Blog Archives

Santa Week Day 5: James McAvoy in Arthur Christmas (2011)

Arthur ChristmasNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Writers: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez, Michael Palin, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Rhys Darby, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis

Plot: St. Nicholas of Myra, as we all know, is Santa Claus… or at least, the first Santa Claus. Over the centuries, his descendants have taken on the job, one after another. And now, after 70 years, Santa the 20th (Jim Broadbent) is ready to pass the torch down to his son, Steve (Hugh Laurie). While Steve runs a whip-smart, high-tech operation with military precision, Santa’s other son Arthur (James McAvoy) delights in the more joyful elements of the season. Santa is getting old, though, and in fact, Steve is largely running the show already, while his little brother – although enthusiastic as anyone could be – is mostly getting in the way.

Returning home, Santa is expected to announce his retirement and Steve’s first year on the job, but instead says he’s looking forward to his 71st mission next year. The tension gets worse when the elves discover Santa failed to deliver a single present – a bicycle for little girl named Gwen (Ramona Marquez). Steve convinces his father it’s too risky to try to deliver the last present before sunrise. Arthur, however, refuses to accept this. He and his grandfather, Santa 19 or “GrandSanta” (Bill Nighy) hop into an old-fashioned sleigh with old-fashioned flying reindeer to bring Gwen her present before she wakes up. They soon find a stowaway – a wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) – who joins them.

GrandSanta soon runs into trouble navigating a world that has grown and changed since his last flight 70 years ago. Their route from the North Pole to England has them cause havoc in Toronto and cause an alien sighting in Idaho before setting down in Africa, where Arthur just barely saves them from being eaten by lions. He’s discouraged when he realizes GrandSanta is more concerned with reclaiming his own past glory than giving Gwen her present. Landing in England, he and Bryony set out to find Gwen’s house. When they arrive, they find they’ve screwed up again – they aren’t in England, they’re in Mexico.

At the pole, Steve sees news reports about the chaos being caused by his brother and grandfather and the elves confront Santa and Steve about skipping a child. Santa and Mrs. Claus (Imedla Staunton) set out to find Arthur and deliver the present, but Steve again has to take the controls. After a detour to Cuba, Arthur manages to recover the sleigh, and the Clauses all race to England. The governments of the world scramble to face the “flying saucers” they’ve been spotting all night, and GrandSanta provides a distraction so Arthur and Bryony can get away with Gwen’s gift.

With three minutes to sunrise, Arthur races to deliver the present. Arthur, Steve, Santa and GrandSanta all arrive at Gwen’s house, where the latter three begin to argue over who gets to leave the present. When Arthur breaks up the fight insisting it doesn’t matter who does it, they realize that it’s Arthur who should do it. They hide and watch Gwen open her present, Arthur wide-eyed with joy, and Santa and Steve realize the mistake they’ve been making all along. One year later, Steve has been made executive coordinator of North Pole operations, Santa – Malcolm – joins his father in retirement, and Arthur has taken up his natural place as the new Santa Claus.

Thoughts: Like The Santa Clause, this movie takes the Santa Legacy trope and runs with it. Produced by Aardman Animation (the company known for the marvelous Wallace and Grommit films and the sublime Chicken Run), Arthur Christmas reimagines the Santa legend with a weird blend of fantasy and high-tech science. The modern Santa and his elves, for instance, travel not so much in a classic sleigh, but in a cloaked vessel that resembles an enormous flying saucer, and although Santa the 20th is on the ground, the Elves themselves are responsible for much of the gift delivery, milk and cookie removal, and so forth. An early sequence shows us this gift run over a city, as the elves take on pretty much the whole job for the aging Santa. The sequence is actually very similar to the Disney TV special Prep and Landing, which predates this film by two years, and I’ve got to wonder if that’s strictly speaking a coincidence.

As I’ve said before, the Santa Legacy thing isn’t exactly my favorite trope. I can’t wrap my mind around eliminating that part of the magic of the mythology while keeping so much of the rest of it. That said, Arthur Christmas is probably the film I‘ve seen that uses that idea to its fullest potential. By making Santa’s task a largely sci-fi operation, they minimize the fantasy element, making the loss of immortality slightly easier to accept. (This goes out the window, of course, when GrandSanta unveils his old sleigh and the magic reindeer that pull it, but what are you gonna do?) I also appreciate the fact that, for once, we don’t have a stale old story about the chosen one rejecting the call. Steve, the intended Santa, is fully prepared and capable of taking on the job. Arthur, our hero, doesn’t expect the job, and never for an instant shows any sort of anger or resentment over the fact that Steve is next in line to become Santa Claus instead of him, but from the very beginning shows the love and enthusiasm you want from your Santa. There’s no problem believing he would have leapt at the chance, had it really been presented to him earlier in his life.

The casting in this film is pretty effective. As an animated feature, of course, the focus is on the voice acting abilities of the cast rather than their look, and the four Santas we deal with fit pretty well. Broadbent as the current Santa has a sort of soft-spoken attitude, but comes across as just a little daft and ineffectual. Bill Nighy brings in the sort of wild, manic energy he usually produces to perfect effect as GrandSanta. Hugh Laurie isn’t soft and fluffy at all, but he still manages to create a stoic, cynical character without simply echoing his character from House. And then there’s James McAvoy as our hero – the youthful charm and exuberance in his voice is perfect, to the point where you’ve got to wonder if they modulated his voice up a half-octave or so.

Aardman Animation made its mark with stop-motion animation, and I admit to being a bit disappointed when they started doing CGI work, but I have to admit the animation in this film is gorgeous. The EVE – GrandSanta’s old sleigh – is a thing of beauty, something that the viewer falls in love with as purely as Arthur does. The character design is pretty good too – the human characters each have a distinct look, even as the members of the Santa family bear enough similar elements to accept them as being relatives. There are action scenes here – like Arthur’s oceanic recovery of the runaway sled – that I just can’t imagine being as thrilling in stop motion, even the best stop motion. And the design work is simply charming. One of my favorite touches is Steve’s beard, shaved into the shape of a little Christmas tree. Nice touch, Aardman. Could this have been done in traditional stop motion? Absolutely. But I’ve got to admit, it may not have worked as well.

This movie was pretty well received, but I feel like it’s been largely forgotten since it came out in 2011. If you haven’t seen it before, seek it out with your kids. Except for the original Miracle on 34th Street, I honestly think it’s the best Santa movie we’ve covered here this week.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 15: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

shaun-of-the-deadDirector: Edgar Wright

Writers: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg

Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Jessica Stevenson, Peter Serafinowicz

Plot: Retail employee Shaun (Simon Pegg) is having a rough time. His job is a joke, his relationship with his stepfather Philip (Bill Nighy) is strained, and his roommate Pete (Peter Serafinowicz) has had it with Shaun’s best buddy Ed (Nick Frost) sleeping on their couch. If that wasn’t bad enough, a chance encounter with his friend Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson) reminds him that it’s his anniversary and he’s forgotten to book a table at a restaurant. He tries to convince his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to join him for a fun-filled evening at their favorite pub, the Winchester, but Liz has wasted one too many night at the bar. She dumps him and he returns home where he has one more spat with an agitated Pete (who was bitten by a bunch of crackheads) before going to bed.

In the morning, a tired Shaun schleps down to the local convenience store and home without ever noticing the few people around him are acting strange – grunting, stumbling, and covered with blood. Returning home, he and Ed finally figure out something is wrong they are attacked. The reports on the news and the ghouls outside their house make the situation clear. Although neither Shaun nor Ed wants to say it, London is overrun with zombies. The friends fight their way clear with vinyl records and a cricket bat, getting past Pete before escaping. Shaun plans to collect his mother and Liz and hide out at the Winchester until the crisis has passed.

His mother, Barbara (Penelope Winton) is nursing Phillip, who has been bitten. Shaun reluctantly loads them into the car then heads to Liz’s flat, where she’s hiding out with her roommate Dianne (Lucy Davis) and Dianne’s boyfriend David (Dylan Moran). Although they are reluctant to go with him, the encroaching undead soon change their minds. As they flee, Phillip succumbs to his bite and they are forced to abandon the car, trapping him inside. They encounter Yvonne, who has gathered her own oddly familiar group of survivors and who is planning to find help. Shaun insists on following through his his own plan. When they reach the Winchester, they find it surrounded by zombies, and struggling actress Dianne gives the rest of the group a crash course in acting undead. Remarkably, the ruse works and they march through the army of zombies unmolested, until Ed’s mobile phone rings and blows their cover. They barely get to cover inside the bar.

In the Winchester, Shaun discovers that his mother has been hiding a bite of her own. He and David begin sniping at each other as Barbara struggles against the disease inside her, but when she finally dies and rises, Shaun puts her down with the rifle hanging over the bar. As they continue to argue, raw emotions are exposed: David is in love with Liz, something Dianne knows fully well, but she has been settling for what little affection he gives her. As they fight, the zombies overwhelm their barricades and pull David outside. Dianne snaps and rushes after him, being consumed as well. The last three break for the basement, but Ed is bitten on the way. Trapped, the three of them contemplate suicide, but before they can do anything, they find a secret hatch. Ed promises to cover Shaun and Liz as they escape. Biddign his best friend farewell, Ed can’t resist sending a fragrant flume of gas his way one more time. Making their way to the surface, Shaun and Liz are met by Yvonne, along with an entire army battalion that has arrived to put the zombies down. Six months later, Liz has moved in with Shaun and the world has adapted, using the zombies for menial labor and cheap entertainment. Shaun goes out to the shed to relax a little while, sitting down next to his best friend. Ed is now a zombie, but that doesn’t mean they two of them can’t continue to enjoy their video games.

Thoughts: I’ve said that Ghostbusters is my favorite horror/comedy and I stand by that, but damned if Shaun of the Dead doesn’t come in a close second. This film is a flawless combination of things that I love: emotionally honest characters, dry British wit, zombies, Bill Nighy… Any one of those elements is worthy of being loved, cherished, and having praise heaped upon them. Putting them together makes for one of the best horror/comedies ever made.

This film came in near the beginning of the current zombie wave, which has actually gone on much longer than I would have expected. It wasn’t the first zombie/comedy hybrid, but it was without a doubt the most effective, and I doubt the later entries into this subgenre (Fido and Zombieland, for example) would have enjoyed their respective success if Wright and Pegg hadn’t come along first and done such a remarkable job with this movie. The zombies themselves are played perfectly straight, a Type-A horror threat. In fact, they could have marched right off the set of a George Romero movie. In truth, if not for the sort of happy ending at the end of the film, one could easily make the meta-argument that it showed the British side of one of the many zombie apocalypses (apocalypsi?) that make him his own films. He himself was enough of a fan of Shaun that he invited Wright and Pegg to make a cameo appearance in Land of the Dead. (They played zombies.)

The zombie stuff works really well, and the comedy is near-flawless. Nick Frost’s Ed ranks up there with one of the great comedic bumblers. He slows down the group, makes poor decisions, and nearly gets them all killed several times. He’s like Gilligan – anybody in their right mind would have left him to die ten minutes after the zombies attacked. But for all his buffoonery, there’s some sort of inexplicable charm that makes you want to keep him around. It’s probably this, more than anything else, that helps him last right up until the very end. Let’s be honest, if Shaun had walked into the shed to reveal Pete or David chained to the wall, it would have just felt creepy. Watching him chide Ed for trying to bite him, though? It’s weirdly sweet.

Pegg himself is successful as the harried everyman, the ordinary guy who is in way over his head and needs to find a way to rise above it all if he’s to have any shot at survival, let alone getting the girl. It’s that status that makes him such a successful protagonist. Virtually everybody has felt like Shaun at one point in their life. It’s just that few of us are lucky enough to have a plague of the undead come along at just the right time to help us snap out of our funk.

Shaun’s character is just the beginning of these very real characters, though. David’s bitterness comes across as very genuine, and Dianne is a terribly sad character that you can wholeheartedly believe in. The moment of Phillip’s death is a remarkable one as well, turning a character that could have been a cartoon wicked stepfather into someone with genuine heart who just didn’t know how to express his feelings until it was too late. Liz is, if you’ll pardon the gender-specific term, the film’s straight man. She’s not particularly funny, but she allows Shaun and Ed to play off her rather well. The core of her relationship with Shaun, though, is one of true love and legitimate concern for their life. You never think poorly of her in the movie, never imagine her to be the sort of bitchy ex-girlfriend that a lot of movies would transform her into in order to make Shaun seem more heroic. I’ve come to realize that the truly great horror/comedies, whether they’re Type A or Type B, can fall into two categories: either they’re remarkably funny or surprisingly tender. Like Bubba Ho-Tep, Shaun of the Dead presents us with excellent characters that we really feel for. Their deaths aren’t just plot points or gags like in Eight Legged Freaks or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Each major member of this cast has a role, a purpose, a meaning.

Not to say that it’s 100 minutes of zombies wrenching feelings out of you, not at all. The film is full of sharp running gags (Shaun has red on him, Ed is addicted to his phone, etc.) and Yvonne pops up just at the right time to lend some really successful levity just after Phillip’s crushing end. Shaun’s dream sequences about fighting to the Winchester are both really funny and highly relatable – unless you honestly expect me to believe you’ve never imagined your Zombie Apocalypse Contingency Plan beginning with thrilling heroics and ending with tossing back a cold one at your favorite hangout. Yes it has. You liar.

To put it simply, Shaun of the Dead is the perfect package of horror movie monsters, dramatic story beats, and rip-snorting laughter. If anyone tries to call it a parody of zombie movies, I feel the need to correct them right away. This isn’t a parody at all, this is a zombie movie. It just happens to be one where the prospective buffet left out for the undead is made up of some very, very funny people.