'The Snowman' is the most powerful Christmas film of them all
Do you ever want to go back in time? Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? Do you still wish you could fly? There is a film that makes all of that possible.
In 1978, English author Raymond Briggs achieved success with a wordless children’s picture book. The illustrations were animated into a 26-minute special by Dianne Jackson, and broadcast by Channel 4 on Boxing Day, 1982. This was The Snowman.
It opens with a live-action introduction, in which a man (voiced by Briggs) describes the winter with the heaviest snow he’d ever seen: “...I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dreamlike stillness.” It was a magical day, he says, “and it was on that day I made the snowman”.
We go back in time (and into animation) to see a young boy, James, waking up to find his house blanketed in snow. Dashing outside, he builds a snowman with coal for eyes and an orange for a nose, accessorised with a hat and scarf. That night James creeps downstairs and, as the clock strikes midnight, sees the snowman come to life. He brings his new friend inside and shows him around, kickstarting a charming sequence in which the snowman responds in wonder to modernity: the television hurts his eyes, but he’s entranced by electric lights, amused by false teeth and delighted by music.
After a motorbike ride through the woods, the snowman takes James by the hand, leaps into the air and flies them over Brighton Pier, all the way to the North Pole. There they find the world’s snowmen gathered around Father Christmas. They all dance together by the lights of the aurora borealis, before Santa gives James a gift of a scarf embroidered with snowmen. Hurrying to beat the dawn, the snowman flies them home. The next morning, James runs outside to find that his friend has melted in the sunshine - all that’s left is a hat and some coal on a pile of snow. But James still has the scarf, and so knows that it wasn’t a dream.
The plot differs from the book, in which there is no Father Christmas (and the boy is unnamed), but like the book there is no dialogue. Instead, there is the stunning original orchestral score by English composer Howard Blake, performed by the Sinfonia of London. Only once in the film do we hear any words, apart from the introduction (a later version of which was voiced by David Bowie, describing finding the scarf in attic, and another by Mel Smith as Santa, recalling the snowmen party).
I’m speaking of the hauntingly beautiful song for which the film is know, ‘Walking in the Air’. Written by Blake and performed by 13-year-old choirboy Peter Auty (it was released as a single three years later by Aled Jones, launching the Welsh singer’s career), it became one of the most well-known English songs of all time. It is the film’s aural and plot crescendo; Auty’s voice follows James and snowman as they soar over the sea, in a sequence of aching beauty that evokes a childhood longing for the ability to fly.
The film was wildly successful: it was nominated for an Academy Award, won a Bafta and is ranked at number 71 on the BFI’s list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. It has since entered the annual annals of classic Christmas films. But, unusually for a children’s film - and a Christmas one at that - there is no typical happy ending. The snowman has melted, so for all intents and purposes the boy’s friend has died - hardly tidings of comfort and joy. Briggs himself is quoted as saying that the story is a mortality fable, introducing children to the idea of death.
The metaphor of the snowman is an easy one to grasp: even the smallest child can watch the film and get a sense of, if not death, at least the fleetingness of things. Time passes, snow melts, the world changes. But just because a metaphor is obvious doesn’t make it less poignant, and just because this is a children’s film doesn’t make it less powerful. This film is unique in that infants and adults, of any native language, can enjoy it. It serves as a testament to the power of music and art to communicate a story without words.
So this Christmas, I’d urge everyone to take 26 minutes and watch The Snowman - it’s right here on YouTube - if only for the glorious score or the vintage animation, long gone in today’s world of CGI and Pixar mastery. Or to remember what it felt like to wake up and run outside to play, when snow wasn’t an inconvenience but an opportunity for magic.
The film conjures a Christmas free from consumerism or cynicism: a season of lights and friendship. It also evokes a simpler time, of an idyllic house far from city stresses, of toy trains and woodlands and roasting bread on a fork over the fire. A world that, like the snowman, was all too brief and destined to melt away as if it had never existed.