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Cartoons for a cold winter's night

Tim here. With a huge portion of the United States either under a heavy cover of snow, or about to become that way, it’s been hard to think about anything else but the deepest, coldest kind of winter. And with Frozen in a shockingly good place to win the weekend box office (in its sixth weekend!), even the movies themselves seem in on the act.

So I figured, why not give in? Frozen reminds us, after all, that wintry conditions can make for some beautiful cinema in the hands of the right artists. Think of Roger Deakins’ unmatchable cinematography in Fargo, or the vivid frozen hell of The Shining. [more...]

But since this is the Film Experience’s animation beat, I thought I’d limit myself just to glancing quickly over some short cartoons from across the decades that emphasize the most beautiful and vibrant things the season has to offer. Because it sure as heck beats looking out my front window at the slushy greyness that the season also has to offer.

Winter (1930)
The 14th of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies, and the fourth in a series of shorts about each of the seasons, it’s a cartoon short from an era where that was exactly identical with “six-minute gag reel”. So it’s not fair to expect it to compete to the icy grandeur of its later descendants. That being said, I always get a kick out of taking a look back on these old animated novelties, because of their historic interest, both sociological (people used to watch this?!) and aesthetic (this used to be the state of the art?!). But also because in their limited, candid way, these things are still awfully funny and charming, straightforward and simple in a way that far too much isn’t any more (the curious can watch it here).

Even granting its limitations, there are still some beautiful moments to be found. Some of the early representations of snow are so stripped down to the basic elements of white on black, they almost function as Expressionism.

And later on down the line, there are plenty of background plates – in the ‘30s as now, backgrounds being one of Disney’s finest strengths – that capture something gorgeous about the way landscapes look in the snow. Its gag-driven mindset isn’t terribly ambitious or complex (such things really didn’t exist then), but its approach to winter imagery make it at least somewhat worthy of its all-encompassing title.

“Once Upon a Wintertime” (1948)
This is it for Disney, I promise. The opening segment of the studio’s package film Melody Time, this visualization of a custom-written Frances Langford song goes to some weird places in its scant running time (a romantic sleighride and an escape from a deadly river in barely eight minutes), and there’s an unutterable ‘40s-ness to its mentality that makes it far more dated than the crude ‘30s gag cartooning of Winter. Still, its style has a certain old-fashioned appeal of its own; it’s not unlike a living version of those Currier & Ives prints that represent a certain ideal of snow and Christmas and family to people who grew up in the 1890s. The lines and colors are plain and simple, and it’s nobody’s idea of groundbreaking filmmaking, but the quick and easy way it ladles on the nostalgia is warming and corny in the best way (I can’t find the whole thing online, but you can get a taste here).

The Snowman (1982)
Jumping ahead several decades and across the Atlantic, this British adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 book is one of those childhood classics that I didn’t manage to see until deep in my 20s, at which point I fell in love. It’s not a terribly bold or aggressive piece of adaptation – it comes as no surprise, looking at its colored-pencil aesthetic and listening to its dialogue-free soundtrack, that it began life as a children’s picture book. But sometimes you care about that sort of thing, and sometimes you don’t. The Snowman is an entirely gorgeous thing, one of the best examples of this kind of drawing style being successfully carried out for an extended period of time (the whole 27-minute piece is here, if you’ve got the time).

There could be no more inviting and pleasant version of winter than this one, with its warm colors, soft lines, and plush characters. Even the reliable forbidding and chilly sight of snow-covered fir trees in the encroaching gloom looks comforting and friendly in this context.


It might have everything to do with a child’s fancies about winter, and nothing to do with the lacerating, wet cold of the reality, but at times like these, I have absolutely no problem with that. Sometimes, winter is about grandeur, and sometimes it’s about snugness, and this weekend is the very best time to think about being snug as you can manage.

What great animated winters did I skip? Share your favorites in the comments!

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Reader Comments (7)

I LOVE The Snowman. We watch it every Christmas. The music is beautiful and when the boy soprano starts singing that lovely melodic line as they fly...gorgeous. I hope your mention of it here inspires more people to watch it.

January 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbillybil

i love snow. and winter. so i'm happy today. but i also haven't left the apartment so it's easy to love it from inside while looking out at it.

January 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

"Tokyo Godfathers". Easily my favorite Christmas movie and my personal favorite of Satoshi Kon. And that's considering the fact that he did the fetus (and way better) versions of both "Inception" and "Black Swan".

January 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

The Snowman! I remember loving that short so much when I was younger. Haven't seen it in forever, but just seeing that image - instant recall.

I love being snowed in (January baby through and through!), and Connecticut is perfect for that. Today was beautiful.

January 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

What about Beauty and the Beast? Doesn't it have snow in it or is my recollection faulty?

January 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Pedro, there's snow on the ground for much of the film. The straight to video sequels are all snow-covered.

Speaking of Disney and snow, is there anything more charming than the ice skating sequence in Bambi?

January 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I love the early Silly Symphonies like Winter (1930). Their simplicity is charming and there were truly inspired moments foreshadowing the brilliance of the early Disney features to come.

January 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNitrate glow

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