At one point in Arthur Christmas, Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) commiserates regarding the way Christmas has been slicked up and polished; “Reindeer, that’s what kids want, not some spaceship!” One might suggest the same of this Sony-produced Aardman picture; “Traditional stop motion animation, that’s what viewers want, not some CGI approximation”. Arthur Christmas is inoffensive, jolly (jingling) Christmas fare with a commendable message about the importance of family and how everyone matters, but it lacks that handmade touch.
It’s probably no coincidence that another lesser Aardman feature, Flushed Away, also went down the CGI route, and that both cost so much more than their stop motion fellows, they failed to justify themselves at the box office. There’s something about the Aardman signature style that is cheerfully unsophisticated in physical form but looks derivative and over-familiar when computer rendered.
Which applies to this new take on the Santa mythos also, whereby generations of Clauses have assumed the Santa mantle, and the enterprise has burgeoned into a hi-tech, precision-run operation, directed by son Steve (Hugh Laurie) and nominally presided over by the incumbent Santa, Malcolm (Jim Broadbent). Arthur (James McAvoy), the youngest son, works in the mail room due to being a bit of a klutz, but it’s his devotion to the magic of the season that leads to a last moment attempted deliver, to furnish the one forgotten child with her requested bike. For which, Nighy’s 136-year old Grandsanta is on hand with a trad-style sleigh and reindeer.
Grandsanta is the most memorable character in the mix, given a suitably acerbic bent (“You’re a postman with a spaceship!”) and look that breaks from the formula. Also, something that grates now animation houses seem obsessed with casting big names rather than vocal artists, Nighy gives a proper performance, one that doesn’t just sound like Nighy in a recording booth. Grandsanta pronounces the joys of yesteryear, when prying young eyes would be greeted with a sockful of sand, and mocks the ambitions of Steve (“You’ll never get to be Santa unless you knock him off”).
Arthur, who bears a passing resemblance to Muriel Gray, is only ever rather wet, and, while McAvoy delivers the message about remembering what Christmas is all about with sincerity, the plotline about who should take over as Santa is only so-so. It seems Arthur, despite being hopelessly inept, is the ideal candidate because he cares, while his brother and father see the girl as merely a statistic (“I mean, who cares about one single, tiny child?”)
There’s definitely an irony to a picture extoling the virtues of the human touch that reveals itself to be so manufactured and lacking in individuality. I’m assuming Barry Cook’s involvement as co-director (with Sarah Smith) was a result of a Sony edict (he also co-directed Mulan), and a concordant reluctance to let Aardman get on with their own thing; the following year’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! was a wholly superior (stop motion) collaboration, but it’s easy to see why Nick Park’s company has moved onto a partnership with StudioCanal.