All aboard for Tinseltown Paul Byrnes
November 26, 2011
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Taking over the reins … Santa’s stealth spaceship has replaced the sleigh.
Rating: 35 out of 5 stars
A British-American collaboration lacks whimsy but has plenty of laughs.
Arthur Christmas is a genial and frenetic computer animation in 3D from Aardman Animations, the famed British company. Obviously, there is something wrong with that sentence. You can’t have the words ”computer” and ”3D” in the same sentence as Aardman. Aardman is famous for stop-motion claymation, the painfully slow, detailed and very human form of filmmaking that produced the Wallace and Gromit films, Chicken Run and a series of brilliant shorts during the past 35 years. They make handmade, artisanal films in an old shed in Bristol, don’t they? More 19th century than 21st.
Well, almost. Aardman has been slow to adopt newfangled technology like computer animation. They made an attempt with Flushed Away in 2006, the story of a mouse among London sewer rats. It was both a box-office disappointment and the grounds for a business divorce. Aardman had been in bed with DreamWorks Animation since 1997, when they teamed up on Chicken Run. Chicken Run was a major success for both companies but the next two were disappointing, starting with Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, released in 2005. By the time Aardman had finished Flushed Away, the marriage was over. Aardman was said to be unhappy with interference from DreamWorks.
Aardman joined forces with Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2007. Arthur Christmas is their first-born, a bonny, bouncing creation, a charming comedy for the holidays with a top British voice cast. I was about to call it a bastard because it does reflect its dual origins but that is the wrong word. It is not so much illegitimate as composite. It feels like an Aardman film made for Americans – because it is, largely.
Advertisement: Story continues below It was developed in Bristol for two years. Production then relocated to Sony’s digital workshop in Culver City, near Los Angeles. The small creative team became a large creative team, working with hundreds of computers. That makes sense: Sony has the digital expertise and Aardman has the hand-made finesse but there are always difficulties in making films across oceans.
The film reflects some of those problems but in an odd way. The story is like a metaphor for how it was produced. The premise is that Father Christmas does exist. He runs an enormous operation from the North Pole with the help of 1 million elves housed in a huge modern facility with thousands of computer screens (a bit like an animation studio).
The Claus family has run Christmas for centuries. The current Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is the 20th, a bumbling, red-nosed, English eccentric. Mrs Claus (Imelda Staunton) looks like an upholstered Queen Elizabeth and, like the royal family, they have spats. After 70 Christmases, Santa is due to hand over to his overachieving son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), who actually runs things anyway.
There is another son but nobody expects Arthur (James McAvoy) to be Santa because he is a lovable dolt. Clumsy and innocent, he labours in a back office answering Santa’s mail. Arthur is a disappointment but he believes in Christmas with all his heart.
Steve looks like a superhero and believes in efficiency, technology and industrial processes. He has lost touch with the meaning of Christmas (which is presents, not religion). He doesn’t understand that when the elves deliver 2 billion presents in one night, it matters that one child in Cornwall has not received her new bicycle. Arthur is horrified. He and his crotchety old grandfather – known as Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) – set off in a moth-balled sleigh to fix that situation.
So this is a story about old ways versus new. Arthur and Grandsanta use reindeer and a sleigh, rather than the stealth spaceship only Steve knows how to drive. They are modest compared with Steve, who’s like a lost cast member of The Incredibles. Neither Arthur nor his grandfather is comfortable in Steve’s shiny computer world. Arthur is Aardman, Steve is Sony. Even the names are similar.
That would not matter, except that the nature of the partnership has had an impact on the style of the film, too. It’s faster, louder and more brassy than the usual Aardman film. The director, Sarah Smith, making her feature animation debut, is English and Aardman-trained but the script she co-wrote with her former BBC collaborator, Peter Baynham, has been crafted to please everyone, especially Sony. That makes it manic, maybe a little shrill.
The film does most of what it sets out to do extremely well. The comedy is hilarious and layered, with huge energy and inventiveness. It’s also incredibly beautiful in colour and design. Blessedly, some of the whimsy we expect in an Aardman show remains. There’s a lovely scene full of flying African animals that made me jiggle with joy. Aardman has managed to hold on to most, if not all, of its soul in this dance with digital.
(in 3D or 2D)
Directed by Sarah Smith
Rated G, 97 minutes