The Christmas film was once a staple of the holiday season, with some of the best loved films being stop-motion made for television specials. The ambassador of Yuletide is, of course, Santa Claus. Yet with the exception of Fred Clause, sequels to The Santa Clause, and subversive hits such as Bad Santa or Rare Exports, it has been slim pickings for the bearded bringer of festive mirth over the last decade. Not content to let the jolly fat man crash on the couch of forgotten film figures amidst a sea of milk and cookies with only reindeer for company, Aardman Animation, best known for their Wallace and Gromit films and Chicken Run, looks at Santa’s extended family in their first foray into 3D animation.
Santa Claus is not a single immortal person, but rather a hereditary title bestowed upon a male in a long line of Clauses through history. In the 21st century, Santa Clausing has gone hi-tech with Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 ) and his son Steve (Hugh Laurie, TV’s House), driving a giant spaceship around the world on Christmas Eve. Delivering presents is a military operation, with the elves now doing most of the hard work. Steve looks forward to the doddering Santa retiring, while his other son Arthur (James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class) has been relegated to mail duty. When Arthur discovers that Steve’s system has missed a single child, it falls to him to deliver it.
Arthur Christmas marks the feature debut of Sarah Smith, who has written and produced televisions shows such as The Armando Iannucci Shows and the excellent British TV comedy League of Gentlemen. Smith, who co-wrote the film with Peter Baynham (Borat, Arthur), injects a sense of the unexpected into what is otherwise a very familiar Christmas tale. Arthur Christmas opens with a voice-over from a child writing a letter to Santa, which directly references not being able to find Santa on Google Maps and asks how is is able to deliver gifts when the population is expanding “exponentially”. This is not the clever-clever anachronisms of Shrek, however, but rather the kind of humour that made The Simpsons a success in its earlier years. Kids will enjoy the physical comedy, and the tone of the film, while adults have a very dry crackling British wit to keep them warm throughout the winter.
Disney has well and truly had their crown challenged over the last few years, not least of which is from Pixar who they wound up buying outright anyway. DreamWorks and Blue Sky Studios have been keeping them on their toes, and even Nickelodeon Movies took everybody by surprise with Rango. Now that Aardman has made a deal with Sony, which will soon be followed by Pirates! A Band of Misfits, it seems that the sky is no longer the limit for them. Arthur Christmas saw Aardman and Sony Pictures Imageworks reportedly worked on the film for three years, including 18 months of pre-production, and the proof is in the Christmas pudding. Character detail is delightful, from the punk-haired gift-wrapping ninja elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen, Gnomeo & Juliet) to Arthur’s spectacularly daggy Christmas sweaters. 3D is used to add depth and shading, and only occasionally for gimmickry. Some of the characters, such as the 136-year-old Grandpa Claus, are so horribly comicly gnarled that this could only be a British production.
The voice cast is on the money, with McAvoy’s Arthur demonstrating the flexibility of an actor who has already loaned his voice to a gnome and reinterpreted a character created by Patrick Stewart this year. Laurie must be relishing the chance to drop the American accent, as his swaggering Steve is a masterstroke, perhaps matched only by the vageuness of Jim Broadbent and the gleeful senility of Bill Nighy’s Grandsanta. Extras and Ugly Betty‘s Ashley Jensen wrapping-obsessed mental elf proves that Jensen enhances any project she is in, and should therefore be cast in everything. This is a star-studded cast though, and rather than using the actors purely for the marquee, you’ll hear Imelda Staunton, Eva Longoria, Robbie Coltrane, Andy Serkis, Dominic West, Michael Palin and Joan Cusack in supporting roles that give warmth to this arctic adventure. Keep your ears open for the North Pole Computer: it’s Laura Linney.
Humbugs may focus on the commercialisation of Christmas, with Arthur’s central quest being based on the idea that a single girl not getting exactly what she wants as the end of Christmas. Nothing could be further from the truth, with Arthur Christmas being mostly a polemic on generational tensions and ultimately finding that there is room for both old and new. More to this, the character of Arthur proves that there is also a place for idealists, and the dreamers. They hope one day you will join us, and the world will be as one.
Arthur Christmas is released 24 November 2011 in Australia from Sony.