Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
We are familiar with many iconic characters around the holidays. Whenever we think of Christmas, Santa Claus, Rudolph, or The Grinch usually come to mind. But sometimes we also think of characters that are usually present around the season rather than the holiday itself. Frosty the Snowman is a prime example.
Based on the Christmas song by Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson, it is about a snowman that magically came to life. Frosty is easily the most recognizable winter-themed character, especially around Christmas time. Like Rudolph, his iconic TV appearance is the 1969 animated Rankin/Bass television special starring Jackie Vernon spawned a sequel and a crossover film years later. As of today, the Rankin-Bass versions are considered holiday classics for families of any generation to watch.
Then again, just like Rudolph, we get one or two different stories of the aforementioned character. In 1992, television network CBS, known for traditionally airing the Rankin/Bass specials, released a new special about Frosty unlike any before. The results were mixed. Some found it comforting with familiar elements thrown in. Others were confused and found the special average at best but forgettable at the same time. Although, Frosty Returns is not ranked up there with other television specials, it holds a nostalgic and underrated appeal to certain audiences whenever it is Christmas or winter time. What is it then?
Frosty (voiced by John Goodman) and his new friend Holly (voiced by Elizabeth Moss) must stop a businessman (voiced by Brian Doyle-Murray) from permanently destroying snow.
A STAND-ALONE ENVIRONMENTAL SPECIAL
Is this special is a sequel to the Rankin/Bass classic? The answer is no. As mentioned before, the Rankin/Bass had its own sequel and crossover film. While they lack continuity, they retain certain components that made the original timeless. For this special's case, this was produced by Bill Melendez Productions instead of Rankin/Bass. You read correctly. Frosty Returns was made by the same company that annually aired the Peanuts television specials and films. You can easily tell by its art direction, which will be discussed soon. In other words, this is their interpretation on the original song itself rather than a continuation.
Does the story have similarities or references? Yes, but to a lesser extent because they get easily overshadowed by the main element that makes this Frosty different from the others. The concept takes a huge departure from mentioning anything Christmas related and focuses more on...an environmental theme.
Before continuing, it is important to address environment awareness in the animation medium. There was a period, similar to PSAs on ANY subject matter, where certain shows and movies attempted to raise awareness to masses about saving the environment. The most common examples were Captain Planet & the Planeteers show and feature films, such as FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Once Upon a Forest. The outcome of these projects would depend on one's opinion. Some are inspired and motivated while others get overwhelmed calling them "pretentious" or the conveyed messages being hammered down.
For the case of Frosty Returns, the environment message here is thankfully told in a more simple and effective way that its audience could definitely relate to. It talks about the winter season and its effect on society. Kids could have a fun time in the snow while adults would have a difficult time shoveling snow or affecting their heating. The special also adds commentary on consumerism when the antagonist's new product, which is an aerosol spray called Summer Wheeze, instantly erases snow from existence. People take it for granted which makes them almost forget that snow is beneficial for the Earth, despite its flaws. With that said, for those that don't care about the environment, chances are that you won't be missing much. Not to mention, it is simply 22 minutes long with no commercials added. Some would expect some more out of it. Yet, the previous Frosty specials were short and straightforward as well, so there's no point arguing there. The story, overall, is harmless entertainment with a nice message that anyone could connect to about winter.
Besides the animation quality of Peanuts, the special also provides some humor. Thanks to the cast being SNL alumni and recognizable names, most of the comedy relies more on dialogue and one-liners rather than slapstick. While the dialogue isn't laugh-out-loud funny, the performances of the actors help give their characters charm and personality.
FROSTY MEETS PEANUTS; A VISUAL IDENTITY
Speaking of the animation, the visuals is what helps make Frosty Returns stick out like a sore thumb. As soon as you look at a still or clip, Peanuts fans will be immediately drawn in. The art style and character designs share the same simplistic, flat cartoony style that audiences would be familiar with. While a couple of characters have beady eyes and wearing eyeglasses with no pupils, most of the characters' eyes are more fleshed out and expressive. The main human characters Holly and Charles eerily, but not completely, resemble Peanut characters Peppermint Patty and Marcy. Since this is a television produced special, the character animation is limited. Frosty is the sole exception (outside his similar yet different design) for being more animated, most notably when he dances. Kind of like Snoopy when thinking about it.
The town of Beansboro, according to the Narrator, is a "nice town, plenty of parking space, and lots of cocoa." Other than that description, Beansboro itself is nothing much to talk about, with average homes, average school, average anything. The only key location is the town's annual Winter Carnival where Frosty tries to hide. While it may be a simple carnival and a plot point, it visually stands as the only remaining location with snow while everything else is sprayed away. With winter being the subject matter, the special also doesn't shy away with nice winter colors. It does help give its audience a comforting mood about the season. It is an assumption some people would turned off by the visuals and get easily mistaken for another Peanuts special instead of Frosty. Then again, the animation does gives Frosty Returns its own visual identity.
SIMPLE CHARACTERS; SNL AUMNI CHARISMA
If the message and animation were simple enough, then it would also apply to the characters. Starting with the titular character himself, Frosty is a magical living friendly snowman who enjoys visiting different towns and loves to dance and sing. His new friends are Holly DeCarlo, a lonely kid who wants be a magician, and Charles, a science-loving kid and Holly's only friend. And then, we have our villain, Mr. Twitchell. He is a corporate executive with a "man vs. nature" motif that plans to eliminate winter forever using Summer Wheeze spray and literally wants to be treated like a king. He also has a pet cat named Bones who acts as his loyal henchman. As for Holly's mother and the strict teacher Ms. Carbuckle, there is nothing much else to say about them.
Although the characters may be flat and basic as their designs, there is a sense of likeability to them, thanks to the voice-over work done by the SNL cast. As traditional as these specials provide, we have a narrator voiced by Johnathan Winters, *rimshot sound effect*. Voicing a tiny cocoa-loving, snowflake riding man, Winters' voice is very humble and soothing which gives him a laid-back personality. John Goodman surprisingly does a solid performance making Frosty more expressive and energetic when comparing to the Rankin/Bass version. Even his singing helps give that positivity feeling to the winter season. Then-child actors Elizabeth Moss and Michael Patrick Carter naturally make their characters as authentic as the Peanuts kids. Brian Doyle Murray is gravelly and over-the-top as anyone would expect. Ironically, Andrea Martin would later voice another teacher character known as Miss Fowl in Nickelodeon's Jimmy Neutron.
Lastly, there isn't much mentioning about the musical numbers. Not to say that they are bad or anything, since the special mainly uses one song "Let There Be Snow" but carefully divide into three different variations. The main number and reprisal highlights the wintery fun accompanied by John Goodman's jolly singing and music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh. "We Love Snow/Oh No, Not Snow!" definitely contrasts how kids enjoy the snow while the adults are angry by the weather conditions. "No More Snow" is a short, self-explanatory villain song where Mr. Twitchell relishes his devilish plan in a goofy matter. He even ends his song with a Richard Nixon resign pose! As for the titular song that we all know and love, it is used instrumentally in the beginning and the cast sings it in the end during the credits.
Overall, Frosty Returns is an innocent and harmless special that benefits a relatable environmental message, decent performances and simple but familiar animation. Sure, some would get confused by its presence for being a sequel to the Rankin/Bass version, others would get bored for a lack of substance and the characters don't feel complex. Yet, this was an experimental adaptation on the song itself with a trending yet refreshing concept, instead of capitalizing on nostalgia or the character's popularity. Bill Melendez knew how to captivate audiences quite on par on how he made the Peanuts specials during his career. It is tough on recommending it to, besides young children and families. If you enjoy Frosty the Snowman and have a love for Bill Melendez's works, it is a good watch around either Christmas or the winter time. If not, it is passable enough as a rental. Who thought mixing holiday characters and the environment would be quite distinctive.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on December 18, 2020:
I loved the original and cried every year even as an adult. I cant even remember what Frosty returns is about so I will have to watch it again.