To cheer me up after my food poisoning I trundled along to the cinema with Ryan to watch some good-natured British animated fun from Aardman. Is there anyone who doesn’t love Aardman? With their trademarked brand of silly British humour and masterful way with plasticine stop motion the Bristol based studio’s films have proved perennially popular. But this latest effort, their second foray into the world of digital animation has had to do without the easy likeability of the hand-made medium. The earlier film, Flushed Away, struggled to find the kind of commercial and critical success enjoyed by Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit although I rather liked it. Can some festive cheer light up this second attempt?
Arthur Christmas tries to address that age-old question that has baffled everyone from small children to NASA scientists forever. Just how does Santa deliver presents to millions of children round the world in one night on Christmas Eve? The intriguing theory the film suggests is that in this modern age is that he uses not a reindeer driven sleigh but a massive spaceship called the S-1 and an army of elves all organised from a Lapland-based mission control. The whole thing is treated like a military operation complete with hi-tech gadgets, contingency plans in the event of ‘wakers’ and a cloaking device for the S-1.
Even more interestingly the film offers the concept that Santas retire and bequeath their duties to their sons and as such Christmas is a family business. Malcolm (Jim Broadbent) is the current Santa, nearing retirement, his heroically efficient heir apparent Steve (Hugh Laurie) is the cool-headed general in charge of marshalling the missions, Mrs Santa (Imelda Staunton) looks after the home front whilst the geriatric Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), long since retired from his post remembers the good old days. And on the edge of everything is Malcolm’s younger son Arthur (James McAvoy) a gangly bad jumper-wearing fellow full of enthusiasm for festivity who works in the letter-answering department.
After what seems like another successful mission delivering presents the family are getting ready to enjoy Christmas themselves the same way everyone else does by eating turkey and playing board games when it is discovered that one little girl from Cornwall was missed. Malcolm and Steve are reluctant to go back, pointing out that the margin of error was considerably less than one per cent so Arthur, distraught that one child will think Santa doesn’t care about her, takes it upon himself to deliver the gift and sets out with Grandsanta and an elf with ninja-like wrapping skills in the old reindeer-powered sleigh to rescue the little lady’s Christmas.
What follows is essentially a road movie with an airborne twist as the characters blunder their way around the world trying and largely failing to navigate the way to the girl’s house before daylight and for the most part it’s an immensely likeable delight. The script doesn’t zing like Aardman’s best there are moments in the family dynamic that ring true. This family bickers and gets on each other’s nerves as much as most do at Christmas and the story raises some surprising questions about our expectations of each other and there are even a few bits that might prompt nippers to come up with some other tricky questions about Santa, not whether or not he exists (the film knows as we all do that of course he does) but how much he cares and it’s a puzzle that Arthur has to grapple with too.
It seems the studio hasn’t quite figured out how to get the best out of the digital medium because the colour in certain scenes does look a bit drab but this was always going to be about character and comedy over dazzle, not that the film is devoid of the latter as it presents plenty of frenetic sleigh-riding sequences to get the excitement going. But it’s the cast of funnies you’ll remember and they’re all spot on. Nighy’s Grandsanta is probably the highlight, a colourful, decrepit complainer not too old for a spot of mischief while Laurie’s exasperated Steve provides most of the dramatic tension. Many of the best gags go to the scene-stealing Bryony and her mad gift-wrapping skills. Some have commented that the title character is a little bland but I found Arthur one of the more interesting characters, a wide-eyed, cheery youth all innocence and flailing limbs with some tough truths to face nicely understated by McAvoy.
But it’s the laughs that are the most important here and the film scores decently with a few notable duds. Strangely there aren’t as many background gags as usual and although the animation lacks the creators’ literal thumbprints, the style we all know is plain to see in every scene. The story itself is satisfying without offering any revelations or surprises and zips along nicely with just a middle act slump to weigh it down. Overall Arthur Christmas is an immensely good-natured and charming film that it’s difficult not to like.
Not Aardman’s best but the memorable characters and funny script has the power to make this an annual Christmas favourite.