Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Snowman

I’ve written a few impressions of animated films aired over the Christmas period in the last few days, and it seems remiss to neglect this, perhaps the most iconic of animations centred on Christmas, The Snowman. While it lost out in the 1982 Oscars to a Rybczyński short, it cemented its theme song, ‘Walking in the Air’, in popular culture ever since, and gave animator Dianne Jackson a strong reputation that it’s tragic she never grew to truly fulfil before her death in 1992. That said, if she animated anything of note in the sixteen years between Yellow Submarine and this, it’s not known to me.

Based on a book by Raymond Briggs that is really more a comic than the storybook most seem to think it is, the 26-minute animation carefully replicates Brigg’s lovely soft style with pastels and chalk colouring for soft-edges and a noticeably hand-drawn look. In the simple storyline, an adorable little ginger boy called James (a name added by an animator, not in the original) makes a friendly-faced snowman. The snowman comes to life during the night and the two bond over the snowman’s wonder about the world. For whatever reason – all a bit magical realism – the snowman can not only drive a motorbike but has the ability to fly, so the two go walking in the air, over houses and oceans to visit Father Christmas. The ‘it’s all a dream’ angle is explored but rejected, meaning that when the story ends on a bittersweet note, James is very much left to grieve over the loss of a friend who literally melts away in the morning sunshine, which no doubt inspired existential maturity and a little angst in several generations of children.

Though it’s almost common knowledge that famous choirboy Aled Jones sang ‘We’re Walking in the Air’, in fact the version most hear was not him at all, but the uncredited Peter Auty. Jones’ version was the single released in 1985, though few would be able to tell the difference without hearing the two consecutively. Seems a little sad that what propelled Jones to fame left Auty a footnote, but such is the fickle nature of fame.

Only by looking the film up on Youtube, to double-check that there’s a barn owl in the opening credits (there is) did I find out that there are three versions of the opening – the one familiar to me, in which Briggs himself introduces the film while the background fades into the animation; one with David Bowie looking very, very 80s in an attic; and one with an extra bit of animation made for the 20th anniversary, in which Father Christmas introduces the story. I’d say that the original is the one to opt for, but there’s certainly humour in the Bowie iteration.

This story is as ingrained in the children of the UK’s idea of Christmas as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is for those festivities in the States. Sweet, simple and visually highly distinctive, it’s a lovely piece of animation history.

No comments:

Post a Comment