Eliot had it wrong: December is the cruelest month. We have been ordered to be happy, to share good times with loved ones, to buy that special gift for a special someone. Some of us will experience that. But all of us have the daily news, and at least low-grade anxiety, and the persistent feeling that things are not right, not nearly right.
The best holiday stories are fables. “Believe,” they instruct us. “Love,” they dare us. “Trust,” they implore us.
And the child in us — connecting with the child who inspired the holiday — responds. “Yes,” we say, eyes misting, because we so want it to be true. And because, looking down at our kids, we feel we know that it is true.
Sometimes the fables work right through the holidays. Sometimes they inspire us whenever we dip into them.
Chris van Allsburg’s classic Polar Express has that power.
And so, in spades, does “The Snowman.”
The 23-minute animated film was adapted in 1982 from the 32-page book by Raymond Briggs.
Don’t know Briggs? There’s a reason. He’s English — and he works as a freelance illustrator, book designer and writer of what are known as “children’s books.” They’re anything but. Oh, kids adore them — when our daughter was 3, she could watch “The Snowman” half a dozen times — but they function quite well, or maybe even better, as books for adults. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.]
The first reason for the appeal of “The Snowman” is its deceptively simple story. A boy in rural England builds a snowman. At midnight, as the boy looks out his window, the snowman lights up. The boy runs outside. He invites the snowman to tour his home. Then the snowman takes his hand. And off they fly, over England, over water, to the North Pole.
Santa gives the boy a scarf. The boy and the snowman fly home. As the boy is going inside, the snowman waves — a wave of goodbye. The boy rushes into his arms and hugs him. The next morning, the snowman’s just a few lumps of coal and an old hat.
Did that magical night really happen? The boy reaches into his pocket and finds the scarf. He drops to his knees and, almost as an offering, places it by the snowman’s hat.
A desolate ending? Yes and no. Yes, if you get stuck on the facts: the boy’s alone again. No, if you are taken by the boy’s magical experience with a special, secret friend — he’s been given a night of exquisite sweetness that will forever be his to cherish. That’s not too deep for kids; they’ll be more fixated on the magic than its loss.
Then there is the artistry. This is not machine-driven animation — Briggs works with colored pencil. “I once kept a record of the time it took to do two pages,” he told an interviewer. “Penciling — 20 hours. Inking — 18 hours. Coloring — 25 hours. And all that’s after months of getting ideas, writing and planning.”
And the feelings in “The Snowman” couldn’t be more personal. The boy’s house? That is Briggs’s own house and garden in Sussex. The flight over the South Downs and the top of Brighton ‘s Royal Pavilion to Brighton Pier — those are old Briggs haunts.
The final appeal is to beauty. The film begins with Briggs walking across a field, talking about the snowstorm. From then on, the film is silent, except for a song. It is called “Walking In The Air,” and it is life-changing — the sequence when the boy and the snowman start to fly and the song comes in is one of the greatest moments in film. Period.
I once had a job helping several hundred people be better writers. There were two hobby-horses I rode continually: “Whenever you use the word ‘hopefully,’ you are using it incorrectly. And there is no such thing as ‘perfect.’” I was wrong. There is perfect. “The Snowman” defines it.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.
Photo credit: Getty Images