Three generations of the Santa clan cross continents to make sure their job is done in Aardman’s first non-clay animation
KEEPING A YOUNG GIRL’S FAITH ALIVE
In the early hours of 25th November in the Cornish village of Trelawi, and way past her bedtime, a little girl, Gwen (voiced by ‘Outnumbered”s Ramona Marquez), is reaching up to post a letter to Santa in the pillar box on the edge of her darkened cul-de-sac. Gwen’s head is full of questions and she’s clearly not far from that moment when she no longer believes.
A week later, in a small cluttered but homely room off a corridor in Santa’s HQ beneath the North Pole’s ice cap, a young man is replying by hand: ‘Santa is real,’ he assures her, ‘He’s the greatest man ever.’ We can see by the enthusiasm in his eyes that he means every word.
Fast forward to the first hour of Christmas Eve and a birds’ eye view of the city of Aarhus, Denmark and ‘Operation Santa Claus’, a Bond-style mass elf descent from a huge spacecraft (‘S1’) to deliver presents to every child is in full flow.
The Clash Of Innocence And A High-Tech World
The opening scenes of Arthur Christmas, (2011) Aardman Animations fourth feature and first to be filmed in 3D, capture a sense of innocence lost and perhaps trampled over in the rush towards a high-tech present. It could be production company, Aardman’s own story as they shift from the celebrated claymation of Morph, and Wallace and Gromit which made their name to their first co-production with Sony Pictures Animation.
But it is a pressure placed on many contemporary children’s Christmas films to remain relevant by bringing the North Pole bang up to date. They can end up trying too hard and losing the warmth and magic of the season. Elf, of course proved that there’s no need for that if the traditional world of Santa is made believable.
Arthur Christmas does not quite share that charm but it is clever enough to use the contrast between Old Skool reindeer and sledge with hi-tech gizmos that at least get the job done. Except they don’t. When the Pink Twinkle Bike destined for Gwen gets lost amid the frenzy of the North Pole’s Mission Control Centre, it is not micro-manager, spaceship captain, and Santa Claus’ eldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie) who saves the day. Rather, it turns out to be the aforementioned letter writer, Arthur (James McAvoy), clumsy, over-eager but good-hearted youngest son whose heart is in the right place to ensure Gwen gets her bike. It is the homeliness of Arthur as well as the recognisable rural charm of Gwen’s home town that grounds the film.
Claus Family Values
Arthur Christmas grew on me with a second viewing. The attention to detail, geographical scope, and classy British cast are all exemplary. If initially the computerised world of the control hub seemed chilly, the warmth and humour of the characters, and especially the Claus family grounds everything.
There is inter-generational conflict between the retired stuck-in-his-ways Grand Santa (a grouchy-voiced Bill Nighy), and his son, the current but past it Santa, Malcolm (Jim Broadbent) and militaristic grandson, Steve who are fired up with new technology. Imelda Staunton’s Mrs Claus is clearly the power behind the throne, and no one knows quite what to make of Arthur.
Young children could be overwhelmed by the galloping pacing and sheer scattershot sense of place (Toronto, Mexico, the Serengeti, England, Denmark) but this is a film to grow into with references for all ages to enjoy.
Hushed Wonder At Christmas’ Core
The point about Arthur Christmas is that the very core of the film is the innocent enthusiasm that the young man retains for the festival. He is full of wonder himself and has never forgotten that Santa’s raison d’etre is to care about children and that is expressed through the delivery of presents.
And cleverly, we are shown that when we share Arthur’s eyeview: we too light up when the door is opened in a Mexican home to the sight of a fully decorated Christmas tree. It is a breathtaking vision. We too sense the night’s hushed and magical excitement.