8 out of 10
Release Date: 11th November 2011
Director: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook (Walking With Dinosaurs 3D)
Voice Cast: James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Ramona Marquez with Michael Palin, Robbie Coltrane, Rhys Darby, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Joan Cusack, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis, Dominic West, Iain McKee, Kevin Eldon, Bronagh Gallagher, Danny John-Jules, Eva Longoria and Laura Linney
Writer: Sarah Smith & Peter Baynham
Trailer: ARTHUR CHRISTMAS
Review by Matt Usher: (Yes, I know, I should have written this before Christmas, but the film’s four years old anyway so never mind and if you haven’t watched it yet watch it this Christmas instead – it comes round quicker than you think).
This is the Aardman film that got away even despite making loads of money, and it’s easy to see why (both why it got away and why it made loads of money). It’s a CGI (or CG depending on your acronymic preference) effort, and if there’s one thing we know about Aardman it’s that they’re the plasticine people. So that explains why the film never really got noticed by critics (and me): Aardman = plasticine, leave all that computer drawing stuff to the Americans. But it’s a really good film on any level, and the truth is, had it been a stop-motion animation they’d still be making it and it would probably take them another twenty years to complete, it’s that intricate. There’s a lot going on in every frame. All of it good.
But it all starts with the story of the strangely named Arthur Christmas, a young man who works in the mailroom in Father Christmas’s secret North Pole Lair. (Imagine if Santa ever turned to crime! Now there’s an idea for a thoroughly disgraceful film…) And Arthur’s also Father Christmas’s younger, more useless son. As such he’s relegated to replying to all the letters from little children around the world. And he is, of course, a true believer. But what of the implied older brother? His name is Steve and he is the heir apparent. The film’s basic premise is: how does Father Christmas make all those deliveries in one night? The answer (which should help a lot of parents at Christmas-time when asked awkward questions) is that in order to cope with the population explosion and advances in modern detection technology, the operation now masterminded by the gadget-obsessed, checklist-ticking Steve uses what is effectively the USS Enterprise (complete with cloaking ability) and a crack team of several million elves travelling faster than light. Meanwhile the actual Father Christmas (voiced by a weary, bemused Jim Broadbent – so much better here than in THE LADY IN THE VAN) has become a figurehead, simply laying down little more than the first and last presents in any given town whilst the elves beaver away like busy beavering bees.
And so the Christmas run is done in record time, but then Arthur finds that someone’s been missed! A little girl in Cornwall will not receive her bike! And so Arthur teams up with his granddad – a retired Santa from the early twentieth century with no time for new-fangled technology and a nostalgia for a good old-fashioned sleigh (and voiced brilliantly by Bill Nighy (UNDERWORLD)) to right the wrong which Steve, with a politician’s or businessman’s view of statistics and the bottom line, regards as an unnecessary and wasteful solution to an unfortunate oversight.
Arthur and Grandpa are soon circumnavigating the Earth, and getting into scrapes involving dangerous animals, aliens and a dodgy satnav. And they’re aided by an elf from the wrapping division (voiced by Ashley Jensen (EXTRAS) with a combination of comic determination and cuteness).
James McAvoy (THE LAST STATION) is bright and fresh-voiced as Arthur, and nothing like the usual James McAvoy characters. It may be the best thing I’ve seen him in (that’s not as back-handed a compliment as it appears). Hugh Laurie (STUART LITTLE) makes a good villain (except there are no villains here – the film manages to show conflict without evil which is a good trick – Steve’s just got his priorities skewed, basically following the technology and forgetting about the purpose). Imelda Staunton (PETER’S FRIENDS) plays Mrs Christmas, the only one with any sense (but in a funny way not a boring way). Sometimes in animated films it can be a bit annoying when well-known voices are employed and the actors just sound like they’re doing someone a favour or doing an easy gig. Not here, there’s proper voice acting going on, which helps the excellent animations come to life. You’ll even forget they’re not real-life plasticine. There are also a lot of non-intrusive cameos (Andy Serkis, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jane Horrocks and others with only a line or two as elvish minions.) It helps also that the script steers nicely between sentiment and comedy without overloading on either (there are no wise-cracking reindeer).
Generally I like to think I don’t like CG animations what with their American shininess and absence of thumbprints and recourse to witty, literate scripts. But (not for the first time) I can happily make an exception here. It’s still basically the Aardman house style – simple figures, generally with big noses (and Steve’s beard is a work of genius) (even though I didn’t spot it till second time round); the elves are particularly good – huge heads dwarfing tiny military-uniformed bodies (and a much better realisation of the elf as a species than the Orlando Bloom iteration over in Middle-Earth). But on top of all that there’s busyness and pace and lots of (almost) throwaway visual gags, and a global scale which pretty much makes the CG a necessity. And there are plenty of groanworthy puns to remind us that we’re still in Aardman-land.
But what are we to make of these all-too-servile elves, an almost Ood-like race of willing and enthusiastic servants, whose unthinking loyalty turns into existential terror at the thought of the failure of Christmas (one of them even questioning the existence of children as the film takes a bleak turn)? Funny they may be, but are they not slaves, labouring thanklessly for the delight of small children unaware of their very existence? (Or maybe that is in itself a description of the modern Christmas?) On the other hand, it keeps them from causing mischief on street corners.
8 out of 10 – I love this film. It’s clever, funny, sweet and repays (and pretty much requires) multiple viewings: so it’s the almost perfect Christmas film (apart from Justin Bieber doing the song, that’s a shame.)
WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?
- James McAvoy: X-Men 5, Victor Frankenstein, X Men 4, Muppets Most Wanted, Filth, Welcome To The Punch, Trance, X Men- First Class, Gnomeo & Juliet (voice), The Conspirator, The Last Station, Wanted, Becoming Jane, Atonement, Starter For 10, Penelope, The Last King Of Scotland, The Chronicles Of Narnia- The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, Shameless (TV), Inside I’m Dancing, Wimbledon, Bright Young Things, Regeneration, The Near Room
- Jim Broadbent: Bridget Jones 3, The Sense of an Ending, War & Peace (TV), Brooklyn, The Lady In a Van, Big Game, Get Santa, Paddington, Postman Pat (voice), The Harry Hill Movie, Closed Circuit, Le Week-End, Filth, Cloud Atlas, The Iron Lady, Another Year, Harry Potter- part 8, Harry Potter- part 6, The Damned United, Young Victoria, Inkheart, Indiana Jones 4, Hot Fuzz, Chronicles Of Narnia- The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, Bridget Jones 2, Vera Drake, Vanity Fair, Bright Young Things, Nicholas Nickleby (2002), Gangs Of New York, Iris, Moulin Rouge, Bridget Jones, Little Voice, Topsy Turvy, The Avengers, The Borrowers, Smilla’s Feeling For Snow, The Secret Agent, Rough Magic, Richard III (1995), Princess Caraboo, Bullets Over Broadway, Widow’s Peak, The Crying Game, Enchanted April, Life Is Sweet, Erik The Viking, Vroom, Brazil
- Hugh Laurie: The Canterville Ghost (voice), Tomorrowland, House MD (TV), The Oranges, Monsters vs Aliens (voice), Street Kings, Stuart Little 3, Valiant (voice), Flight of the Phoenix, Stuart Little 2, Girl From Rio, Maybe Baby, Stuart Little, Cousin Bette, The Man In The Iron Mask (1998), Spice World, The Borrowers, 101 Dalmatians (1996), Sense and Sensibility, A Bit of Fry & Laurie (TV), Jeeves & Wooster (TV), Peter’s Friends, Blackadder (TV), Strapless, Plenty, The Young Ones (TV)
- Imelda Staunton: Paddington (voice), Pride (2014), Maleficent, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (voice), Another Year, The Awakening, Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows – Part 1, Three and Out, Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix, Freedom Writers, Shadow Man, Nanny McPhee, Vera Drake, Blackball, Chicken Run (voice), Remember Me, Twelth Night (1996), Sense and Sensibility, Much Ado About Nothing(1993), Peter’s Friends
- Ashley Jensen: The Lobster, The Legend of Barney Thompson, All Stars, Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists (voice), Hysteria, Gnomeo & Juliet (voice), Ugly Betty (TV), How To Train Your Dragon (voice), Nativity!, A Cock & Bull Story, Extras (TV)
- Marc Wootton: The Bad Education Movie, Nativity 3, The Harry Hill Movie, Nativity 2, Nativity!, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, Confetti
- Michael Palin: Absolutely Anything (voice), Remember Me (TV), The Klangers (narrator) (TV), Monty Python Live – Five Down One To Go, A Liar’s Autobiography (voice), Michael Palin’s Explores (TV), The Wipers Times, Fierce Creatures, The Wind In The Willows (1996), GBH (TV), American Friends, A Fish Called Wanda, Brazil, A Private Function, The Meaning Of Life, The Missionary, Time Bandits, Life Of Brian, The Rutles, Jabberwocky, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Flying Circus (TV)
- Robbie Coltrane: Effie Gray, Great Expectations (2012), The Comic Strip (TV), Brave (voice), Harry Potter – Part 1 to 8, The Brothers Bloom, Alex Rider – Stormbreaker, Ocean’s Twelve, Van Helsing, From Hell, James Bond – Goldeneye, James Bond – The World Is Not Enough, Message In a Bottle, Buddy, Cracker (TV), The Adventures Of Huck Finn (1994), The Pope Must Die, Triple Bogey On a Par Five Hole, Nuns On The Run, Henry V, Lenny Henry – Live and Unleashed, Bert Rigby You’re a Fool, Slipstream, The Fruit Machine, Blackadder (TV), Tutti-Frutti (TV), Mona Lisa, Absolute Beginners, Caravaggio, The Supergrass, The Young Ones (TV), Krull
- Rhys Darby: We’re Wolves, Killing Hasselhoff, What We Do In The Shadows, Diagnosis Death, The Boat That Rocked, Yes Man, The Flight of The Conchords (TV)
- Sanjeev Bhaskar: Absolutely Anything, Goodness Gracious Me (TV), The Kumars At No.42 (TV), Zero Theorem, London Boulevard, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Anita and Me
- Joan Cusack: Toy Story 4 (voice), Shameless US (TV), The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Hoodwinked 2 (voice), Mars Needs Moms (mo-cap), Toy Story 3 (voice), My Sister’s Keeper, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Friends With Money, Looney Tnes Movie (voice), School of Rock, Where The Heart Is, High Fidelity, Toy Story 2 (voice), Runaway Bride, Cradle Will Rock, Arlington Road, In & Out, Grosse Pointe Blank, Two Much, Nine Months, Corrina Corrina, Addams Family 2, Toys, Accidental Hero, My Blue Heaven, Men Don’t Leave, Say Anything, Working Girl, Married To The Mob, Star and Bars, Broadcast News, Grandview USA, Sixteeen Candles
- Jane Horrocks: Abolutely Fabulous – The Movie, Sunshine On Leith, Trollied (TV), Absolutely Fabulous (TV), Garfield 2 (voice), Brothers Of The Head, The Corpse Bride (voice), Born Romantic, Chicken Run (voice), Little Voice, Bring Me The Head Of Mavis Davis, Second Best, Life Is Sweet, Memphis Belle, The Witches, Getting It Right
- Andy Serkis: Star Wars 8, Jungle Book – Origins (mo-cap), Star Wars – The Force Awakens (mo-cap), Avengers 2, Tintin 2 (mo-cap), The Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes 2 (mo-cap), The Hobbit – The Desolation Of Smaug (mo-cap), The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (Mo-Cap), Wild Bill (2012), The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Mo-Cap), Tintin (2011) (Mo-Cap), Brighton Rock (2011), Burke and Hare, Sex & Drugs & Rock-N-Roll, The Cottage, The Prestige, 13 Going On 30, King Kong (2005)(Mo-Cap), Alex Rider-Stormbreaker, Deathwatch, 24 Hour Party People, Lord Of The Rings – Fellowship Of The Ring, The Two Towers, The Return Of The King (Mo-Cap), Mojo, Stella Does Tricks, Career Girls
- Dominic West: Finding Dory (voice), Genius, The Affair (TV), Testament of Youth, Pride (2014), John Carter, Johnny English 2, The Awakening, Centurion, 300, The Wire (TV), Punisher – War Zone, The Forgotten, Chicago, Rock Star, 28 Days, The Gamble, True Blue, Richard III (1995), Surviving Picasso
- Iain McKee: Castles In The Sky, Weekender
- Kevin Eldon: The Comedian’s Guide To Survival, Danger Mouse (voice)(TV), Up All Night, Set Fire To The Stars, The Wedding Video, Faintheart, Hyperdrive (TV), Hot Fuzz, Nathan Barley (TV)
- Bronagh Gallagher: Shooting For Socrates, Pramface (TV), Grabbers, Albert Nobbs, Malice In Wonderland, The Big I Am, Faintheart, Last Chance Harvey, Botched, This Year’s Love, Pulp Fiction, The Committments
- Danny John-Jules: Death In Paradise (TV), Red Dwarf (TV), The Grind, MI High (TV), Underground (2008), Sucker Punch (2008), Blade II, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, London Kills Me
- Eva Longoria: In a World…, Desperate Housewives (TV), Foodfight (voice), The Heartbreak Kid (2007), The Sentinel, The George Lopez Show (TV), Harsh Times, The Young and the Restless (TV)
- Laura Linney: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 (2016), Genius, Mr Holmes, The Fifth Estate, Hyde Park On The Hudson, The Nanny Diaries, Breach, The Savages, Jindabyne, Driving Lessons, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Squid & The Whale, Kinsey, Love Actually, Mystic River, The Life of David Gale, The Mothman Prophecies, The House of Mirth, You Can Count On Me, The Truman Show, Absolute Power, Primal Fear, Congo, A Simple Twist of Fate