fictional kingdom of Arendelle, Anderson-Lopez shares what was her own idea for a lighter ending.
“We added as a joke, that at the end of singing this song, he says, ‘See you soon, Samantha,’” she says, a nod to one of the key jokes of “Frozen 2,” where a laugh is generated from Olaf imagining an acquaintance he’s never known. Such an idea, however, would have clashed with the tone of the short. “It was going to undercut it too much to have Samantha at the end,” Anderson-Lopez says.
Yet the Lopezes believe that Olaf is the sort of “Frozen” character who can bring a little warmth to this moment of crisis, one in which many are dealing with a swirl of personal and professional concerns. The “At Home With Olaf” shorts were credited as starting with Hyrum Osmond, the supervising animator of Olaf from “Frozen.” Brief yet jovial, the shorts focused on Olaf’s innocence and the playfulness of the animated medium.
“I Am With You” brings the series to a close with earnestness, as Olaf flashes a bit of loneliness under his usual hopeful veneer and doesn’t end the moment with a quip or a gag.
“We’ve always wanted to write something pure and quiet and lullaby-like for him but never got a chance until now,” says Lopez. “The key to his comedy is sincerity, and that’s what makes him sing as a character.”
“I Am With You,” says Anderson-Lopez, reflects Olaf’s lessons learned from the first two films. Here, as in parts of “Frozen 2,” we see Olaf the philosopher.
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“Olaf is all of our inner child,” says Anderson-Lopez. “He’s not very old. He came to the world not knowing much of anything and he came out of play and joy. But he’s been through something very dark in ‘Frozen 2.’ He has wisdom now. He has a Taoist simplicity to him, of living in the now and knowing that opposites can exist at the same time. You can be with someone and not with someone at the same time. He understands the mysteries of life but can speak to them like a child.”
While the Lopezes, who are sheltering in place in Connecticut, can go deep into the minds of the “Frozen” characters, Anderson-Lopez wants to be careful to not come off as taking this animated short too seriously.
“We don’t have the skills to be able to be fighting on the front lines like so many people are,”’ she says. “We don’t have the skills to develop a vaccine. What we do have is the skill to stay where we are, to wear a mask and to reach out through words and music to say, ‘You’re not alone.’”
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