Not every studio was as adept at melding cartoon silliness with sheer terror as Disney and the Fleischers. Terrytoons producer Paul Terry once said, “Disney is the Tiffany’s of this business, and we’re the Woolworth’s,” but he could just as easily have been talking about Van Buren Studios. While other, better producers at least made an effort to be something other than the poor man’s Disney, Van Buren was shameless, producing a series of Mickey Mouse cartoons before introducing the slightly less legally actionable knockoff Cubby Bear.
No copyrighted characters appear in The Snowman, but the shoddiness is still impossible to ignore. I was going to say the short’s turn to horror comes out of nowhere, but rewatching it, I couldn’t help feeling a pervasive sense of unease even in the first few minutes of cute Arctic animals and a cute Arctic boy doing cute Arctic things. There’s the unsettlingly haphazard editing. The little Inuit boy whose huge mouth and huger, unblinking eyes cross the line from cute into creepy and just keep going. There’s the weird, supposedly funny scenes of a walrus grinning as other animals jump or play music on his belly that really just give the impression we’re watching some strange, secret fetish. Worst of all, there’s the ominous scene, pitch-dark except for the white outline of an alarm clock, of an eerie voice whispering, “tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…” Even the scene of the little boy and his animal friends dancing around the snowman just before the horror starts is more Midsommar than Merrie Melodies.
Eventually, the little Inuit boy wakes up from hibernation — there are a lot of racist stereotypes in these old cartoons, but that has to be the most obscure one — and he and all his animal friends get together to build a snowman. Cute, right? But then, with no explanation, the snowman not only comes to life but turns evil and starts chasing after everyone, and even successfully eats a little fish. The snowman’s first moments are effectively terrifying, as his smiling face melts into a horrible malevolent glare in dead-on close-up. If this moment of horror had been better earned, I’d feel comfortable placing it among the best animation of the year.
The Snowman is like that — there’s little bits of brilliance scattered throughout it, throwing the overall shittiness into sharp relief. Several of the watercolor backgrounds — the ice chapel, the weather station where the little Inuit boy turns on the Aurora Borealis to melt the snowman (???) — are gorgeous, even with the artists’ inability to use the Technicolor process thanks to Disney’s three-year exclusive contract.
But none of that’s enough to swing the needle on this short from “bad” to “good.” It fills up its runtime not so much with gags as gag-shaped objects. Besides whatever the fuck was going on with the walrus, we get the Snowman inexplicably transforming into Jimmy Durante as he hijacks the church organ, or the Inuit boy waking up from his nap to find his seal friend exiting its little igloo followed by a half-dozen baby seals who hadn’t been there when winter started. What’s the joke here? Did the seal give birth? Does that mean it gave birth to the pelican who files out of the igloo too?
And that’s when The Snowman even tries to be funny or scary at all. About halfway through, it stops dead for a performance of “The Church in the Wildwood” led by a penguin with the most earsplitting voice you can imagine. I assumed there was at least a mercenary explanation for this — most of these cartoons existed to sell records and sheet music, after all. But I should have known better than to look for logic in The Snowman — “Wildwood” was almost a century old by the time the short premiered.
The Snowman ends by confirming that director Ted Eshbaugh has lost all control of the short’s tricky tonal balance. The fish from earlier is swimming in the Snowman’s puddle/corpse, alive and well. And then the short irises out as the fish lets out the Snowman’s trademark baritone laugh. I think the intention was supposed to be the fish getting the last laugh and mocking his would-be killer. But all I can think when I hear that fish laughing is the Snowman’s demonic spirit has somehow possessed it.
Fun for the whole family!