Monday, 24 December 2012

The Snowman and the Snowdog

Thirty years after the original The Snowman became a major cultural artefact of the United Kingdom and its Christmas period, there has been an attempt at a sequel, The Snowman and the Snowdog. Much-hyped and aired with a careful avoidance of advert breaks, it was unveiled to a curious public today to a mixture of optimism and cynicism. Of course, in an age of godawful ‘sequels’ to canonical novels and dire remakes of classic films, it’s only expected that a new team taking on a well-loved Oscar-nominated animation and producing a sequel are going to be a bit leery.

Original director and arguably heart and soul of the first short Dianne Jackson of course passed away twenty years ago, so could have no say here, but original author Raymond Briggs gave his blessing and eight of the original animators returned, giving a certain authenticity to the piece. Despite my scepticism it was going to be a poor imitation of the original’s style done in Flash, the film was made with determinedly traditional techniques, including the uneven pencil colouring that gives that wonderfully otherworldly shimmering between frames that is the most immediate of the links between past and modern incarnations. There was CG in evidence, most notably when a plane was involved, but generally everything had a nice, hand-drawn look, the flight sequences showed a great deal of work went into the backgrounds and at the same time things looked a little more modern and crisp with some ambitious angles and shot composition. I approved of the aesthetic.

I also approved of the mixture between up-to-the-minute references and nostalgia for a simpler time. Our main boy has a more up-to-date but still classic hairstyle, lives a very pre-internet life of making snowmen and playing with toy trains with not an Xbox in sight, and yet flies with his snowman past The Shard and the London Eye, as well as, um, the transmitter at Crystal Palace, and later meets snowmen who snowboard down the hills rather than just ski. It’s clearly 2012, but it’s also clearly yearning for the nicely old-fashioned and middle-class. The start of the journey on the South Coast also had a touch of resonance for me, an echo of the Sussex sights from Brighton in the original. Apparently the IOs game centres on Hastings.

The film establishes itself as a sequel almost right away. Just as the old version had a bittersweet ending, so does this one start on a bittersweet note. Conveying in a neatly wordless fashion that the boy’s dog is very old, it quickly shows just why he would want to make not only a snowman but a snowdog. He is spurred into this by finding hidden under the floorboards the original ginger kid’s snowman-making items – hat, scarf, coal and an old shrivelled orange for the nose – as well as a photograph of him with his snowman pal. Just as the edge was taken off the snowman’s classic disappearance by the Father Christmas short implying he was remade every year – until, presumably, such childhish things were put away – here we see he gets a new lease of life every year as the boy remakes him with the photograph as reference, with a fresh new orange, then gives him a canine companion complete with socks for ears, gloves for spots and the old orange for a nose.

True to form, the pair comes to life and takes the boy for a flying adventure, sadly to a song not even a fraction as memorable as ‘Walking in the Air’, some turgid and instantly forgettable pop-rock apparently from the drummer from Razorlight, featuring a horrible chorusy reverb effect on his voice that really grated on me. Next they hop in a plane, evoking airfix fantasies that would make James May gibber, and join a snowman exodus to the North Pole. It’s a slightly more aggressive and hip place than last time, with frenetic races against penguins and a lively market, slightly awkwardly including a lot of racial and national caricatures in snowperson form – the Scotsman in his kilt is to be expected, the Frenchman with garlic around his neck and the geisha in kimono just about pass, but the Chinese snowmen in peasant hats with slitty coal eyes were pushing things a bit far for my taste, and will probably draw some criticism from viewers and even make the film date faster.

Again, the film ends with a return, a night’s sleep and then a bittersweet farewell, this time perhaps for the last time, but the edge is taken away when a Christmas miracle gives the boy a new companion. That said, it made me feel for the many kids who no doubt will watch it and feel hopeful for a similar miracle to happen to them, only to be disappointed.

Lovingly-done and sweet at its core, the abiding question that will arise from it will nonetheless surely be – why? Was this necessary? Did a dog really add anything? But then, why not? It didn’t damage a legacy, and was indeed quite a pleasure. It’s also made me interesting in its studio, Lupus Films, and made me want to see their version of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’.

Though a Christmas miracle for me would be for no reviewers to make the mistake of thinking the original had singing from Aled Jones. Oops! Too late. 

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