Monday 21 November 2011

Arthur Christmas Review - A Festive Gift of a Film

Although it may still be over a month until the most festive day of the year, it is very much Christmas time, at least commercially, and Aardman set the mood this year, rolling out the year's first Christmas film, Arthur Christmas. The British animation giants behind Wallace and Gromit, famous for their use of stop-motion, release Arthur Christmas as their fourth feature film, (and their second CGI animated film) and their first under the Sony Pictures banner, after their deal with DreamWorks ended a few years back, and, as we have all come to expect from Aardman, the film was funny, charming, thoughtful, warm and quintessentially British, yet being a broad, entertaining and generally great family to the extent that it will appeal to people all over the world this holiday season.

Arthur Christmas was announced back in 2007, under the name of Operation Rudolph, as the first collaboration between Aardman and Sony Pictures Animation (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and it may be the influence of the very American Sony that means that Arthur Christmas may be the most universally accessible of all of Aardman's films. Wallce and Gromit are utterly brilliant; funny, charming and classic, yet they are very British and their humour and appeal, whilst often widely appealing, are tailored majorly towards us in the UK, so despite the brilliance of their films, the Wallace and Gromit films never quite translated over to America. Yet, Arthur Christmas, due to the universally festive subject matter and the more global scale, mean that people from anywhere in the world are guaranteed to be enchanted by it.
Noentheless, Arthur Christmas is very charming and very British and packs a lot of genuine warmth and comedy because of that, however, it's not Aardman's strongest feature to date, no, that title still belongs to Wallce and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Arthur Christmas isn't without it's flaws, yet, the jolly, lighthearted and touching nature of the film, combined with the classic Aardman touch, mean that this is a must see this season, not just for Aardman fans.

In terms of story, Arthur Christmas packs a very grand one, literally exploring the truth behind Santa Claus, his family and the meaning of Christmas. The story focuses, in a similar vein to The Incredibles, on the domestic - yet adventurous - side of a very grand, out of the ordinary story, as the son of the aged and incompetent Santa (Jim Broadbent), Arthur (James McAvoy), finds his complete and utter faith in Christmas and the joy of the season shook when one lone child (Outnumbered's Ramona Marquez) is missed by the now industrious delivery process and Santa and his high-flying, son Steve (Hugh Laurie) who has dreams of grandeur and being Santa. Arthur, determined to preserve the magical integrity of Christmas, sets off around the world with the cynical Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) in the vintage, old sleigh, pulled by reindeers, to deliver Christmas's final present. Hilarity and genuine, family based, emotion ensue from here as a high octane race against the clock takes place, weaved with British charm and more.

The story is very funny and has enough big set pieces and chases to entertain the wide audience, yet, more importantly, it's very touching, shows the true working of a dysfunctional family and the true meaning of the jolliest time of the year. It is also wickedly clever in how it endeavours to explain how one man could possibly deliver how ever many millions or billions of presents to thousands and thousands of places in one night, with the modern, techno sleigh and army of elves - in a very similar manner to Disney's Prep and Landing. The satire comes in the form of the wide cast of characters mocking Arthur's festive feelings and the conventions of Christmas films; so, witty, funny, touching, clever and satirical, so the story is 100% fun 100% of the time.

However, the crux of any good story is, without a doubt, its characters, a good story falls or takes flight depending on the strength of its core characters. But, Arthur Christmas's characters are a mixed bag in terms of quality. Fortunately, the main characters, which, to me, were Arthur and Grandsanta are very strong, they were pretty much polar opposites, with Arthur being optimistic, at times annoyingly so, and completely, unreservedly jolly, yet, beyond that, his deep love for his family and his admiration for his father mean that he's a very deep, complex character and he works to show how the joy of Christmas is sometimes, regrettably, overshadowed by family arguments. Oppositely, Grandsanta is a cantankerous, grumpy and nostalgic old so and so, who longs for a simpler time, a time when, amongst other things, he was atop the Pole. The mismatch of these two show the true value of family and of Christmas and provide a lot of the emotional strength of the film as well as the comic fun of it.

But, there are some weaker characters, while there are by no means any bad or off putting ones, their are a few that just felt a bit weak and (for want of a better word) meh. Santa, for example, just felt a bit blasé, so-so and uninspired, there was nothing that really made him interesting. Likewise, Steve just felt a bit rehashed from previous films, although he was very funny. These characters weren't bad by any stretch of the imagination, they just felt a little unpolished, especially for an Aardman film, and that dragged the overall quality of the film for me. Also, Ashley Jensen's character, Bryony, just really got on my nerves, rather than optimistic, festive and enthusiastic like Arthur, she just came across as annoying and really grated on me; she did get more bearable after a while, but she just felt very annoying to me.

However, these so-so characters were more than redeemed by a brilliant, enthusiastic and all-star cast, featuring such Hollywood voices as James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Ashley Jensen and Imelda Staunton as well as famous voices such as Andy Serkis, Michael Palin and Robbie Coltraine dropping in. They really add an extra professional level to the film and help to claw back brownie points lost by some unpolished characters.

The animation is also, obviously - as it's an animated film - of note. Arthur Christmas is, after Flushed Away, Aardman's second computer animated film, taking a break from the studio's famed stop motion animation to bring us this. Aardman (and Sony) should be commended for sticking with the style that made them famous and beloved, by trying to make their computer animated characters mimic their trademark clay look, it just adds that extra air of charm and loveablity. Also, the big scenes, the sleigh rides, the crashes in deserts and more, looked completely gorgeous, brilliant and fantastically animated. However, the animation isn't perfect, in fact, in places, it's a bit sloppy. The scenes in the North Pole look a bit dull, dusty and unambitious, also, lip syncing is quite badly off in places. So, while often jaw dropping, the CGI animation here is a tad inconsistent.

So, to round off, overall, Arthur Christmas is a bloody good film (if you'll excuse the overly British language). It has a funny, touching and grand story that is festively warm and brilliant, the characters are also strong where it counts, and some unpolished characters and inconsistent animation was more than redeemed by the story and a strong voice cast. Aardman veteran, Sarah Smith, has made a grand directorial debut for the studio and this fun, festive and occasionally flawed film is made that bit better by the magic of Christmas and the inherent charm of Aardman. Arthur Christmas is a winner and a must see this holiday season


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