Arthur Christmas Review
Why can’t you find Santa’s home on Google Earth? And just how does he cope with exponential population growth whilst still fitting in all of his deliveries over just one night? These are just two of the questions posed by Gwen from Cornwall when she writes to Father Christmas, both of which are quickly answered by Arthur Christmas. Nowadays Santa heads up a gigantic operation involving millions of elves, an immense mission control and the S-1, a massive UFO-alike that has long since superseded the traditional sleigh and reindeer. Every Christmas Eve this enormous machine flies over the towns, cities and villages of the world dispensing ‘stealth elf battalions’ who handle the deployment of gifts, presents and stocking filler in a suitably Mission Impossible-esque fashion. Santa, who is getting on a bit, hand-delivers to only the nicest, most well-behaved boy or girl in any given location. He’s a talisman more than anything else, suitably plump and white-bearded enough but not really pulling the strings anymore.
That job belongs to eldest son Steve, the technology-obsessed head of mission control who looks set to become the 21st Santa once his father retires. He’s not the only son, however, as we also have Arthur, a simpler, clumsier type who’s been relegated to mailroom duties. Of course, having his name in the title suggests that he isn’t quite so lowly as such a position suggests. Indeed, whilst Steve represents the nuts and bolts of the operation, Arthur is its heart. And so, when a rare lapse prevents Gwen from receiving her present on Christmas Eve, it should go without saying as to who decides to rectify the issue. That he does so with sleigh and reindeer (and Grand-Santa in tow) rather than the S-1 only serves to cement Arthur Christmas’ central theme: traditional values versus the unfeeling commercial machine.
It’s to Aardman’s great credit that the message is never over-egged. Certainly, it’s clear enough that younger members of the audience should pick up on it, but never to the extent of overshadowing the comedy or the invention. On the surface Arthur Christmas is a tale of family tensions: two very different brothers, bumbling dad, benign mum, curmudgeonly granddad, and a poorly old reindeer. With the exception of the unorthodox pet, it’s an immediately identifiable unit. The casting enhances the sense of familiarity and not only because the voices are so recognisable. James McAvoy and Hugh Laurie supply the tones of Arthur and Steve, respectively, whilst Bill Nighy occupies the part of Grand-Santa. As for Mr & Mrs Santa, they’re played by Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton, immediately conjuring an air of Mike Leigh comic social realism amidst the computer animation, magic dust and legions of elves.
Speaking of which, Santa’s helpers are similarly treated to a host of familiar names. Ashley Jensen gets by far the meatiest role, that of Bryony, a punk-ish wrapping specialist who stows away with Arthur and Grand-Santa on their way to Cornwall. She’s joined by Marc Wootton, Michael Palin, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Rhys Darby, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis, Dominic West and many more besides – a sign, surely, that no-one turns down Aardman these days. Although spare a thought too for director and co-writer Sarah Smith. This may be her first feature, but she’s spent years building up a reputation within television comedy. Nighty Night, The League of Gentlemen, Brass Eye, Fist of Fun – she’s worked on them all in various capacities. Meanwhile, her co-writer Peter Baynham should be recognisable from some as those as well as I’m Alan Partridge, Borat and Brüno. Those kind of credentials go a long way.
Despite the more usual adult credits of Smith and Baynham, Arthur Christmas remains unceasingly sweet and good natured. If there’s a through-line to their previous work then it’s the inventiveness on display and succession of clever ideas. Of course their whole reimagining of the Christmas Eve operation is the centrepiece and all the gadgetry that entails. During one of the special features Baynham merrily notes how they worked out exactly how much time an elf would have per household to carry out a delivery (18 seconds, apparently). Such attention to detail comes through especially during the smaller moments, as in Grand-Santa’s endless reminiscences of the Second World War. Although he’s talking about making deliveries during wartime, not the usual tales of fighting in the trenches or the Normandy landings.
Smith and Baynham have worked in animation before, on the 2004 series for the BBC, I Am Not an Animal. A somewhat dark offering about a group of talking animals freed from a vivisectionist lab, it was told, somewhat crudely, in cut-up stop-motion form with an added dash of digital trickery. Needless to say, the distinctive look was all part of the series’ charm, though there are no such limitations on display in Arthur Christmas. Indeed, from the opening aerial shot of Cornwall to the individual fibres in Arthur’s furry Christmas slippers, the computer animation is consistently superb. Credited as co-director, Disney veteran Barry Cook is on hand to ensure a suitably polished end result.
If there is a flaw then, like all of Aardman’s features to date, it’s that Arthur Christmas sags a little in the middle. For all the wit and invention and impressive animation, the central narrative thread – deliver the final present – is a little too flimsy to sustain feature length. And no matter how many detours are thrown into the mix, whether it’s to the Serengeti or Mexico, that strain is always going to be felt. Nevertheless the opening act is excellent (almost a short film in itself) and things do pick up in time for the finale. With that said, it’s a comparatively minor issue in light of the qualities elsewhere and, ultimately, Arthur Christmas’ charm wins through. Those looking for a new seasonal favourite have a new contender.
Arthur Christmas is now available in three individual editions, as follows: DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray, all of which also come with an UltraViolet copy. The standard Blu-ray disc was supplied for review and so it is this edition considered below…
Sony’s all-region Blu-ray presents Arthur Christmas in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and treats it to a splendid AVC encode. As we should expect from such a recent production, and a computer animated one at that, the film looks absolutely superb. The image is spotless and any technical defects or flaws are non-existent. Detail is excellent and colours are as striking as they should be. As for the soundtrack here we find DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 offering that is similarly problem-free. There are also a host of other language options and an array of subtitles (see full lists below).
Unfortunately, the extras have little appeal. A sticker on the front of the disc announces the presence of a Justin Bieber music video which also comes with the briskest of ‘behind-the-scenes’ featurettes (totalling mere seconds over a minute). Three other featurettes are also present, though these are curious bunch. Focussing more on the story than the production they seem to be aimed at potential viewers rather than those who have seen the film and yet they also feature a number of spoiler-heavy clips. Those looking for some technical insight are better off watching the ‘progression reels’ which talk us through the various stages of animation: environments, models, textures, renders and so forth. Finally we also find an ‘Elf Recruitment Video’ which is effectively a trailer in disguise plus a selection of promos for other Sony Animation titles.