Raymond Briggs' classic Christmas tale of a boy's ephemeral friendship with a snowman on Christmas Eve was first published in 1978, and was rendered into an Oscar-nominated short by director Dianne Jackson for Britain 's Channel 4.
For years, the film's been a popular staple on TV, and while it enjoyed a broad international release on VHS, it took some time before it made the leap to DVD. Perhaps part of the dilemma was its' 26 minute length, although of late that's hardly been an issue, since TV shows, documentaries, and short films have appeared on disc without any bonus material.
The success of Briggs' story is due in part to the author/illustrator's reliance on image versus dialogue: the short begins with Briggs briefly recapping the genesis of his tale before the story and music begin, but the narrative angle is kept at the same level as the boy who builds the snowman, and discovers a new friend. The wordlessness also distills the energy to that of a child's, and with Howard Blake's extraordinary score, we share in the boy's glee as he wakes up and finds a winter playground beyond the front door.
Where the story locks us is after the grandfather clock chimes midnight.. That's when the snowman comes to life, and the boy shows him his human world, with grownup clothes, kitchen soap, a motorbike ride, and the coolness of the home freezer after the bike's engine chafed our chilly friend's legs a bit too much. And even before the snowman takes the boy on a flying journey to the North Pole, you might sense some striking similarities to another tale of childhood friendship - Steve Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Just as Elliott presents objects, pictures, and people to his alien friend, the boy positions the snowman in front of the TV, garbs him in clothes, and even fits him with a pair of slippery dentures - giving his friend a sense of what it's like to be human.
The flying sequences in both films similarly symbolize the culmination of friendship and trust, and the boys' need to escape; it's a peculiar subtext that might read differently in the book - the boy escaping the doldrums of being a child under parental rules and supervision - because in the film, particularly when set against Blake's song, "Walking in the Air," the flying sequence becomes extremely bittersweet.
Perhaps it's choirboy Peter Auty's moving vocals (a potent melody, but not as wrenching as Mike Batt's catatonia-inducing, dead bunny ode, "Bright Eyes," from the 1978 animated version of Watership Down), or perhaps it's Blake's orchestrations that render the song into a melancholic weepy, but the song and melody, like John Williams' searing orchestral theme which augmented the Elliott-E.T. bicycle ride past the moon, seems to sum up the clashes of fear, fascination, and euphoria that invigorate the boy, as he journeys to an unknown destination.
The arrival at the North Pole is delivered with similar clashing atmospherics: a dark forest, strange white figures gathered together, a raucous snowman celebration, and a personal intro to St. Nick, who bestows upon the boy a brand new scarf.
And when he returns home, as adults, we know the friendly bid goodnight is a final one; perhaps it's unintentional on Briggs' part, but as weathered adults, we can feel the subtext, and know a hard truth will hit the boy soon after the sun rises.
TV's Frosty the Snowman added a villain and a spiritual finale that stopped the kids from crying, but Briggs' tale is hard and unforgiving: the boy leaps out of bed, bolts past his parents during their timid breakfast, and as he approaches the snowman, finds a small mound, a worn straw hat, and the scarf which he placed onto the snowman, just the day before. The simplicity of the final image - the boy holding his blue scarf as he stares at the disintegrated snowman - is incredibly powerful. Director Jackson closes the short with Blake's piano version of the song, while blowing snow obliterates the boy and the short fades out.
It's a touching tale that won't work for everybody; it might be sappy and cutesy, or precious in depicting the small moments that create a friendship between child and a fantasy element. But Briggs manages two major achievements: his story captures the raw and fertile imagination of a child; and for those with a strong sense of nostalgia, Briggs makes us recall specific events when, as children, we had to confront hard disappointments.
[SPOILERS OVER AND DONE!]
Note: a re-release version of the short added David Bowie's brief intro (which apparently exists on the Region 2 UK DVD from Universal). Sony's DVD is supposed to include the Bowie footage, but in spite of the sleeve notes, it's not on this DVD release.
The Snowman's soundtrack has appeared on LP and on CD (both with an instrumental version of the score, and Bernard Cribbins' narration), while the short was released on DVD in 1998, double-billed with Father Christmas. In October of 2006, Sony reissued the short as a standalone DVD, but Canadian fans might have trouble picking up copies, as the label deleted the title during the first week of Christmas!
Bah-humbug to Sony, but for those who snagged a copy, it's a great treat (and no dead bunnies to fear!).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan