Great and overlooked achievement in British animation
Granpa, based on the children's book by John Burningham, is the second (and sadly last) animation to be directed by the late Dianne Jackson. She will be forever remembered for the legendary Christmas animation The Snowman, from the book by Raymond Briggs. But she went on to direct Granpa in 1989 and then to do the initial planning and storyboarding for Father Christmas in 1991.
Father Christmas would have been her second Raymond Briggs adaptation as director, but ill health meant that she had to hand over the director's reins to one of her protégés, Dave Unwin, who had worked with her as an animator on Granpa. She died tragically young in 1992, leaving Granpa as her final work as full director. Her concept for an animated series based on the works of Beatrix Potter, The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, was completed by others and transmitted posthumously by BBC Television in 1993.
Granpa is a beautiful and very British half hour animation about a little girl called Emily and her kindly but ailing old grandfather. Emily's developing personality, imagination and childhood memories are being formed by her days spent listening to Granpa's stories. The stories come to life in animated images brilliantly designed to look like a child's crayoned drawings. Vivid, bright and seemingly inherently childish, the images are actually highly sophisticated animations from director Jackson and her team of artists. Remember that all of these animated frames were created lovingly by hand in 1989, before computer generated imagery came to dominate the business of animation and rendered hand drawn, beautifully detailed cartoon films like Granpa obsolete!
The tone of the film is initially warm and exhilarating, with Emily untroubled by notions of time or mortality. She lives fully within the moment, a child's viewpoint. For Granpa however, things are rather different. Aware that his days with her are numbered, he lovingly preserves her innocence and passes on to her a heritage within stories from his own distant childhood.
As the seasons pass by (symbolically from spring to winter, and then to spring once more), Granpa becomes visibly frailer until finally, during a magical story that has the pair swinging through jungle branches, he concedes that "I just can't reach those branches...the way I used to be able to." In a heartbreaking coda that echoes the famous finale of The Snowman, Emily finds herself (along with the old man's sad, loyal old dog) to be alone; her young life before her and Granpa inevitably consigned to live on only in her memories.
It's an astonishing finish, brave and sad and with an awareness of mortality and the sacredness of memory. In that sense, Granpa has much in common with all the great children's tales (Watership Down, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, The Once and Future King, The Snowman, and many others), and in its so very British way it subtly and with great understatement covers the most serious themes of life, death, time and the rites of passage between old and new.
A great piece of work, deserving of so very much more attention than it has received over the years. A neglected masterpiece that hardly ever gets screened, I recommend Granpa unreservedly. If you get the opportunity to watch this beautiful rarity, do so!
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