The Media Man Reviews: The Snowman (ft. TCH2)
It's December once more readers and of course, you know what that means...CHRISTMAAAAAAAAAAAS!!!
It's the best time of the year yet again with all the holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call. And as you know, nobody celebrates Christmas like the world of media does. There's all sorts of Christmas related content to enjoy at this time of year whether it's a movie, a TV special or a song. Christmas is the gift that keeps on giving and I'm going to give you all a gift by reviewing one of the greatest Christmas specials of all time. And that is Raymond Briggs's classic tale, The Snowman.
Published in 1978 as a wordless picture book, The Snowman became a hit with children everywhere and come 1982, it was adapted into an animated short film directed by Diane Jackson and scored by Howard Blake. The film has become a pop-culture icon with the special being aired every Christmas and often hailed as one of the greatest Christmas films of all time. It even spawned a sequel in 2012 with The Snowman and the Snow Dog! The film was also released with two different openings. One features legendary singer David Bowie as an adult James reminiscing on his adventures with his snowman and the other features an animated opening featuring Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas character with Mel Smith reprising his role.
Sadly, Raymond Briggs passed away earlier this year at the age of 88 from pneumonia. So this review will also be a tribute to the author as well as a general review of this movie. Also this is the 40th anniversary of the movie so consider this an anniversary celebration as well as a review. So why is The Snowman such a beloved holiday classic? We'll find out shortly but first, I'd like to welcome my friend Thomas once more for he's kindly asked to join me again for this review. Hey again Tommy! Welcome once again!
(Thomas Holmes hovers in, all dressed for Christmas with a jumper, tinsel and multi-coloured lights on his hat, gloves and shoes.)
Thomas: "Greetings and salutations, friends and readers and fans! Merry Christmas and God Bless you, everyone! I apologise if I seem over-dressed for the occasion, but hey, why not show off at this most joyous time of year?"
(He sits next to the Media Man)
Thomas: "Shall we begin?"
Media Man: Of course. That's what we're here for...
Section 1: The Story
The story is as simple as it gets. A boy named James builds a snowman. It comes to life and hijinks ensue. And yet somehow, the movie manages to make the most of it.
The Snowman is the definitive example of "The art of simplicity" as some would say. Its plot is so simple and yet it manages to be really charming, funny, touching, magical and as many were surprised about concerning the ending...heart-breaking. It manages to make you feel so many different emotions in spite of this premise. It definitely feels like a children's book come to life and like any good children's story should be, it manages to be enjoyable for both kids and adults with the execution at hand. Kids can get into it for the magical snowman stuff and the animation while adults can get into it for the emotional aspect and the feeling of nostalgia one may feel when watching this movie. I can so easily imagine many adults watching this flashing back to their own childhoods where they'd build snowman and the whole thing would seem magical and enchanting to them.
Despite how simplistic the story is, The Snowman manages to do quite a lot with it too. We see James building the titular snowman, we see it interacting with household items and objects, the two play together in James's room, we get a thrilling motorbike ride through the forest and most memorable of all, we get the entire "Walking in the Air" sequence with a magical flight across the world to a rocking snowman party where the fun really begins. Needless to say, they really make this a fun watch with everything that's happening here, but what makes the film so interesting to watch is that it's all told without a single word of dialogue. Unless you count the openings with David Bowie and Father Christmas I mentioned, nobody ever talks in this movie and it's all the better for it because this movie doesn't need dialogue. It just needs the animation and the soundtrack to convey everything for us and it just allows us to drink in everything that's going on without anyone needing to say a word. You know a story is good when it manages to be captivating and engaging despite no dialogue. It was the same in the book so it's great that they did it here with the film too.
Thomas: "Of course, the film does make some changes from the book, most notably by adding Christmas to the mix, as in the book, there was just winter and no trip to the North Pole to see Father Christmas. Raymond Briggs himself considered these additions 'corny and twee'. Forgive us if we do not share that view, Raymond.
"As hinted before, the film also adds a little dash of magic to the story, what with the Snowman coming to life at the stroke of midnight and coming alive in a flash of light. This makes us older viewers wonder how that all works.
"Building off the subject of the soundtrack conveying the story, the music, courtesy of Howard Blake, is absolutely stellar. Not only does it always fit the moment, ranging from jolly and upbeat, to slow and melancholy, to mysterious and eerie, but it even manages to mimic sound effects, like when the Snowman turns a light switch on and off, or when a cat yowls at his touch, or when the Snowman sneezes (it sounds like an explosion at that moment).
"And of course, no one can talk about The Snowman without talking about the ending. Whereas most Christmas media would end on a happy note (obviously, befitting the season), Raymond Briggs didn't really do that sort of thing, preferring to 'create what seems natural and inevitable.' The morning after their night of fun, James finds that the Snowman has melted in the sun, as all snowmen do."
Media Man: It's up there as among the saddest endings to any children's story and is probably the most talked-about aspect of The Snowman as a result. While it does suck that the film ends on such a sombre note, I feel it's to the strength of the story and not just for the sake of being miserable. It also delivers what I feel is the most important lesson in life anyone can ever learn: that nothing lasts forever and we have to make the most of what we have when we have it. It's really ballsy for especially a children's story to teach this kind of lesson but Raymond and the filmmakers found a way to do it in a way that kids can understand so the message can resonate with all audiences. It's a well told moral that's done in a mature, understandable way and isn't spelled out to the audience, which makes it more nuanced as a result.
The Snowman is the prime example of how even simplicity is an art form. With a story that manages to be enjoyable for all audiences without a word of dialogue, it just shows that what makes a story great is all about execution and The Snowman couldn't have executed this story any better than it already did here.
Section 2: The Characters
This section might run a little short because pretty much, there's only two characters to talk about, and those are James and his snowman.
Thomas: "James (named after Diane Jackson's future husband as the boy was unnamed in the book) is one of the best examples of a child character out there. He's not annoying or bratty, nor is he written to simply be a role model for children. He's just presented as a real kid. James is lively, boisterous and all too eager to have fun in the snow, and later on, play with the Snowman. He's also very mischievous, throwing a snowball at the kitchen window and sneaking into his parents' room with the Snowman, dressing him in their clothes. But these are the sorts of antics that you'd expect from a young kid. James is also sweet, kind and very friendly. All this makes him relatable to children and adults alike, and everyone feels more than happy to join him for the ride.
"Notably, in the opening with David Bowie (RIP), we see the adult James has kept the scarf that Father Christmas gave him when they visited the North Pole, which shows how much he still values their brief friendship. In fact, did you know that Raymond Briggs got the idea for this story from David Bowie himself?"
Media Man: He did? How so? I never knew that. :)
Thomas: "Well, I don't know the precise details, but Raymond Briggs said he was partially inspired by an incident from David's childhood, which he had shared from Raymond. Of course, this doesn't mean that David made a snowman that came to life or anything. Or does it…?" ;)
Media Man: How about that folks? I doubt many of you knew that beforehand so maybe you've learned something new here. ^^
Anyhow, this transitions us to the titular Snowman himself. Not only does he have one of the most iconic designs of any snowman featured in media, but he's just as lovable as James is from his friendly personality, his childlike curiosity as he interacts with everyday objects and the house he's walking around and he essentially comes off as the best friend anyone could ask for. He especially takes everyone's breath away when he displays his startling ability to fly and takes us into the ever magical "Walking in the Air" sequence. It's this sheer amount of likeability on display from the Snowman that makes his eventual fate all the more depressing in the end. He's so lovable that we don't want him to go and thus, him melting at the end is all the more effective because we grew to love him as much as James did. His time on Earth was brief, but it'll NEVER be forgotten.
Aside from that, there's not really any other characters to talk about in the film. We have James's parents and an eventual appearance from Santa Claus himself of course but James and the Snowman are the only ones that the story really needs and their friendship together is easily the main cog in the greater machine of this story. Without it, it wouldn't have worked and the bond between James and the Snowman truly makes The Snowman one of the sweetest watches not just around Christmas time, but anytime if you ever feel like watching it.
Who knew just two characters could make for a great cast for a movie? And once again, they prove that simple doesn't mean bad in this case as they're two of the most memorable characters ever put in a Christmas story. I'll happily walk through the air with James and his Snowman any day...
Thomas: "I couldn't have put it better myself…
Section 3: The Animation
Given this was based on a picture book, it naturally follows that Diane Jackson, an experienced animator, emulated the art style of the illustrations. Just as in the book, the animation of The Snowman is literally a series of frames drawn with coloured pencils shot together in quick succession. And it is GORGEOUS!"
Media Man: It's no exaggeration when we say this might be some of the finest animation ever put to paper. Let's start off with the art-style. As Thomas mentioned, the movie emulates the style of the book with the animation being a perfect copy of the art-style used for the illustrations in the book. This was a great design choice for it ends up making it look as if the book has actually come alive as a result and many other adaptations of children's books would follow suit such as The Tiger Who Came To Tea and We're Going On A Bear Hunt. The art-style is very kid-friendly and appealing to look at with the characters having rounder, cuter features to make them look more innocent and the colouring is done with coloured pencils, which further adds to the child friendly visuals and also proves to be surprisingly effective when it comes to lighting and setting the mood of the scene.
The design of the Snowman is one of my favourite aspects of this film. They don't go with the typical three giant snowballs on top of one another design and instead give him just the round head while his body is more anatomically correct so to speak, thus further enhancing the "man" part of the design. They even go with something different to make his nose rather than a typical carrot. But he still looks cute and kid-friendly due to his rounder features, welcoming smile and the animation on him depicting him as this big, huggable figure with a childlike sense of wonder. The animators knew how to make the Snowman look appealing, even when in motion, and it's charming to watch him as a result.
The animation also lends itself to some funny comedy when it comes to the Snowman exploring his surroundings with the timing of the gags, the execution on the animation and even the music making the comedy more effective as a result. How many of you laughed your butts off when he scared the cat for example? Or when he surprised himself by squirting the washing-up liquid bottle? Even to this day, that part makes me giggle like a child. XD But it's not just comedy this movie animates well. It's able to give us some really great looking travel scenes too, namely the motorbike ride scene or especially the "Walking in the Air" sequence.
Thomas: "Oh yes, the travel sequences are especially well-animated. The frame-rate is phenomenal; it's smooth as butter and really sells the magic and beauty of the ride. You never feel like you're just looking at pictures, and it also looks remarkably 3D. It truly shows just what can be accomplished with simple tools; you don't always need a computer to give stunning visuals.
"The animation also manages to convey the emotion and tone of every scene, even aside from the body language. It's bright and cheerful when James is playing in the snow, dark and eerie (but not much so) when the Snowman comes alive, and lively and flamboyant during the North Pole party.
"Going back to the sad ending again, as the credits begin to roll, the film ends on James standing over the remains in the midst of a blank, empty space, no doubt exemplifying the feeling of emptiness he must feel over the loss of his dear friend."
Media Man: Oh aye. It's an apt-metaphor for how empty and lonely that the passing of a loved one can leave you feeling after they're gone.
The animation is the star of the show in this film, no question about it. It's beautiful to watch and it has the job of conveying the entire story without a single word of dialogue, which only makes it even more impressive to watch as a result. This is by far some of the best animation ever put into a movie and Diane Jackson and her team deserve all the praise they get for bringing Raymond Briggs's classic story to life in the most wonderful way with these visuals. It's one of those films I could look at over and over and never get bored of watching because it looks that darn good...
The Snowman is a classic and a must-watch for Christmas no matter how old you are. What else needs to be said here? XD
Thomas: "It truly is simplicity at its best; a basic story that does so much, zero dialogue, two lovable main characters to carry the whole thing, and animation that matches the book's illustrations to a tee. It also installs that indescribable feeling of nostalgia whenever you watch it, and really tugs at your heartstrings with its poignant feels. I suppose that's the 'else' that needs to be said." ;)
Media Man: Too true. The movie is simply a classic from beginning to end and must be seen whether you're a kid or an adult. It's a perfect watch for the Christmas season and it's a wonderful watch regardless of what time of year it is. I would say give it a watch but let's face it, you already have so give yourself an early Christmas present and watch it again this year. You deserve to treat yourself. I'll happily walk in the air with this snowman any day...
And that's it for this review. I hope you enjoyed it and I thank my friend Thomas for joining me for the occasion. It's been fun buddy. ^^
Thomas: "It's been a pleasure as always, mate. Merry Christmas to you and to all reading!
"And rest in peace, Raymond Redvers Briggs. Wherever you are now, I hope you are happy and free.
(And Thomas hovers up and away, like the Snowman.)
Media Man: Huh, so he can do that now. Weird. XD
Thanks for reading and as always, I invite you all to share your thoughts down below. Do you like The Snowman, do you not like it? Feel free to comment.
Next week, I count down my 10 Favourite Christmas Songs. See you then everyone!
Dedicated to Raymond Briggs
18th January 1934 - 9th August 2022
For the man who brought The Snowman to life many years ago.