The Raymond Briggs Christmas Trilogy (of Sorts)
Raymond Briggs is an English illustrator of children's books. One of his most famous books is an artful graphic novel, 1978's The Snowman. Elements from this book were changed slightly and the Christmas themes were added to turn the story into an animated short film otherwise known as a "Christmas Special". The special first aired in the UK on December 26, 1982. The Snowman was re-released for American audiences the next year with an introduction by David Bowie. The Snowman was an instant hit in the UK and is still shown annually. It is not as well known in the US however. So even if you have seen The Snowman (and this brings back fond memories) you still may not be aware of the other two Christmas films by Raymond Briggs. If you've never seen it or if your tired of the same old Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown specials check out these Raymond Briggs creations that have a different, at times cynical, feel but are full of Christmas wonder.
The Snowman is absolutely unique in that it is a wordless tale. The story unfurls through expressive music and radiant hand drawn frames using colored pencils and crayons. The backdrop too is hand painted, the result of this old school technique is a film that is as beautiful as it is timeless. Unlike other animations from the 80's this one will never look dated. Like the movie adaptation of the Polar Express it's as if the book has come to life. The simple story of the Snowman involves a lonesome boy at home with his parents on a snowy Christmas Eve. He is not being engaged by his parents so he decides to build a Snowman. Though the boy is never called by name, as there is no dialog, the name "James" appears on the tag of one of his Christmas gifts.
The Snowman inevitably comes alive and the two bond as the Snowman gets acquainted with the various things found in James' home that are alien to the Snowman. They explore the house, even the parents bedroom while they occupy it asleep in their bed. They must be heavy sleepers. The Snowman then discovers a motorcycle just outside the back door of the home. Despite being befuddled by most of the common things in the house, Snowman somehow knows how to start and ride the motorcycle. This results in a stunning sequence as the pair ride through a snowy forest in the night. Ultimately their adventures culminates as Snowman grabs the boy's hand and they run toward the garden fence. Picking up speed until just as they would have ran into the fence, they rise up into the air! This is it, this is the iconic sequence that anyone who watched this film remembers. A sublime union of images and music. The song in this film is the only words spoken. It is called "Walking in the Air" and is absolutely beautiful and perfectly captures the wonder and innocence of the moment. Sung by a choir boy named Peter Auty the song was composed by Howard Blake. The whirlwind night is topped off with James and the Snowman joining a Snowman party attended by Father Christmas himself, Santa. The tale ends solemnly and abruptly as James must say goodbye to his new friend.
In 1991 Raymond Brigs adapted other works for inspiration for another short film. This time he combined two older graphic novels "Father Christmas" and "Father Christmas goes on Holiday". In this film he brings to life a curmudgeonly Father Christmas who we see just after finishing up his great flight around the world. Unlike the dialog-free Snowman this film has speaking voices and Father Christmas gripes, swears and explains how one year after completing his run on Christmas night he decided to go on holiday.
Father Christmas is shown as an industrious and inventive man who builds his own RV (that flies via magic). His destination, France where he learns that when it comes to rich, delicious food and wine there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. He is taken aback too by the snootiness of the french waiter. And upon being spotted by a child decides to move on.
His next stop is Scotland, land of clean water. But he finds it's also land of rainy days, freezing cold swims and sharks. He has a great time at first with some social lubricant and a group of locals he meets in a small pub. This stop too must end when another child spots him.
Finally he journeys to Las Vegas where he finds fun in the sun until the bills and his age catch up with him. The final nail is once again having his cover is blown by a bubble gum popping kid in the hotel elevator.
After Father Christmas' holiday is over the movie returns to the Christmas theme as it is Christmastime again. Here we see a rare tender moment from this prickly Father Christmas as he pauses and smiles to look upon the faces of some sleeping children.
This film is in fact part of the Snowman canon because of this scene where upon completing his rounds he attends the annual Snowman party that we see in the first film. There we see the Snowman and James (the boy from the original movie), at the Snowman party once again. It is implied then, that these two friends had other adventures beyond the devastating conclusion of the original Snowman film.
As I have stated this is a nontraditional depiction of Santa, although overall a benevolent spirit, he is grouchy and prone to a mild form of profane language (more on that later). There is no sign of Mrs Clause. When he has to leave the dog for boarding to go on his holiday he is cold and unemotional (although later in the film he is happy to reunite with his dog once again). He says "Blooming" throughout the film in much the way others would use much courser language. In fact for the adults, a good drinking game would be to sip whenever he says the word. Purportedly he says it 72 times. We also get to know this Santa really, strangely, intimately, we see his bare bum when he gets out of the tub, we see him using the loo quite a few times and some times with great urgency. These are not criticisms just proof that this is not your usual one note portrayal of Santa. In many ways this is one of the more flushed out examples of the man. Pun was unintended but I stand by it.
The Snowman and Snowdog is the fairly recent 2012 installment meant to mark the 30 year anniversary of the original 1982 Snowman. It is created (thankfully) in same style of animation as the original.
In the Snowman and the Snowdog we meet a young Billy as they move to a new house. The house is supposedly the same house that James lived in from the Snowman story, it looks different because 30 years has passed and the neighborhood has inevitably changed. Billy and his mom are accompanied by their beloved, elderly dog who, in the first scene, needs help getting out of the cab of the moving truck. The writing was on the wall here and we witness through an expertly telegraphed, wordless scene the loss of their old canine friend.
In the Snowman and the Snowdog, Billy, saddened by the loss of his dog builds a snowman as a distraction. Then on a whim, provides a Snowdog companion for him. As you would expect later in the night they both come alive to have frolicking adventures. As with the other entries the artwork is gorgeous in this film. Note the Channel 4 logo in the top left corner of the screen. This must have been captured from it's broadcast on UK Channel 4. This film also features a scene of the boy with his Snowdog under his arm flying through the night sky with the Snowman. This version like the original is scored with original music. Being that this is thirty years later, rightfully the song is decidedly more contemporary but captures the spirit of the original song almost perfectly. The song, "Light the Night" is sung by Andy Burrows. Its natural to want to compare the two songs. Both songs are great, one hauntingly classic and the other fresh and modern. Here is a video with both songs back to back. Which is your favorite?
This movie, like the original, ends suddenly with a familiar sad conclusion. There is a silver lining here in this one which I wont spoil but should soften the blow. If children (or adults) you care about get really upset you can point out that the Snowman returns every Christmas as evidenced by the James cameo scene in Father Christmas. These movies are made in a slower paced, almost meditative fashion that may not be for everyone. Very young children may become bored with them. The Father Christmas film takes a decidedly more upbeat pace complete with happy ending, but the characterization of a wifeless grumpy Santa taken out of his familiar environment for much of the film may rub some children wrong. I suggest watching these movies in the order they were released; the Snowman 1982, Father Christmas 1991, and The Snowman and the Snowdog 2012. This order delivers the original with its innocence and wonder then changes tone with Father Christmas a colorfully funny story, then the Snowman and the Snowdog wraps up the trilogy of Christmas with beauty and poignancy.