Saturday 12 November 2011

Delivery systems: "Arthur Christmas"

The last time Aardman stepped outside their claymation comfort zone, it cost them a development deal with US giants DreamWorks. Though no great hit across the Atlantic, I rather liked 2006's Flushed Away, with its droll toilet humour and distinctly British vision of a subterranean class system. Still, Katzenberg and co. weren't so keen, the two parties subsequently went their separate ways, and Aardman, for their part, secured a whole new deal with the folks at Sony Pictures Animation. The ironic thing about their first project together, this week's Arthur Christmas, is that for a film lauding more personal ways of doing business, it remains oddly impersonal in its own delivery methods, showcasing the type of 3D spectacle and character design any other pairing of studios might have resulted in; the packaging extends to the festive title and release date, very carefully conceived to ensure a steady stream of ancillary revenues for years to come, something Flushed Away's retinue of rats around a lavatory bowl probably, on reflection, didn't.

On the plus side, the narrative has a well-honed tightness about it. Santa's dorky youngest Arthur (voice: James McAvoy) attempts to emerge from behind the bulky shadow of his older sibling by delivering the one present everyone's forgotten about in the rush of the night before Christmas: a young girl's pink bike. He's given two hours to get from the North Pole to Trelew in Cornwall before the sun comes up, and an old timer - Santa's dad and predecessor, voiced by Bill Nighy, presumably as Buster Merryfield was no longer available - as a sidekick, although the latter's erratic sense of direction, mistaking the Serengeti for Paris, doesn't make Arthur's cause any easier.

If it's not as tragically impermanent as Tintin, that's maybe down to the script, by erstwhile Chris Morris collaborators Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith, which has a few nice, Monsters, Inc.-lite ideas and gags about the industrial process rattling around within it: it's vaguely amusing that Santa should now have satnav and an entire IT department to assist him in his bidding, and using vast American resources to send everybody to Trelew is quite funny, if you think about it. Still, you can feel all the sleigh-riding being drawn and redrawn for no more than slick, time-passing diversion and, more damagingly, these characters aren't especially memorable, with only trace idiosyncrasies, subtle enough to pass through the Sony cookie-cutters - an elf's pierced eyebrow, the hair sprouting from an oldtimer's ears - to mark it as an Aardman creation at all.

Did I emerge feeling any more festive? Well, no, but then you might as well watch a Christmas-themed movie in January as in early November: the distributors presumably need such elongated windows if their tentpole final-quarter releases are going to turn a useful profit before the calendar year is out, even with the pronounced advantage of the 3D surcharge Arthur Christmas enjoys. Good business, then - unlikely to upset its core, Santa-credulous audience, or indeed those Sony shareholders looking to secure themselves a nice festive bonus - but merely average holiday fodder, which has to count as something of a mild disappointment coming from the men and women who gave the world Wallace and Gromit.

Arthur Christmas is in cinemas nationwide.

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