*All reviews contain spoilers*
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Peter Auty – Soloist (not Aled Jones)
Raymond Briggs – Older James and Narrator (David Bowie in other versions)
Sources of Inspiration – The Snowman, a children’s picture book by Raymond Briggs, 1978
Release Dates –
December 24th, 1982 in Norway (TV premiere)
December 26th, 1982 in the UK and USA (TV premieres)
Run-time – 27 minutes
Directors – Dianne Jackson and Jimmy T. Murakami
Composers – Howard Blake
Accolades – 2 wins and 2 nominations, including an Oscar nomination
1982 in History
The Commodore 64 is released, going on to become the best-selling personal computer model of all time
The Elk Cloner, written by 15-year-old Rich Skrenta, becomes one of the first computer viruses to infect systems outside of those in which it was written, attacking the Apple II operating system via floppy disk
A massacre in the Syrian town of Hama leaves thousands dead; it follows a similar (but less destructive) event from the previous year
An oil platform called Ocean Ranger sinks off the coast of Newfoundland, killing all 84 rig workers
The DeLorean Motor Company goes bankrupt, just a few years before the Back to the Future films would make one of its model famous (what awful timing)
Adobe Inc. is founded as Adobe Systems in California
The US places an embargo on Libyan oil imports, accusing the nation of supporting terrorism; a surplus of crude oil compounds the problem by causing gasoline prices to collapse
All eight planets (plus Pluto) align on the same side of the Sun in an event known as syzygy
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial opens in Washington, D.C.
The Falklands War begins with the Argentinian invasion of the British territory of the Falkland Islands, but following months of conflict and hundreds of casualties, the Argentinians agree to a conditional surrender (the issue remains controversial in Argentina to this day)
Canada patriates its constitution, gaining full political independence from the United Kingdom
The city of Key West in Florida briefly becomes an independent “republic” for one day, known as the Conch Republic
Pope John Paul II survives an assassination attempt by Juan María Fernández y Krohn in Portugal; shortly afterwards he becomes the first reigning pope to visit the UK
The International Maritime Organisation is founded as a special agency of the UN
Israeli ambassador to the UK Shlomo Argov is shot, sparking the 1982 Lebanon War
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial becomes the biggest hit of the entire decade
Prince William is born at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, West London, in a major media event
Lawnchair Larry flies 16,000 feet above Long Beach, California in an ordinary lawn chair attached to weather balloons
In one of the worst royal security breaches of the century, Michael Fagan successfully penetrates Buckingham Palace and makes it as far as Queen Elizabeth II’s bedroom
The Provisional IRA detonate two bombs in London’s Hyde Park and Regent’s Park killing eight soldiers
On a movie set, Twilight Zone actor Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen die in a helicopter stunt accident, leading to stricter regulations and safety procedures in the industry
The Latin American debt crisis reaches its peak
The first compact discs (CDs) are produced in Germany; Sony launches the first CD player later in the year in Japan
A Lebanese Christian militia called the Phalange commit the Sabra and Shatila massacre, one of the best-known incidents from the Lebanese Civil War
The first International Day of Peace is observed
In Orlando, Florida, Walt Disney World opens the second largest theme park, EPCOT Center, to the public
Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose, sunk in 1545, is raised from the Solent near the Isle of Wight
Homosexuality is decriminalised in Northern Ireland
Channel 4 is launched on British television
The Thames Barrier becomes operational in London
Michael Jackson releases his sixth studio album, Thriller, which goes on to become the best-selling album of all time
Barney Clark receives the first artificial heart in Utah, living for 112 days with it
Time magazine names the computer as “machine of the year”
China becomes the first nation whose population exceeds one billion
Births of Eddie Redmayne, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Jenny Slate, Jay Baruchel, Seth Rogen, Kelly Clarkson, Kirsten Dunst, Jamie Dornan, Cory Monteith, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Priyanka Chopra, Jamil Walker Smith, Lacey Chabert, Anne Hathaway, Damon Wayans Jr. and Nicki Minaj
Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you’re all enjoying the holidays, however you’re spending them. While thinking about potential subjects for a festive review, I decided that there was nothing more appropriate than that beloved holiday classic from 1982, The Snowman. Most Brits and Americans have probably seen this at some point in their lives, and viewing the half-hour short has become something of a tradition in those countries as well as in many others. So how did it come about?
Well, four years after Raymond Briggs’s original story was published, Channel 4 was founded in the UK and it funded several animated films in the early eighties. The Snowman was the first (and the most successful) of these. Under the direction of Dianne Jackson and Jimmy T. Murakami, it was adapted to animation by TVC London, which was the UK’s longest-established animation studio at the time and had previously worked on the Beatles vehicle Yellow Submarine in 1968. Producer John Coates saw the potential the story had for animation and gave the project over to two trusted animation assistants, Hilary Audus and Joanna Harrison, who went and bought copies of the book to dissect in order to create a storyboard and animatic.
Their work quickly evolved into the template for the full finished film, and the passion Coates had for the project brought it to the attention of Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who was then the Chief Executive of Channel 4. Isaacs believed it would make a fantastic and unusual addition to their schedule and screened the first showing of it on December 26th, 1982 (although it apparently also had a Norwegian debut two days earlier).
The rest, of course, is history: the short went on to get an Academy Award nomination and became a fixture of Christmas television for decades afterwards, cementing its reputation in the hearts of the world as the ultimate Christmas classic. So, pop on your coat and scarf and we’ll take a look at this enchanting story, to see if we can find out what made it so enduringly popular.
Characters and Vocal Performances
The main character is a young English boy called James (you see his name briefly on the tag of the present Santa gives to him). Like many well-known protagonists, James is a cipher – his personality is kept deliberately generic to allow viewers to relate to him better. Some cipher characters are done better than others, but here, it was the perfect choice, because James is the personification of every child enjoying their dream Christmas. From the first scene, where he wakes up to find the snow-covered garden, to the last, where he grieves over the loss of his friend the Snowman, the audience is kept fully engaged with his adventure through the boy’s emotions. We feel the joy and wonder when he scampers out into the snow for the first time, we laugh along with him at the snowman party and feel the sting of the loss of the Snowman at the end. His eagerness is endearing; I’m sure anyone from a temperate climate can remember that feeling of impatient excitement when it snowed heavily, that yearning to just get out there and do something with it. Heck, James is so excited he forgets to put his pants on!
James’s friendship with the Snowman is simple and sweet; the filmmakers did a good job of keeping their scenes together from becoming too cloying. One part of the film which seems to be overlooked a bit is when the Snowman is having a blast exploring James’s house – all while James alternates between hilarity at his friend’s antics and panic at the thought of waking his parents and spoiling the fun. It’s a light-hearted and amusing section filled with bright percussion that really warms you up before the big flight scenes.
Like James, the Snowman himself is not imbued with any complex personality; he’s simply a fun-loving and friendly guy who wants to give James a Christmas he’ll never forget. He’s quite a funny character, with a bit of a mischievous streak – I love seeing him engage with the human paraphernalia, getting so carried away and clumsily stumbling over everything. He’ll try anything and shares his young friend’s enthusiasm, which I think is a big part of what makes this short so enduring – enthusiasm is one of the strongest traits any character can possess, good or evil, because if the character enjoys what they’re doing, the viewer will enjoy watching them.
Of course, the centrepiece of the Snowman’s character is his mysterious and magical ability to fly. It’s never explained how or why he’s able to do so, but it doesn’t need to be – as we’re swept up into the silent skies with a stunned James, that famous piano melody kicks in and you don’t question it. For the rest of the short, the Snowman takes on the role of a loving caretaker, looking out for James all evening and making sure to return him home safely. Even in such a simplistic style of animation, it’s easy to see his affection in the little gestures and expressions he makes.
At the very end, his “death” moves us as it does James; like Bambi’s mother, Littlefoot’s mother and Simba’s father, we have spent time with this character, getting to know him and growing to love him, so his loss hits us. Briggs actually intended the story to be a metaphor to teach children about loss and grieving, not a Christmas special! This metaphor does still work well in the film, as most children can relate to the sadness of seeing a carefully-made snowman melt into nothing, although many might not relate the ending to losing a loved one until it actually happens to them. Either way, the Snowman’s death is a gentle reminder that nothing lasts forever, and good times must be treasured while we have the chance. Powerful stuff.
James’s parents have minor roles in the story, too. Both are charmingly old-fashioned, suggesting that the story might be set a few decades further back than even the eighties. His father is a dark-haired man with an impressive moustache, who greets his son’s excitement with kindly befuddlement and later tells him to get to bed. He seems like a nice enough chap – I feel like, if he had a voice, he’d be calling James “champ” and telling dad jokes.
James’s mother is a plump red-headed lady in the vein of Mrs. Weasley, who fulfils the usual motherly duties of wrapping James up before he goes out, making sure he gets some lunch, helping him get ready for bed and tucking him in with a fond kiss. There may not be much to her, but she and her husband add a valuable presence to the film because we know that James has a family to return to after his adventure. If it weren’t for them, the loss of the Snowman would be far worse as James would be left with nobody (at least that we meet). Not everyone is lucky enough to have a family to enjoy the holidays with, so it’s nice to see that James does. Mind you, I bet his parents don’t enjoy the snow half as much as James does; they probably have to go to work in the morning!
Naturally, it wouldn’t be a Christmas film without Santa. After the Snowman has taken James up to the Arctic, the boy gets to meet jolly old St. Nick himself – this version is very Briggs-ish in design with huge rosy-apple cheeks and a frilly little apron. Santa’s not usually a threatening character as it is, but this incarnation of him is one of the “safest” and sweetest I’ve ever seen. Big, warm and cuddly, he welcomes James and the Snowman to the ball and then gives him a scarf (and a hug) before they leave. This scarf later provides the only solace for poor James that the adventure was more than just a dream, which is probably why Santa was added into the story at all (it certainly wasn’t Briggs’s idea, although he did later concede that it worked).
Again, not a huge role, but a vital one; it’s the icing on the cake for James after the Christmas adventure every child dreams of. Incidentally, it’s quite funny to compare the Santa in this short with Briggs’s later incarnation of him in 1991’s Father Christmas, where he has a broad Cockney accent and a rather crankier disposition!
I also want to give a mention to the other snowmen that James meets at the party. Their scene is hilarious; the atmosphere is like a strange sort of office party, where one guy has brought his kid and so everyone must be extra sweet (and sober) around him. (Seriously, I bet they were just cracking open the vodka when James got there… darn it). They’re a welcoming bunch, treating the lad like a guest of honour and entertaining him with music and dancing, all helping to make his evening that little bit more special.
This being 1982, the film was of course produced using traditional animation, with pastels, crayons and other tools being used to draw on pieces of celluloid, which were then traced over the hand-drawn frames. The backgrounds were done in this “organic” style too, for consistency.
It’s really quite impressive considering the limited budget, especially the brief glimpses we get of anatomically-correct animals like horses, foxes, rabbits, pheasants and owls. The humans and snowmen move in bouncy, slightly exaggerated ways, but they still carry enough weight to be believable. The dancing of the snowmen is a highlight, especially the Scottish one!
That said, the animation is probably the weakest element of the film, not that that detracts from its overall quality. Animated shorts don’t always need to be polished or expensive to be good and The Snowman is a testament to that.
The story manages to avoid descending into stickily-sweet sentimentality and is genuinely charming in its simplicity. Like most good Christmas specials, it focuses not on the commercial side of things but on the “togetherness” – except with friendship more than family.
In the original introduction, Raymond Briggs himself tells us: “I remember that winter because it had brought the heaviest snow I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day… and it was on that day I made the Snowman.” (Given Briggs’s age, I’m guessing the winter in question was either that of 1940 or of 1947, as they were the two worst in his childhood).
In the original book, the boy is unnamed. The name “James” was selected for him here because one of the animators, Joanna Harrison, was dating one at the time – that James later became her husband. The film James builds a snowman (an impressively big one at that) and his creation is magically brought to life at the stroke of midnight. The two of them enjoy some hijinks in James’s house while trying not to wake the boy’s parents, then head outside to go on a random joyride on a motorbike. After the engine nearly melts the Snowman’s thighs, he goes back inside to cool off in the freezer – and then the big moment has arrived. The score ramps it up a notch as the Snowman leads James out into the snow once more, but this time, they take off and fly away across the countryside to the North Pole, where they have a wild party with other snowmen and meet Santa Claus. Eventually, it’s time to leave, so the Snowman takes James safely back to his home and then gives him a goodbye hug. When James awakens the next morning, he finds to his dismay that his friend has melted away… we leave him on this sombre note as the score eases the pain.
In the book, the plot was a little different. The two align neatly until the midway point; in the book, the Snowman doesn’t take James to see Santa. In fact, none of the Christmas elements of the film are in the book (Briggs himself has stated that he never intended for it to become a Christmas story at all). Instead, the pair proceed to explore the house and the family car, before settling down for a candlelight feast together. After this, the Snowman does take James outside and they do go flying, but they only go as far as the seaside, where they wait to see the sunrise. Then, as in the film, they hurry home, but of course James has no scarf to console him the next day when he finds the Snowman gone.
The live-action introduction has gone through several changes over the years. Originally, it featured Raymond Briggs walking outside in a rather bleak wintry scene, while a voiceover by him tells us of the story’s origins in an almost melancholy tone. Americans couldn’t leave this in place because apparently they “needed a star” to draw them in, so for their version, David Bowie filmed another short introduction in which he poses as the “older” James reminiscing about that night.
In 2002, to celebrate the film’s twentieth anniversary, Channel 4 then created another opening directed by Roger Mainwood, with Briggs’s 1991 version of Santa introducing the short by recalling the night he met James and mentioning how the heavy snow of that year left him grounded, unable to deliver the presents. That version of Santa was voiced by Mel Smith. All three of these openings were included on the thirtieth anniversary DVD as bonus features, but none are actually shown at the start of the short.
The film is gorgeous. It was hand-rendered in pastels and feels very “organic,” with the soft and sketchy look giving it a sort of nostalgic charm that reminds me of the days before all animation was produced by computers and turned out polished and pristine. You can actually see the work of the artists moving and changing on screen; it’s like getting an intimate glimpse into the creation process of it while you’re watching.
James’s house and garden are perfect for a Christmas special, looking very comfy and cosy. The old-fashioned charms of coal cellars, toasting bread on a fork by the fire and drying clothes on a wooden rack adds to its appeal. I also enjoy the colour and pageantry of the snowman’s party and the design of Santa is almost comically sweet with the huge red cheeks. However, the standout of the cinematography is undoubtedly the dramatic flight sequence, which features some impressive tracking and perspective shots of the land as it flies beneath the pair, shifting and fluttering in an abstract, almost impressionistic kind of way.
James’s home seems to be somewhere in the South Downs, near Brighton – he and the Snowman fly over the Royal Pavilion and the Palace Pier, and later, the tag on James’s present confirms this. (Raymond Briggs has lived in Sussex since 1961).
In a bold move, the short is kept silent except for Howard Blake’s excellent score, so there’s no voice acting to discuss! Blake composed both the score and the central song, Walking in the Air, having in fact written the melody some years before after being inspired by a walk on a Cornish beach. The score is truly beautiful, capturing all the emotions of James’s magical day with exquisite precision, from the initial joy at the snow to his wonder at the magic of the Snowman, the dreamlike elation at the ball and then the final disappointment and sorrow at the end. The music is filled with festive bells and brass, along with some gentler woodwind and string motifs in the more serious moments. The jolly jig performed at the party by the snowman is especially fun, making you want to get up and join in with the dancing.
The music was performed by the Sinfonia of London, but the song was done by Peter Auty, a St. Paul’s Cathedral choirboy at the time who was not credited in the original version (although he has had one since the twentieth anniversary edition). Walking in the Air was covered three years later by Welsh chorister Aled Jones for a marketing campaign by Toys “R” Us and his version reached #5 in the UK charts, leading to Jones being frequently and incorrectly credited for singing the version heard in the film. Both versions are great, but I have to give the edge to Auty – nothing beats the original. It’s a hauntingly dramatic and very moving song which is one of the biggest reasons that the film has left such a lasting legacy, resonating with you long after you’ve finished listening to it. When those first piano notes hit… damn, you get chills.
Final Verdict –
The Snowman was nominated for the 1983 Academy Award for Best Animated Short, but lost to an obscure Polish film called Tango by Zbigniew Rybczyński. It did manage to win a BAFTA TV Award, but perhaps more importantly it helped to put British animation well and truly on the map, just a few years before Aardman came along and cemented this reputation.
The special has been ranked #71 on the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, which was a list drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000 based on a vote by industry professionals. It was also UKTV Gold’s fourth greatest TV Christmas Moment, and took Channel 4’s third spot in a poll of the 100 Greatest Christmas Moments in 2004. It was even turned into an official video game by Quicksilva in 1984 for the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and MSX.
I was surprised to find out that it has also been turned into a stage show, which was first produced by Anthony Clark at Manchester’s Contact Theatre in 1986. It retained Blake’s music and lyrics and had a full script of its own. The Birmingham Repertory Company then produced their own version in 1993, directed by Bill Alexander and choreographed by Robert North. Since 1997, Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London has been presenting it every year at their Peacock Theatre – as in the book and film, there are no words (the book is a picture-book), apart from the Walking in the Air lyrics. It’s told entirely through images and movement (I’d love to see it if I’m ever down south for the holidays!)
In 2012, Channel 4 aired a sequel short called The Snowman and the Snowdog to celebrate the originals’ thirtieth anniversary. It was produced by London-based studio Lupus Films and brought back many of the original team (sadly Dianne Jackson had passed away by this time), with the animation being done in the same traditional way as in the original (thank goodness) and featuring a new boy and a snow dog having another adventure. Briggs has resisted the idea of doing a sequel for years, resenting the commercialisation of his story, but finally gave his permission in 2012. The sequel was dedicated to the memory of the original’s producer, John Coates, who passed away in September that year during its production.
All of this aside, it is the original film which we keep coming back to year after year. The short has a timeless appeal and a loveable cast which is sure to keep people coming back to it for decades to come, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it yet, please do – I’ve provided a link below. It’s the perfect way to get yourself in the festive spirit!
Happy holidays from Feeling Animated to you and your family!
I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:
The World History of Animation (2011) by Stephen Cavalier
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36258538 – credit for poster
https://www.ukfilmreview.co.uk/single-post/2015/12/17/The-Snowman-1982-Christmas-film-review?_amp_=true – another interesting review of the short
https://www.thesnowman.com/film-and-music/the-snowman/ – Website about the story
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIrbQ_9LSLU – a short documentary on the making of the piece
https://uk.movies.yahoo.com/david-bowie-was-all-wrong-for-the-snowman-says-raymond-briggs-122301317.html – credit for David Bowie image
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Snowman – Wiki article
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084701/ – IMDB profile
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZE9KpobX9J8 – a YouTube copy of the original
5 Replies to “Short Review: The Snowman (1982)”
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one.
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I’d definitely recommend it for getting into the festive spirit, it’s very sweet!
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I saw this on video (as part of the Rabbit Ears Storybook Classics series) many, MANY years ago, and then read– or, more accurately, looked at (since there’s no text)– the original book.
To be honest, the only thing I remember clearly of it all these years later is the song sung during the flight sequence– although, for some reason, I remembered it being sung in a different key, and in some language that I could never identify… Only when I looked it up on YouTube did I find out that it’s in English! (Silly me!)
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