AS A Snowman sequel floats into the festive fare, Andrea Mullaney says nothing compares with the bittersweet appeal of the original
FOR 30 years children have gone to bed dreaming of walking in the air. It’s as much a part of Christmas as moaning about sprouts, the Queen’s speech or Cliff Richard. And now the classic animated fable The Snowman has a sequel, The Snowman And The Snowdog, which will no doubt join it in the festive schedules every year. What could be cosier?
Bah humbug. For the Snowman’s flying visit, with a small boy in tow, to see Father Christmas was “corny and twee” – according to its creator. In a rare interview, self-described “notorious grumbler” Raymond Briggs recently said he never liked the idea of “dragging in Christmas” when his 1978 book was filmed, four years later, for the fledgling Channel 4. Originally, his Snowman and boy only flew as far as Brighton pier – no visit to the North Pole, no snowman party and definitely no Father Christmas (who appears, as a grumpy old git, in another very popular book of his).
Although Briggs also said he thought the eventual film worked extremely well, his droll interview with the Radio Times has attracted some comment about the apparent incongruity of a writer often described as misanthropic but who is responsible for one of the most beloved modern children’s tales.
Yet surely that streak of reality is precisely what has made the original Snowman so magical. Famously, the story ends with the morning after their wonderful journey, as the boy rushes downstairs to check on his new friend – only to find a heap of melted snow with his green hat slumped on top, looking like a freshly dug grave. Bereft, he mourns the loss. Generations of children have too, but most understand that that is what happens to snowmen. It doesn’t make the night any less precious.
Raymond Briggs had lost his wife Jean in 1973, shortly after his parents also both died. When he wrote The Snowman he had already found success with the comic books Father Christmas, Father Christmas Goes On Holiday and Fungus The Bogeyman. The Snowman was a departure: with no words, just illustrations, and a clear, simple storyline. But in its stark acceptance of both joy and grief, it had plenty to say.
Some of the best children’s writers have eschewed sentimentality. Roald Dahl’s biography recounts how, as a teenager, he told a friend that “life isn’t beautiful and sentimental and clear, it’s full of foul things and horrid people”. A grim succession of family tragedies didn’t change that, but his cheerfully grotesque books continue to delight children. And the late Maurice Sendak, who died earlier this year, based the monsters in Where The Wild Things Are on his relatives who were traumatised Holocaust survivors. In one of his last interviews, he said: “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” One suspects that Raymond Briggs would probably agree.
He followed The Snowman with Gentleman Jim, a story based on the struggles of his working-class parents (whose story was told more directly in the graphic novel Ethel And Ernest), and then When The Wind Blows, a satire of the then government’s plans for “protecting and surviving” in the event of a nuclear war. Neither was exactly wholly for children, but many read them anyway.
Yet it’s The Snowman which has remained his most enduring work, thanks to the annual popularity of the animation, which spawned hundreds of parodies and the career of Aled Jones, who had a hit single with the theme song. The film’s producer John Coates tried for most of the past 30 years to persuade Briggs to write or approve a sequel, but the author felt it would be cashing in and vehemently resisted a Hollywood remake. He eventually agreed to allow a new story, assembled by many of the same team (Coates died in September), and using the same old-fashioned methods: 200,000 individual drawings which took months to do.
But The Snowman And The Snowdog was not written by Briggs – and it shows. Director Hilary Audus and art director Joanna Harrison, who were animators on the original, co-wrote the script, which introduces a new little boy who moves into the same house. His elderly dog has just died and so, when he finds a box containing the hat, scarf, pebbles and a photo to copy, he builds the Snowman and adds a little canine companion. As before, they come to life and take him on an adventure.
The snowdog is adorable; the animation is appealing; parents will sigh in appreciation of a child who is happy to play with a toy soldier and a model glider and who doesn’t appear to have a room crammed with electronic gadgets (there is, however, a glimpse of some product placement in a Snowman soft toy, as seen in the shops, suggesting the boy may have seen the original film).
Yet the new version gets the spirit of the story wrong. The iconic flying scene is undercut by a wet, unmemorable pop song replacing Howard Blake’s Walking In The Air (perhaps they felt today’s kids would just associate it with Irn-Bru). And then, for some reason, the Snowman swaps soaring under his own power for flying in an old plane, which seems much less fun.
Although the original is sadder, it is more gleeful too, with the Snowman as a loveable, curious companion messing around the boy’s home. In this one, he’s just sort of there – the pup has all the personality – so the inevitable end is less tragic. And, in a misunderstanding of Raymond Briggs’ fatalistic point, it turns out that dogs really aren’t just for Christmas, they’re for life.
The new version isn’t meant to supplant the original, perhaps, but in aiming to warm the heart, it falls short of making something truly touching. In resisting sentimentality, Briggs made something which continues to be moving, a story which is recreated new every year for a young audience, just like the Snowman himself. «
• The Snowman And The Snowdog is on Channel 4, tomorrow, 8pm