1982 short animated film (30 mins) by Dianne Jackson, produced by John Coates and Iain Harvey, based on Raymond Briggs’s book of the same name. The film is broadcast every year (in the UK) by Channel 4, and has undoubtedly become a major fixture in the Christmas calendar.
James, a young boy, wakes up one morning just before Christmas to find that it has snowed. He builds a snowman which, when James gets up at midnight, comes to life. They explore the sleeping house together, take a motorbike ride through a forest and then fly through the air to the North Pole to visit Father Christmas and join a party of other snowmen. Father Christmas gives him a scarf. James and the Snowman fly back (to Brighton it would seem). The next morning, the Snowman has melted and James has nothing but the scarf to remind him of his friend.
It’s an incredible piece. Briggs’s drawing style involves a great deal of very careful coloured-pencil work, and the film uses precisely the same kind of technique, and so loses none of Briggs’s magic. Instead of dialogue (the book has no text), the film has an original score, by Howard Blake: one thirty minute piece of orchestral music completely suiting the action of the film while at the same time being hugely evocative of Christmas in general.
The film is famous, though, because of the flying sequence in it, when the Snowman takes James to the North Pole. The song that accompanies the sequence (the only vocal accompaniment in the whole film), ‘Walking in the Air’ was released as a single and is now an inescapable part of Christmas. The song launched the career of Aled Jones, a boy soprano, who sang the single but he doesn’t, I don’t think, sing the song on the film; that voice, as far as I can work out, belongs to Peter Auty of the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir.
The film is delightful, whimsical and rather touching. The book, on the other hand, seems to me to be rather disturbing in an odd sort of way. James does fly with the Snowman, but he never goes to the North Pole and so never meets Father Christmas (in the film, the Father Christmas that he encounters is modelled on the eponymous hero of one of Briggs’s other books) and so never gets the scarf. At the end, then, he has no proof that his night of magic is anything other than a dream. Many of Briggs’s books seem to be about reality not living up to experience (Gentleman Jim is certainly), and The Snowman is, then, no exception. Clearly Dianne Jackson felt the bleakness at the end of the book and decided to change the story. I don’t blame her.
Strangely, the video is introduced by David Bowie, as if he is the boy in the story. The parcel that Father Christmas gives to the boy, though, is addressed ’James’. Such a fundamental continuity error has always annoyed me. Other than that the film is superb. If you’re not feeling festive, go and watch it.