Monday, December 5, 2011
Arthur Christmas ***½
Leave it to the Brits to make a film so good and unique that Americans almost had to spoil by way of terrible marketing. The ad campaign and trailers for Arthur Christmas made it seem like it would be one of those "hip" animated comedies that rely on cheap jokes about modern issues to attract the masses, but then are all but remembered three hours after they've over. The truth is in fact, that Arthur Christmas has all the elements of a timeless classic in the making.
Few movies feel the need to feel audiences with joy - they're usually more concerned about pleasing themselves - this one however reaches out to you with such sincerity that you have to wonder how Pixar didn't make it.
The simple answer is because it was made by Aardman Animations (in collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation), the people responsible for Wallace & Gromit.
Arthur Christmas might not be claymation, but its computer generated images contain such beauty that you might want to revisit it just to admire the great detail with which the animators created every single character and setting.
The film opens with a gorgeous vista of a small English town, where a little girl carefully deposits a letter for Santa Claus in the mailbox. When Christmas arrives we see how the once quaint and rustic North Pole, has become almost militarized and Santa's big mission is a task worthy of an army.
Thousands of elves behind computers check and see that nothing goes wrong, while Santa's older son Steve, supervises the entire operation. We see how Santa's sleigh has been replaced by a modern spaceship that can camouflage itself in the night sky to help the delivery.
The elves enter people's houses using all sorts of spy techniques and we are told, more than once, how important it is that nobody discovers them. Back in the North Pole, Santa's younger son, Arthur, watches the entire operation with admiration and a deep desire to be part of it all. His job is less important, nobody thinks he'll amount to much.
When Santa returns, Arthur realizes one present wasn't delivered and he makes it his mission to deliver it himself. After this setup, we are treated with a lovely take on the "black sheep" story as the courageous Arthur overcomes all obstacles - including genre stereotypes - to become a man and gain his father's respect.
The superb screenplay (written by director Smith and Peter Baynham) could've easily relied on complicated setpieces to keep us entertained, instead they devote such care to developing every character that we could see entire movies dedicated to each of them.
From Arthur's own brand of meek heroism, to Steve's brand of creepy perfectionism (there's a Margaret Thatcher book in his room!), the film is more interested in reveling in these characters' humanity than in their comedic skills. A feisty elf named Bryony and a scene-stealing Grandsanta, round up the film's most memorable characters.
Best of all must be the joy that emanates from every single scene in the movie. Where it could've been moralizing and trite, instead it delivers a unique brand of existentialist thinking, leading us to wonder whether we've corrupted the spirit of Christmas or if it has corrupted us in a way.
The film thrives with clever dialogues, stunning action sequences and pierces your heart in the most unexpected of ways. It will move you to tears and leave you yearning for the times when you too believed Santa was real.
Kudos to director Smith for finding the perfect balance between originality and homage (there are several sequences that can only be called Spielberg-ian, a la E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters, mind you...) don't let phony advertising fool you, Arthur Christmas is truly a present you'll love to unwrap.