Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas 2013: December 23

This Christmas Countdown thing has been a complete fucking disaster. There were so many Christmas-related things I wanted to watched, established film classics, animated TV specials, obscure holiday-related TV episodes, Christmas-themed horror films, all sorts of things. Instead, I’ve managed to sneak in a few cartoons and that’s it. What can I say? The end of the year is a busy time for me. And don’t even mention that the month is merely over and I still haven’t squeezed a podcast episode out, much less two. The pressure is on, is what I’m saying. Anyway, here’s some stuff.

The Snowman and the Snowdog (2012)

I was completely unaware of this. While out doing some last minute Christmas dinner shopping yesterday, I found this one on the DVD shelves at the check-out lane. At first, I assumed it was a repackaging of “The Snowman” but upon closer examination, nope. It’s a brand new film, a sequel to my all-time favorite holiday special. Looking at the DVD case, I noticed that the film was only “based on the characters by Raymond Briggs” and had no direct involvement with the original author. Consider me skeptical.

“The Snowman and the Snowdog” gets one very important detail right. It maintains the hand-drawn animation of the original, retaining the colored-pencils-and-paper style of the first film. The edges are much smoother but, visually, there’s a strong sense of continuity. I was also kind of worried at first that the characters were going to start talking which, thank god, is avoided. As with “The Snowman,” this is a silent production, only music and visuals.

“The Snowdog” opens with an emotional gut-punch. A mother and son move into a new home during the summer time, accompanied by an old, much loved dog that has clearly seen better days. The next scene we see is a pan around a silent home, a carved jack o’lantern sitting in the sink. Outside, mother and boy shovel the last bit of dirt on a fresh grave, an empty collar and beloved ball placed on the mound. The original “Snowman” was a children’s film partially about lose. Since the death of a pet is the first lost most children will deal with, this seems like a logical place to take the material. Establishing the place, setting, and emotional weight so quickly is an impressive feat.

Disappointingly, this is a sequel and has to fulfill certain story obligations. During that winter, after the first snow fall, the young boys find a familiar scarf, hat, bits of coal and even a dried-up tangerine under the floorboards. He also finds a photograph of another little boy with a happy, smiling snowman. Gathering up the little snow in the backyard, he builds a new snowman, slavishly copying the original seen in the photograph. This works as a metaphor for the film’s commitment to the proven formula. That night, the Snowman magically springs to life. The two explore the suburban home for while before the boy and the snowman magically take to the sky, flying through the night. The flight takes them to a gathering of other living snowmen, climaxing with a meeting with Santa Claus. The next morning, the boy discovers the melted remains of the snowman, falling to his knees in sadness.

There are differences. The boy also builds a little dog out of snow, fashioning floppy ears out of old socks, the pet joining him on the night’s journey. A sprawling suburban neighborhood has been built around the old farm house. This leads to a magic-propelled flight through urban London. Instead of riding a motorcycle, the Snowman pilots an airplane. The gathering of snowmen escalates into a fairly uninvolving sleigh race. This is all just set-dressing for a familiar story. Attempting to directly emulate the original’s iconic scenes was a grave mistake. The new score is nice but Andy Burrow’s “Light the Night” is no “Walking in the Air,” this version ‘s flying sequence lacking the magic of the original.

Similarly, the meaning of the ending is completely changed. The little boy has lost his dog but, through the magic of Christmas, gains a new puppy. This film isn’t about the relationship between the boy and the snowman but rather the boy and the dog. So the Snowman’s inevitable fate lacks the same emotional significance. And Santa magically turning the Snowdog into a real dog kind of undermines the point, don’t you think? All in all, “The Snowman and the Snowdog” isn’t bad. It’s a valid effort and by no mean’s disrespectful. However, at the end, my suspicions were confirmed. “The Snowman” was a complete story. It didn’t need a sequel. [6/10]

Frosty the Snowman (1969)

Might as well keep the snowman theme going… If the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials were the Avengers, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” would be Iron Man and “Frosty the Snowman” would be, I suppose, Thor. If you don’t grasp what I mean by that awkward pop culture analogy, let me elaborate. “Rudolph” remains the most popular of the studio’s seasonal output and was their first. “Frosty,” meanwhile, runs a close second in popularity. It usually airs directly after “Rudolph” or on the next night. The two character’s status as the studio’s most popular characters was solidify when Rankin/Bass chose them as the twin stars of its sole foray into feature length Christmas programming. Which brings my confusing Avengers analogy full circle. (Though, disappointingly, Frosty never punched a giant snake monster in the face.)

Anyway, the point of my rambling introduction is that “Frosty” was the studio’s most blatant attempt to recreate the success of “Rudolph.” The latter might have introduced the device of a formally semi-popular singer narrating the story but this program set the standard. Both were closely adapted from beloved Christmas songs. Both feature Santa Claus in supporting roles. The biggest differences are that “Frosty” strays from the studio’s iconic stop-motion animation, instead being told through traditional animation.

I’m actually rather fond of the adaptional changes made to the source material. Unlike “Rudolph” or the other, previous specials, “Frosty” doesn’t take place in a fantasy land. It’s set in a normal town, starring normal school kids, which look to be in the six-to-nine range. We found out why there had to have been some magic in that old hat, since it belonged to a washed-up, foolish magician. The half-hour’s non-snowman protagonist is a young girl, which also changes things up a bit. The animation is primitive but has aged fairly well, thanks to the cute character designs. Unlike “Rudolph,” this isn’t a proper musical, meaning no extra songs drag the story down.

Honestly, that story is the weakest element of the special. Nobody seems much alarmed by a snowman springing to life, save for yet another stereotypical Irish cop. Frosty’s intelligence is handled inconsistently. One minute, he can’t count higher then five. The next, he knows what the North Pole is, how to read a thermometer, and is aware of his own mortality. The magician’s pursuit of the girl and the snowman seems like a bit of an overreaction. Secondly, little Karen herself doesn’t think twice about jumping aboard a refrigerated train car. Nor does any adult notice the stowaways. Finally, Santa’s sudden appearance at the end is a major deus ex machine. He brings Frosty back to life, robbing his sacrifice of any meaning, and quickly punishes the villain. That villain, a goofy comic relief character, isn’t particularly intimidating either.

Watching as an adult, the most endearing thing about “Frosty” is probably its voice cast. Jackie Vernon’s big doofy voice embodies the character, making him lovable despite his flaws. Veteran voice actress June Foray is especially good as Karen, and a number of minor supporting characters, making you really care about the little girl. It’s weird to think that there are whole generations of kids who only know who Jimmy Durante is through this special. Anyway, “Frosty the Snowman” doesn’t quite live up to its nostalgic status but isn’t bad. [6.5/10]

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