Every year since I started to branch out into reviews, I seriously considered writing a review of The Snowman. Somehow, I always failed to do so. Even when I somehow managed to find a copy of the original book at Costco and bought it, I never got around to reviewing it. But this year, of all years, a year where I prefaced a lot of my posts with a reference to an old Mitchell and Webb Look sketch about the apocalypse, I get the feeling I probably should. So, I managed to get a DVD copy from the library specifically so I could remember to watch and review it. And now that I’ve filled my room with light and silence, and gotten to a state where I can hold the whole world in a dream-like stillness, that magical day has come… the day I took on The Snowman.
How One Anglophile Discovered The Snowman.
As a Yank, it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that this was not actually one of the Christmas specials I grew up on. I never watched it until I had just passed 20, and, frankly, I’m not even sure it aired in America since I was born (I am told that the movie aired on HBO in the Eighties, with the David Bowie intro.) I just Googled “The Snowman Airing US” and, after sorting through several articles about Frosty the Snowman, I found this Reddit thread asking if it was popular in America, and the consensus was “What’s The Snowman?” So, how did I discover it? Well, I can remember following That Guy With The Glasses, checking it every morning for new content, and, one Wednesday morning in December 2009, finding a video called “Next Best Christmas Specials,” covering eleven specials and movies he didn’t get to talk about in the previous year’s rundown of the best Christmas specials. And amongst specials like The Garfield Christmas Special and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol and films like Joyeux Noel and Die Hard, I found one that really struck me as being very unusual: a little film that I had never heard of (though evidently a lot of people did, since he mentioned fans decrying its exclusion from the previous year’s list) called The Snowman. And when I heard Doug Walker talking about it, I was intrigued.
Even though it seemed to follow roughly the same plot as Frosty the Snowman, I remember thinking that this was unlike any Christmas special I remembered watching. I watched it on YouTube (or perhaps Google Video, since that site was still running and I don’t remember having to keep switching to another video every ten minutes like I had to do on YouTube then) and found a very simple tale of a boy and the snowman he built, but everything about it felt unique, from the art style to the design of the snowman himself, to the fact that it had zero dialogue and Howard Blake’s through-composed score, with the only words coming from the introduction. Simply put, it’s probably as close to perfection as one can get with paper and coloured pencils.
The Special Itself
The Snowman was originally a book by Raymond Briggs, children’s author and graphic novelist. It’s a series of drawings, all done in coloured pencil, laid out like a comic book with zero dialogue whatsoever. They roughly correspond to the first half of the special, and, after watching the special and reading the book, it almost feels like the book was merely a dry run for the special. The scene where the boy and the snowman fly, for instance, was originally just limited to a trip around the general Brighton area, but in the special? The snowman flies all the way to Norway, takes him to a party with other snowmen, and they even meet Father Christmas. Surprisingly, this was not Briggs’ intention; the original book has no reference to Christmas, and he even said in 2012 “‘It’s a bit corny and twee, dragging in Christmas’, as The Snowman had nothing to do with that, but it worked extremely well.”
And worked extremely well it did. I’ll talk about the impact later, but as a stand-alone short, it fits so perfectly that I’m amazed the original book worked so well. They kept the original look of Briggs’ coloured pencil drawings by doing the whole thing in coloured pencil. No ink and paint, no CGI, and it looks amazing, especially during the flying scene. It’s touches like this, going the extra mile by making it look like the original work, keeping its feel while adding many personal touches to make it your own that helps make it great. And in addition to the scene at the party, there’s a bunch of other touches that helped flesh the whole experience out. In at least two cases, bits of the animator’s real lives crept into the film. The scene where the Snowman drives the motorcycle? It was added (and it replaced a scene in a stationary car) because one of the animators was a keen motorcyclist. And while, in the book, the boy was unnamed, the present Father Christmas gives him reveals a name: James. Why? Because animator Joanna Harrison’s boyfriend was named James. Reader, she married him. And, of course, there are other touches, most importantly, when the Snowman melts, you really get a chance to feel James’ sorrow. It’s not just one final panel, it’s a fairly drawn-out moment of him looking at his remains, then at the scarf he got from Father Christmas, and his kneeling before him as we hear a reprise of “Walking in the Air.”
Also, I mentioned the design of the Snowman himself: in fact or fiction, I have yet to find another snowman that’s designed the way this one is: Instead of three snowballs of increasingly large size, and whatever bits of detritus you can find to help flesh it out, it’s one snowball for the head, and a large mound for the body, with the arms and legs carved (for lack of a better word) into it. Somehow, the closest I’ve been able to find on Google Image Search was this Instructable and a different snowman made to look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. It looks like it should be doable (though I have never tried), but somehow, nobody ever does. And I strongly suspect this design may have helped the special remain so popular: it’s unique, it becomes more plausible that whatever magic brought him to life will leave him ambulatory, and I think it helps us like James more since he was clever enough to come up with a design for a snowman that few would even consider (though, evidently, not quite enough to keep him out of the room with an open fireplace.)
As mentioned before, there’s zero dialogue, with all the sound coming through the music. I’ve spoken about the power of a story that can transcend cultural boundaries, relying as little as possible on dialogue, letting the audience transpose its own memories and cultures onto it, and one would think that The Snowman, having no dialogue, would be perfect. Sadly, I suspect that the fact that I had to find out about it when I was twenty shows it hasn’t exactly done that. It probably can, since the relatively few Yanks who know it love it, but somehow, it didn’t quite catch on this side of the pond. Maybe it’s because of the ending; I don’t really know. To be fair, it is lighter than some of his other work.
For what it’s worth, outside of “Walking in the Air,” the only dialogue in the short comes from the intro, and there were several. The first one to air was one read by the author Raymond Briggs. It’s the one on the DVD I checked out of the library (and also on the Amazon Prime version), and, despite the whole “the author speaking about his work” aspect, it’s kind of marred by the fact that, well, it’s not quite as engaging as it could be, since he seems to be pretty camera-shy, merely walking away from the camera as he reads his spiel. The second one to air was originally made for America. After it was nominated for an Oscar, there was some interest in selling it to an American audience. But, quoth executive producer Iain Briggs, “in the US programmes were sponsored, and to be sponsored, you needed a big name.” And Raymond Briggs is not a big name. Hell, even in American comics fandom today, I’d bet he’s not much of a name. So, they tried to find celebrities to do the intro, and after thinking of Laurence Olivier and Julie Andrews, they found David Bowie, a fan of Briggs’ other novel When The Wind Blows, and just hot off the success of Let’s Dance, or just about to be so, and he recorded the intro I included at the top of the page. It’s a bit on the nose in retrospect, and it creeps a bit too far into the beginning of the short for comfort, but otherwise, well, it’s good enough that I chose to pick it to link here, it’s probably the version I first saw, and especially with the cult of David Bowie growing, it’s more likely to air on Channel 4 these days than the original. There was also one more introduction that aired between 2002 and 2013:
This version, with Mel Smith voicing Father Christmas, was a spinoff of another Briggs book, Father Christmas, and its 1990 Channel 4 adaptation, which wound up being a stealth sequel to the special, and I think this is a good enough excuse to talk about its cultural impact.
The Afterlife of The Snowman
I was originally considering going in a more chronological order with this, but my decision to talk about the 1990 Father Christmas special has kind of forced me to start there. Well, as I said earlier, another Briggs book was adapted into another special by Channel 4. It’s based around what happens with Father Christmas the rest of the year, and Briggs’ version is a bit more, for lack of a better word, anti-heroic. He’s not really morally ambiguous, just more a working-class bloke who just happens to be able to go on vacations to Vegas and France who just happens to be the spirit of Christmas giving. And, yes, The Snowman and James make their appearance. And if you thought the special’s ending was too downbeat, look at this:
Yes, reader, The Snowman returned to life. The winter thaw was not the end for him. And not only that, but they came close to helping Santa give a gift to the Royal Family. That said, apparently Jim and Hilda Bloggs from When the Wind Blows supposedly make an appearance in the Scottish pub scene early in the film, and I honestly hope it’s not actually them, given what happens in When the Wind Blows, because that would be a rather messed-up tradeoff: congratulations, The Snowman didn’t really die, but in a few years, the world’s going to die in a disturbingly realistic nuclear holocaust anyway! To be fair, Raymond Briggs has said:
I don’t have happy endings. I create what seems natural and inevitable. The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.
On that note, Raymond Briggs is still around, still writing and drawing, and while none of his other works have quite reached the same commercial heights as The Snowman, and I’m not even close to familiar with all of them, quite a few were successful enough to be adapted into films, most notably When the Wind Blows (an exceptionally harrowing story excoriating nuclear war and programs like Protect and Survive), Bear (more in the vein of The Snowman), and Ernest and Ethel (the story of Briggs’ parents’ lives). He’s also done work more for kids like Fungus the Bogeyman, Ivor the Invisible, and Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age, but I’m not familiar with those ones.
And, of course, no discussion of The Snowman would be complete without a discussion of the music. Howard Blake’s score is good enough that it’s regularly performed on its own, whether as a symphonic poem, accompanying the film live, or in a version with a narrator (which was first performed in Summer 1983 with Bernard Cribbins narrating and which can be heard in a newer recording below):
And, of course, there’s “Walking in the Air.” As a song, it’s great, with a neoclassical orchestration and a boy soprano whose singing is so spare that the first time I heard it, I thought more of the works of Hildegard von Bingen than anything else, and, frankly, it’s amazing to be able to find a Christmas song that goes beyond the couple dozen or so that get trotted out in the last two months of the year. And it wound up being a hit song in its own right in some very unusual circumstances. In the original special, the song was sung by Peter Auty, although, in the rush to get the film finished by the end of 1982, they forgot to put his name in the credits (at least until the film was restored in 2002). And then, three years later, Blake was asked to re-record the song for a Toys R Us commercial (why it needed to be re-recorded, I don’t know), but since Peter Auty’s voice broke in the intervening years, he had to have another boy sing those lines, and he tapped Aled Jones for the role.
Jones recorded the whole song; it was released as a single that hit #5 on the UK charts, he became a celebrity, singing before the Royal Family, the Pope, and Bob Geldof, and even recording with Leonard Bernstein before his voice broke a few years later, and, as a result, until Auty’s name was added to the film’s credits, people wound up thinking he was the one who sang it in the special (because, to the masses, a boy soprano is a boy soprano is a boy soprano, I guess.) It’s worth noting that Peter Auty’s grown into an operatic tenor, although he’s not terribly prominent, and Aled Jones is still working, balancing his jobs presenting half a dozen BBC shows and his own career as a baritone. And he even got the chance to duet with his younger self in 2007:
And, in addition to all that, there are quite a few derivative works. The Snowman’s been adapted into a play that adds even more than the special, and if not for the current pandemic, it’d no doubt still be playing now. However, it’s worth noting that YouTube actually has a recording of the play on Howard Blake’s Vevo channel, and here are the first ten minutes:
There was also another sequel called The Snowman and the Snowdog, following the Snowman and another boy, but I didn’t watch it (I must admit having the creator be credited as just being the originator of the characters does tend to be a bad omen against derivative media, even if it turns out he did consult on it in an uncredited capacity, according to the animators) and am thus not in a position to talk about it. And for the Scotsman in all of us, here’s a famous commercial for Irn Bru starring The Snowman and what may be an older version of the boy. Or they’re both different, because the snowman looks different, and it’s set around Glasgow and not Brighton.
And its sequel:
And while I’ve talked a lot about how it didn’t catch on in America, I have to admit I’ve been exaggerating a bit. The fact that my library has not one, but two, DVDs of the short honestly give it a bit of an edge over quite a few British films or TV shows I’ve discovered, and since I managed to find the book at Costco a few years back, it’s probably safer to say that, in America, it’s more a cult phenomenon than anything else. And what a phenomenon it is! If you liked the film, feel free to buy the DVD and book versions and let’s get it growing.