Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger thinks that Tim Curry makes the transition from Prince of Darkness to helpful vole rather well.
"Am I, or am I not magnificent?"—Sean McDuck
The First Snow of Winter is a charming animated children's story told without pretense. It won the BAFTA Children's Award in its native land of Britain as well as a Parent's Choice honor. Though it runs a scant 28 minutes, The First Snow of Winter has more heart (and packs in more adventure) than most animated tales twice as long.
The First Snow of Winter tells the tale of Sean McDuck, a trying youngster with some growing up to do. He harasses seagulls, attempts stunts that wiser ducks might avoid, and pushes his timid puffin friend around. These antics annoy his harried mother, but seem to please the goofy mallard he calls "Pop." In any case, neither parent has much time to amend Sean's behavior, because nature intervenes. Sean becomes separated from his family during the southern migration, and he is forced to spend the cold winter months on his own. Fortunately, a blustery vole named Voley (voiced by Tim Curry) is on hand to show Sean the ropes of survival.
Though it has shades of Kipling's The Jungle Book, The First Snow of Winter feels remarkably fresh among a sea of cheaply made, uninspired children's animation. Writer-director Graham Ralph quickly establishes his characters so we feel we've known them all along. Sean is a troublemaker, but a likable one; he reveals enough vulnerability to make us root for him. Tim Curry infuses his expansive personality into Voley, which makes him an oddly adorable rogue.
Little time is wasted in superfluous chit-chat. Voley's relationship with Sean is focused on the young duck's survival. The nature of Nature is inherent in the tale, with predators and harsh elements ever present. In fact, that may be the key to The First Snow of Winter's success: It is up front about the realities of natural law. Urgency and drama are built in, unforced and free of artifice.
Graham Ralph works within this flow to lend poignancy to the tale. A melancholy, flute-heavy score reinforces the story's themes of isolation and ephemeral innocence. Though situations are established without fanfare, Ralph allows them to unfold with unhurried grace. This gives The First Snow of Winter a blend of immediacy and languid introspection that feels just right.
The animation fits right in with this blend. Characters and foregrounds are rendered in traditional cel animation, which gives them both crisp delineation and classic composure. The backgrounds are sketched with what looks like conte crayons or pastels, hazy naturalistic settings that evoke the splendor of the rugged British Isles while not overpowering the foreground. Finally, tasteful CGI airplanes and water effects are brought in for a touch of the modern.
The sum effect of the spirited characters, plaintive music, and naturalistic animation is to give The First Snow of Winter a fantastic quality grounded firmly in reality. This explains its lack of pretense and its approachability. Anglophiles will appreciate the accents and British flair in the music.
The story is not complex, but it is effective. On one level we have a tastefully restrained morality tale: Actions have consequences because the world is not always forgiving. There is a buddy/mentor relationship that provides heart and laughter. Sean does some navel-gazing and comes out a stronger duck for it. Above all there is the Riverdance parody that crops up occasionally. I was slightly disappointed when a clichéd deus ex machina cropped up at the end, but otherwise the story hits the right notes.
As charming as the tale may be, the DVD presentation is rudimentary. There are no extras, subtitles, or audio options to distract us from the main feature. (Ironically, the marketing previews are the first thing to show up.) Though the colors are stable and distinct, the transfer waffles between unfocused and focused. Black levels are not very deep, though the muted color palette seems like an intentional decision to reinforce natural themes. There is a very slight overuse of edge enhancement that will only be noticeable to those who are looking for it. Overall, the video transfer is serviceable but not inherently pleasing. The soundtrack clearly carries words and notes, though I found the plane sound effects muffled. The track is not particularly dynamic, but it is clear and gets the job done.
With action, danger, and wit to spare, The First Snow of Winter feels larger than its half-hour run time. The story will grow along with your children, to the point where even adults can glean entertainment from it. The First Snow of Winter has the potential to become a holiday favorite. If the DVD presentation had been more enthusiastic, this short film might have moved into "must have" territory. As it stands, this DVD is a pleasant surprise on a snowy afternoon.
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