Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Snowman (Great Britain, 1982)

A boy wakes to find his garden covered with snow. He spends all day building a snowman and, in the evening, is sent to bed. Waking at midnight, he looks out of the window to see his snowman come to life and, joyously, joins him in exploring the thrills of wearing make-up, watching television, riding a motorbike, meeting Father Christmas and, most memorably of all, walking in the air. Back home, the boy goes to bed and, when he wakes up, runs outside to reunite with his frozen friend. He is devastated to see that, while he slept, the snowman melted. And so the 26-minute movie ends with the boy, alone in the snow, falling to his knees in despair.

As many before me have pointed out, it’s not a story (or, at least, an ending) that would have appeared in an American Christmas film (or, it must be admitted, in 99% of British ones) – but it is this honest and unflinching finish that has made The Snowman, and its sub-zero hero, part of the modern iconography of Christmas, both in Britain and abroad. The last moments of the movie elevate it from a sweet and wonderfully amusing entertainment into a perfect reflection of the briefness, and power, of those few childhood years when we can completely believe in the myths and magic of Christmas – and, by extension, make it a metaphor for the quick-burning brilliance of all childhood innocence.

Dianne Jackson’s classic animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s classic children’s picture book is essentially a silent film with a musical soundtrack (it is often preceded by one of a couple of bits of live action, by far the worse of which is an awkward introduction, and a few moments of unnecessary narration, from David Bowie), and every word-free moment is a reminder, for filmmakers and audiences alike, of just how redundant much movie dialogue can be. The excellence of the animation and the expressiveness of the music recorded to accompany it render pointless any of form of verbal description. The only words we do – or could want to – hear during the film are the lyrics to the endlessly whistle-worthy 'Walking in the Air' (sung not by Aled Jones – he would come later – but by St. Paul’s Cathedral choirboy Paul Auty). The song is the foundation of the film’s most famous scenes: the snowman, en route to a rendezvous with a certain S. Claus, flying hand-in-hand with the unbelieving boy over forests and fields, suburbs and seas.

The Snowman’s finest achievement is probably that anyone still wants to watch it. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, its annual Christmas appearances on (British) television are so long-standing a tradition that one wonders if schedulers aren’t trying to force a programme of aversion therapy onto the film’s fans. If ever a film had the opportunity to become worn out before our eyes, it is The Snowman. And yet the movie remains – the simplicity of its story, the agreeability of its characters, and the marvels of its animation making it immune to negative effects of age and overexposure.

Perhaps not the best Christmas movie (though very possibly the most moving), The Snowman is still a definitive festive film for millions of children, teenagers and adults. For charm and heartbreak, it’s equal to ET, that other great family film from 1982, and, for beauty and impact, to Watership Down, that other great classic of hand drawn British animation. Unlike the appeal of the formulaic, so-and-so-saves-Christmas movies that are vomited onto cinema screens each December, the brilliance of The Snowman will never be melted in the morning.


Wael Khairy said...

What a perect review. I was in London a week ago and picked it up from HMV for only 5 pounds. The last time I had seen it was about ten years ago. However, it never left me and when I saw the cover I placed on top of the tower of dvds I was buying.

It wasn't till my "adult" viewing of the movie that I realized that it's as close to perfection as a christmas short could get. It's like a visual opera beautiful to absorb both isually and by listening to the score. I was almost in tears when they ran and started flying. The music in that scene makes it one of the most beautiful scenes in film history.

Donald said...

I first saw "The Snowman" in a hotel in Paris during a stopover on the way back to university. It was one of the most completely moving cinematic experiences I've ever had, and has stuck with me ever since. While I'm sure a lot of its power at the time had more to do with my own self-inflected nomadic sense of isolation, I've found that repeat viewings only increase its resonance. It's as if the film is calling out to the child within, begging me to come back in time and play. Simply beautiful.

It's sad but true to admit that this is not the kind of film that would appeal to modern American audiences. While there are a pockets of appreciation here and there - everyone I've shown it to loves it - the tale is probably still seen as too much of a "downer" for the "me first" generation. I find this thinking in itself depressing. If we lose sight of the children we were, and the lessons we learned then, what hope do we have left of learning of our present selves?