Whenever I’m asked about what films I consider to be the best ever made, the titles that pop into my head are a smorgasbord of revered classics (“Citizen Kane,” “It’s a Wonderful Life”), subversive landmarks (“Annie Hall,” “The Shining”) and modern masterpieces (“Mulholland Dr.”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). Yet there’s one film routinely gracing my list of favorites that could easily be dismissed as a made-for-TV holiday trifle, Diane Jackson and Jimmy Murakami’s 27-minute marvel, “The Snowman.”
Based on the achingly poignant 1978 picture book by England’s sublime graphic novelist, Raymond Briggs, the film tells its tale of friendship and loss solely through wordless imagery and captivating music by Howard Blake, who wrote the film’s one haunting tune, “Walking in the Air,” unforgettably performed by St. Paul’s Cathedral choirboy, Peter Auty. Utilizing Briggs’s illustrations as storyboards, while adding its own fanciful embellishments (including a scarf that makes a heartrending reappearance in the film’s finale), “The Snowman” is a wondrous exercise in pure cinema.
It’s striking that the picture received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film in 1982, the same year that Steven Spielberg’s crowning achievement, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” was up for (and lost) Best Picture. Both films are about a sensitive, rather lonely little boy who makes friends with a magical being—in the case of Briggs’s film, it’s a snowman who comes to life one night, a la Frosty. Fish-out-of-water comedy gives way to exhilarating spectacle, as the creature reveals its startling powers, including the ability to fly. In the end, the boy must face the fact that his beloved pal cannot remain on Earth indefinitely. Just as E.T. pointed to Elliot’s heart while uttering, “I’ll be right here,” the snowman will forever live in the boy’s inner-most soul, where the innocence and imagination of childhood are eternally preserved.
There are few films less in need of a sequel than “The Snowman,” so you can imagine the cocktail of horror and outrage that erupted upon my face when I recently browsed through a Barnes and Noble and saw “The Snowman and the Snowdog” on the shelves. With its ungainly title and bland cover art, the disc sported all the signs of a cynical cash-grab, and in a year that offered hellaciously miscast retreads of flawless touchstones (“The Sound of Music,” “Carrie”), this promised to be the worst offender of all.
The principle of “can’t-knock-it-till-you’ve-seen-it” is an easy one for critics to overlook, yet should always be heeded. You never know when you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and Hilary Audus’s beautifully crafted labor of love left me thoroughly delighted. In celebration of the original film’s 30th anniversary, a group of artists set out to achieve the impossible: create a wholly new film that somehow manages to capture its predecessor’s distinctive charm. Much like how James Bobin’s “The Muppets” triumphed by honoring and evoking Jim Henson’s long-forgotten vision, “Snowdog” ignores cutting-edge technological advancements in favor of refreshingly old-school stylistic techniques.
How marvelous it is to see a 2013 release resurrect the art of hand-drawn animation. There’s an energy and atmosphere to meticulously detailed line drawings that no computer could possibly replicate. In a magnificent 48-minute making-of documentary supplied as the disc’s bonus feature, the job of an animator is likened to that of an actor, since the performance of a character is only as good as its expressiveness (one animator dissects the multi-layered emotions he aims to capture in a single two-second shot). Any dog owner will be able to appreciate the care put into the snowdog’s recognizable nuances, from its playful teething of an ornament to the way it rolls a ball with its nose.
The brilliance of “Snowdog” can be appreciated all the more when contrasted with a hilarious travesty like Flamarion Ferreira’s 1991 holiday special, “The Christmas Tree,” which features performances no less embarrassingly stilted than the live action ones immortalized in Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room.” Ferreira’s film was recently reviewed by master satirist Doug Walker on his web show, “Nostalgia Critic,” which uproariously illustrates how lazy animation (and voice-over work, for that matter) can be as staggeringly awful as any bad art.
Following in the footsteps of Briggs’s narrative path without attempting to equal its inimitable achievements, “Snowdog” is set at the same farmhouse once occupied by the boy in the original story. Now wedged into a bustling neighborhood, the house welcomes new inhabitants, a single mom and her young son. No sooner does the family move in, than the boy finds himself burying his ailing pet dog in the backyard. Coping with the absence of his father and the death of his dearly departed pooch, the boy builds his two titular companions in the backyard (one is a replica of past blueprints, the other is an original creation), only to see them come to life at the bewitching hour.
The visual centerpiece of the film is a dazzling flight through London, with a borrowed plane substituting for the previous film’s motorcycle joyride. Accompanying the sequence is “Light the Night,” a song by Andy Burrows that aims for contempo pop grandeur rather than timeless operatic majesty. It’s no “Walking in the Air,” nor is the music by Burrows and Ilan Eshkeri anywhere near as memorable as Blake’s score, yet they still work perfectly well on their own terms. What makes the film truly soar is the dialogue-free storytelling that once again conjures the irresistible sentimentality and transcendent poetry of silent-era classics (it’s no accident that two of the snowmen bear a remarkable resemblance to Laurel and Hardy).
Yet the most invaluable footage on this disc is the documentary’s extended interviews with the reclusive Briggs, whose exploration of grief and benevolence has lasted his entire career (epitomized by his acclaimed 1998 memoir, “Ethel and Ernest,” about the life of his parents). “Bit worried about the freckles,” sniffs the crotchety author during a private screening of the “Snowdog” storyboards, displaying the protagonist’s unnervingly cute features. Once the final frame fades to black, however, Briggs appears stunned, and admits that he’s choked up. Chances are you will be too.
“The Snowman and the Snowdog” is currently available on Amazon.