The Snowman has been a staple of my Christmas viewing regimen for as long as I can remember, and although both the animated short and Raymond Briggs’ book have reached the status of holiday classic by now, I’ve always felt that my love of it was symptomatic of a latent but deeply entrenched outsider complex. I have a vivid memory from first grade, on the last day before winter break, when the teacher asked us to bring in our favorite Christmas movies for the class holiday party. My submission of The Snowman was immediately mocked out of consideration by my peers, and not even its unadorned blue VHS box was spared. The reason behind the ridicule was simple and cruel: There are no catchy musical numbers in The Snowman, no princesses or talking animals, no fart jokes, barely any words—and the fact that I thought that was how we should spend our free half-day was obviously evidence that I was boring and dumb, and I liked boring, dumb things.
While at the time the incident sent my 7-year-old self into inconsolable tears, in retrospect, I understand why The Snowman isn’t exactly a party movie. Even without its conventionally tragic ending (Spoiler alert: snowmen melt), The Snowman is kind of a downer, more than a little lonely and desolate next to the season’s more raucous fare. Christmas tales are supposed to be big and warm and a little silly, just like the holiday itself, brimming over with bickering-yet-loving family members and hilarious turkey disasters. But as the only child of a single parent with an extended family that wasn’t exactly big on reunions, this was never the way I experienced Christmas. Perhaps this was the reason that the bigger TV spectaculars of the holidays never really resonated with me. But every December to this day, I still find myself wanting to return to The Snowman, to go back to that little English house surrounded by miles and miles of snowy wilderness, and go flying over the North Sea into the Aurora Borealis.
The story is very simple: Boy builds snowman; boy and snowman have an adventure; boy loses snowman. There have been several introductions for the film throughout the years for its various airings on British and American television (including a weirdly disingenuous one with David Bowie), but the one that I grew up with, the one that is burned in my memory as an artifact of the winters of my childhood, is the original opening with Raymond Briggs himself. In a single, stationary shot (the only live-action shot in the film), the author walks across a clearing toward a thicket of barren trees at twilight, silent except for the soft wind and the plaintive cry of a lone crow. As his figure grows smaller in the distance, Briggs’ strangely affecting voiceover begins:
I remember that winter because it brought the heaviest snow I’d ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long, and in the morning, I awoke in a room filled with light and silence. The whole world seemed to be held in a dreamlike stillness. It was a magical day, and it was on that day I made the snowman.
The landscape is bleak, and Briggs’ voice makes Alan Rickman sound like a varsity cheerleader, but when he says it was a magical day, you want to believe him. And that alone is how so much of this film works; peeling back its muted exterior reveals sense of wonder all the more pure and exhilarating for its simplicity. And just on cue, the image transforms into the soft, animated pastels the rest of the film is rendered in, and we’re off, gliding over the English countryside as Howard Blake’s impossibly gorgeous score drifts in.
Part of what I love about The Snowman is that so much of seems to fly, as if the winter cold had electrified the night air, allowing us to travel through it in unnatural ways. I love when James first looks out his window at the snowy morning. We pull back from his face pressed against the window, across the long stretch of the lawn as birds play in the flurry, in five seconds capturing all the joy and surprise of everyone’s first memory of snow. Later in the film, the Snowman discovers a motorcycle belonging to James’ father, and the two go riding through the forest, a frenzied prelude to the comparative tranquility of the flight scene that follows. Forest creatures scurry out of the way of the bike, the bright yellow headlamp illuminating the trunks of trees as James hangs on for dear life. It’s a wildly kinetic sequence: In the film’s more stationary scenes, the variegated frame-by-frame shading of the pastel animation style only affects the moving cels; in these scenes of 360-degree animation, every inch of the frame is alive with movement.
But the centerpiece of the film, the flight to the North Pole, remains one of the most virtuosic and stunning animated sequences I can recall. The Snowman, having become homesick after seeing an arctic landscape on a package of frozen fish (yes, it’s adorable,) decides to take James on a trip to his home in the North. Scored by Blake’s haunting theme “Walking In The Air” as performed by chorister Peter Auty, the journey is nothing short of breathtaking in its softly vast and soaring imagery. The Snowman takes James over mountains, Scandinavian chalets, humpback whales—a sleeping world of ice and snow. Auty’s pure tones and exuberant trills add a layer of splendor to the visuals; at one point the two pass over a party on a cruise ship, and as a child I remember being keenly aware that the revelers are not having nearly as fancy a time as James and the Snowman are.
I had the pleasure a few years back of seeing an orchestral performance of The Snowman alongside a projection of the film, and it remains one of the most emotional live music experiences I’ve ever had. The music is as much of what makes the film as the imagery is, its predominantly minor key reminding the viewer of the ephemeral nature of the Snowman, and by extension, everything else in the universe. Even for an adult, it’s vaguely unsettling; for a child, it’s enough to keep you up all night.
It’s hard for me to explain what it is about these 26 minutes of animation that affects me so profoundly. I think what ultimately moves me most is how well The Snowman is able to transport the viewer to the furthest, most inaccessible reaches of winter stillness, a place almost unimaginable in the context of our modern experience. Some may reject a film as neutral and meditative as this from their holiday entertainment lineup, but for others, The Snowman captures those silent, strangely isolated nights of childhood, when all is a little too calm, and for a few dangerous moments, you find your imagination wandering to thoughts of the outdoors. It’s a pretty thought, venturing out into the unknown like that, as well as a scary, lonely one—one that vanishes as soon as the TV switches off and you’re called down to dinner.
Tomorrow: An unlikely Santa Claus and an unlikely reindeer.