With Chicken Run, Aardman unexpectedly brought their claymation style to a much wider audience. They had been charming British audiences for years, of course, from the Creature Comforts shorts to their celebrated Wallace and Gromit films. Despite my initial fears, this film also does not signal the end of their relationship with the medium – the claymation The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists comes out within a few weeks. So what is Arthur Christmas? An experiment? A side-project? A Sony animation with the Aardman name added to give it a sense of familiar, homespun eccentricity?
Ultimately, it looks like Aardman writing and humour packaged up by Sony’s slick CG animation put through the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs character design filter. A union that works well, impressive but remaining silly-looking and with some good humour – though perhaps some more cuteness in the design side would have helped.
The story is a slightly cheeky take on Christmas traditions. Santa isn’t a being who lives forever – ‘Santa’ is more a title, handed down from father to son. The current Santa is getting on a bit, though his eccentric and ancient father is still alive. His successor is likely to be his eldest son Steve, who has come up with an incredibly efficient system to deliver presents to every child on Earth, involving a vastly supersonic spaceship with an underbelly that mimics the night sky, numerous video streams and specialists for every situation. Steve’s younger brother Arthur is clumsy and useless, but works hard in the letters department, writing back to children to instil them with a sense of wonder. However, when one child is missed and the current and incumbent Santas will not deal with it, it falls to Arthur, his mad old grandfather and the elf from the wrapping department who discovered the missed present to solve the problem – the old-fashioned way.
It’s unwise to attribute too much of an agenda to the film. It’s less about putting technology and heart in opposition than in contrasting ruthless corporate efficiency with caring about the individuals – without suggesting for a moment that life could go on without those who run complex operations with precision and tight controls. The ending may give priority to those who care about the children rather than the well-oiled machine, but the machine still has to be there.
Arthur Christmas won’t be for everyone – it is twee and full of cartoony designs but never quite gets to loveable, which it possibly could have done by making Arthur younger and less comical. It is not highly original, nor ever all that emotional. And it suffers from having its goal achievable in half an hour, then having to be stalled by things like misreading of maps and having to make the right first impression, which all gets a bit artificial – though missiles flying gave the climax oomph.
Aardman give the film the slight edge it needs to stand out – a very British setting and British humour. The most obvious place this happens is in the Christmas meal. While everyone knows the jokes about families getting together at Christmas only to squabble and fight, it’s actually very rare to see this in a Christmas film, and having it in one about Santa's family strikes me as amusingly subversive. There are also a lot of great little visual gags, like the poor seal that happens to be where the spacecraft is rising up out of the icy water, or a model elf appearing where you expect poor Bryony to end up. There are some nice little moments with random elf extras in mission control, and the grandpa character gets great lines.
It also helps that the cast is great. Jim Broadbent is peerless in the ‘wet and hapless but instantly likeable old man’ role, and Hugh Laurie steals the show in a return to characterisation many miles from House that ought to amuse and bemuse American audiences unfamiliar with his comedy work. Bill Nighy has a lot of fun, and James McAvoy pitches Arthur nicely between sensitive and daft. Michael Palin has a superb little cameo as a daft old communications elf, with some of the funniest moments in the film, and Ashley Jensen pitches Bryony just right (as long as Americans can understand the accent). Everything was just right – though perhaps Justin Bieber’s ending song could have been something more…timeless.
This feels neither like the start of a great renaissance for Sony Pictures Animation nor like a reinvention of Aardman, but if they collaborate a few more times, I feel like they might just make a real classic.