Skip to main content

Risking of mooing: 98 per cent.

Arthur Christmas
(2011)

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.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

Never lose any sleep over accusations. Unless they can be proved, of course.

Strangers on a Train (1951) (SPOILERS) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

You’re easily the best policeman in Moscow.

Gorky Park (1983) (SPOILERS) Michael Apted and workmanlike go hand in hand when it comes to thriller fare (his Bond outing barely registered a pulse). This adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel – by Dennis Potter, no less – is duly serviceable but resolutely unremarkable. William Hurt’s militsiya officer Renko investigates three faceless bodies found in the titular park. It was that grisly element that gave Gorky Park a certain cachet when I first saw it as an impressionable youngster. Which was actually not unfair, as it’s by far its most memorable aspect.

I don’t like fighting at all. I try not to do too much of it.

Cuba (1979) (SPOILERS) Cuba -based movies don’t have a great track record at the box office, unless Bad Boys II counts. I guess The Godfather Part II does qualify. Steven Soderbergh , who could later speak to box office bombs revolving around Castro’s revolution, called Richard Lester’s Cuba fascinating but flawed. Which is generous of him.