The animated film is an adaptation of the children's picture book Granpa, written and illustrated by John Burningham and published by Jonathan Cape in 1984. Burningham won the Kurt Maschler Award, or "the Emil", from Maschler publishers and Booktrust, which annually recognised the author(s) of one "work of imagination for children, in which text and illustration are integrated so that each enhances and balances the other."
The film opens with a photo album, showing Granpa as a baby with his mother, him as a young boy, him as a young adult, dressed in a WWII officers uniform beside a vintage car and his girlfriend, him being wedded with his wife, them having kids, them becoming an elderly couple, and finally with just granpa with a baby Emily.
The entire theme for the film celebrates the relationship between a small girl named Emily (voiced by Emily Osborne), and her kindly but ailing grandfather (voiced by Peter Ustinov). Emily's playful innocence is contrasted with Granpa's increasing frailty. Aware that he will not be around for much longer, he shares his memories of adventures and days gone by.
These memories are vividly brought to life by her grandfather's tales, beginning in the spring a description of Granpa's childhood and youth in the early part of the 20th century, being part in a Noah's Ark-influenced story when it began to rain, remembering the days when Grandpa played the piano for the school's choir, and enjoy ballroom dances with his wife.
In summer, Granpa and Emily travelled to the seaside to paddle in the sea, build sandcastles, and whilst riding on the donkeys, had Grandpa imagine himself part of the military tattoo, whilst Emily a princess. As they went to the amusement park and went to the stalls, they rode on the rollercoaster that then climaxed with them flying in a Spitfire, reenacting Granpa's services during the Battle of Britain.
In autumn, Granpa and Emily went fishing, and imagined of catching a whale that haled them through the Thames and through London. At bedtime, Granpa tells Emily the story of The Three Knights, of which was imagined on a bed covers. Though as he reads, he begins to slow up as he begins to drop off. So he end it with his own version, just as Emily was finally going to sleep.
In winter, snow has settled, and once more Granpa's childhood began to show as he and his friends played in the snow. When back indoors, Granpa was feeling very unwell, and was being looked after by Emily, who asked of him to read another story from a book, this time of them being in the jungles of India riding on an elephant, in which monkeys then steal Granpa's storybook, of which they managed to recover, but was then left intentionally incomplete with Granpa saying, 'I'm just not quite quick enough ... anymore.'
Throughout the seasons past, Granpa had begun to grow frailer, and eventually Emily is left alone with an empty chair and the old man's loyal dog. She leaves the house with the dog and climbs a hill. As they travel, an apparition of Granpa, now in his childhood again, joins them, along with the apparitions of his childhood friends, and they head off down the hill, playing with each other.
In 1984, following the success of the animated Christmas film The Snowman, Channel 4 commissioned another animation from TVC studios; producer John Coates approached Dianne Jackson and composer Howard Blake, suggesting Burningham's picture book Granpa. Blake was initially reluctant due to the book's upsetting ending, but was convinced after witnessing his own daughter's reaction to her grandfather's death that year.
Fiona Collins noted in Turning the Page: Children's Literature in Performance and the Media that while Burningham's book is open ended, with Emily ultimately left alone to contemplate her grandfather's death, the film offers a less "stark" interpretation; his death is explored through her implied remembrance of him in the final scene. Collins suggests that this was probably because the original offered an unremittingly bleak ending that would be difficult for its intended child audience.
The film was entirely financed by Channel 4 and cost over one million pounds to make according to Coates. It was first broadcast on the channel on New Year's Eve 1989 at 6.30pm.
The musical score was written and composed by Howard Blake and is almost in the form of a miniature opera, with many of the tales within the animation sung by the lead characters, along with children from the Wroughton Middle School choir (winners of BBC Choir of the Year) and a forty-piece orchestra (the Sinfonia of London).
The end title song "Make Believe" is performed by Sarah Brightman and has the theme of "Auld Lang Syne" as a counter-melody. The song was released as a single at the time.
The film won the Prix Jeunesse International award for excellence in children's television programming in 1990. The film review site Rotten Tomatoes has called the film "a sensitive and life-affirming animated adaptation".
The film has rarely been repeated, and has never been released on DVD, perhaps due to its subject matter. The "Toonhound" review suggest that the film takes the tone of the ending of The Snowman even further, "exploring an aspect of life rarely approached in animated form." Paul Madden, writing Dianne Jackson's obituary in 1993 suggests that the film "was less of immediate popular appeal than The Snowman, but was perhaps more satisfying to her creatively, demanding a more subtle approach."