Sunday, December 22, 2013

Arthur Christmas

Year 5, Day 356 - 12/22/13 - Movie #1,598

BEFORE: This is my last film before Christmas break - neatly finishing off the Christmas section.  Linking from "A Christmas Carol", Colin Firth was also in "Love, Actually" with Bill Nighy, who provides a voice in tonight's film.

THE PLOT: On Christmas night at the North Pole, Santa's youngest son looks to use his father's high-tech operation for an urgent mission.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Fred Claus" (Movie #722)

AFTER: I'm glad I referenced the song "Father Christmas" yesterday, because this title then makes a lot more sense.  If Santa is called "Father Christmas" in the U.K., it follows that his sons would have Christmas as their last name.  Yes, Santa has sons, which is a rather neat way of explaining how Santa's been around so long without growing old.  Err, older.  We're on Santa #17 or 18 by now, since each one takes over the job for 70 or so years before retiring.  (If you carry this thought process through to its logical conclusion, this means that Santa is mortal, but we won't be seeing any Santa take a dirt-nap in a kid's film - so in a way he kinda is immortal).

But each Santa in turn takes his opportunity to modernize the process - which also makes sense, because if you asked a kid in the early 1900's what Santa's workshop looks like, you'd hear about a log cabin, with elves toiling away with hammers and nails and such - then a couple decades later, that workshop would probably be described as something like a factory with an assembly line, and today's kid would probably picture something that looks like a N.O.R.A.D. base, with lots of screens and ways to tap into security camera footage like that guy on "Person of Interest", and robots making the toys, etc.

The folks at Aardman Animations picked up this ball and ran with it - while still keeping the comic sensibility of their famous "Wallace & Gromit" series.  In those films, Gromit the dog is really the "smart" one in the pair, but Wallace gets all the credit.  Here the elves do about 90% of the processing, manufacturing and stealth work, and the doddering Santa makes a few ceremonial placements of toys under trees, while his modern spaceship sleigh hovers over a city like the UFO from "Independence Day".

The high-tech stuff just makes sense, when you consider they'd need a database of millions of kids with their "naughty" and "nice" levels, plus they'd have to keep track of each country's Santa-related customs.  In some countries kids leave Santa milk and cookies, but in others they leave carrots for his reindeer, and so on.  (I forgot to mention this the other night, but for extra fun read up on Dutch customs, where Santa keeps black slaves called "SchwarzePeeten" and they help whip naughty kids and pelt them with hard candy.  Good times.)

Back at the North Pole, the operation is controlled by Santa's older son, Steve, with military-like precision, while his younger son, Arthur, works in the mailroom answering letters.  (This is probably a make-work job, since thousands of kids write letters to Santa, but I'm not sure I've heard of Santa ever writing back.  Who has that kind of time?)  Steve is quite obviously and defiantly next in line to wear the red suit (but the way these films go, he probably won't) and Arthur is clearly out of the running (but the way these films go, well, you can probably guess the outcome).

The other thing that carries over from the "Wallace & Gromit" films is the distinct probably that things will get all cocked up (British term) before they're all sorted out (ditto).  This involves a fair amount of slapstick, people falling out of sleighs and dropping things and generally stumbling around.  Things get thrown out of whack when a single present is not delivered, and of all the once-and-future Santas, only Arthur understands the importance of making sure that it gets delivered.

I wish the characters could have just agreed to disagree, and moved on - instead there's just too much bickering over the consequences of taking action or not taking action, whether one mistake is statistically worth ignoring, or whether the single present is a metaphor for complete failure.  It felt like half an hour of film was wasted on this debate, which means they could have solved the problem three times over in the time it took to figure out whether this was really a problem or not.  But the Santas are a family, and families don't always agree -

So Arthur sets out with the "Grand-Santa" (again, old retired Santas don't die, they just hang around and cause trouble) on the old-fashioned but still-magic early 1900's-type sleigh, to deliver the last package before sunrise hits that part of the world.  It sounds simple, but between the young Arthur, the old Grand-Santa and a fastidious wrapping elf, there are plenty of mistakes made that make the delivery almost, but not quite, impossible.

All told, it's an enjoyable romp, and my only complaints are that a blind man could see the ending coming a mile away, and the elves (particularly the one traveling with Arthur) were nearly impossible to understand.  I realize you have to speed up their voices to make them sound like elves, but their words still need to be clear - I guess British voices don't work well in my ear-holes when they're sped up and high-pitched.

Yep, Santa is British here, so forget all that stuff about Santa being Russian, or Turkish, or even Canadian.  If British people are making the film, then he's British.  And I only just now realized the similarities between the Santa succession process depicted here and the line of succession to the British throne - the oldest child gets the position next, unless he abdicates...

Well, I'm off to wrap gifts until the wee hours of the morning, then one more day of work - on Tuesday I'll be appearing at the Foxwoods Casino Buffet on my way up to see my parents, and then I'm on kitchen detail on Christmas Day, assuming the ghosts all appear to me in one night.  Back in a few days to wrap up the last two slots of the year, then I'll write the annual wrap-up and start organizing the films for 2014.

Also starring the voices of James McAvoy (last heard in "Gnomeo & Juliet"), Jim Broadbent (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"), Hugh Laurie (last heard in "Hop"), Imelda Staunton, Laura Linney (last seen in "Hyde Park on Hudson"), Eva Longoria (last seen in "The Heartbreak Kid"), Michael Palin, with elf cameos from Robbie Coltrane (last seen in "The World Is Not Enough"), Joan Cusack (last heard in "Hoodwinked Too: Hood vs. Evil"), Andy Serkis (last not-seen in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"), Dominic West.

RATING: 6 out of 10 time zones