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!

Scrooge Month Day 13: Simon Callow in CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MOVIE (2001)

Christmas Carol The Movie 2001Director: Jimmy T. Murakami

Writer: Piet Kroon, Robert Llewellyn, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon, Rhys Ifans, Juliet Stevenson, Robert Llewellyn, Iain Jones, Colin McFarlane, Beth Winslet, Arthur Cox, Keith Wickham

Notes: This film, produced by the British Pathé Films and released on DVD by MGM in the United States, is among one of the more critically-reviled versions of the story. Despite an all-star voice cast, including Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon and Kate Winslet (who also sang the film’s theme “What If?”), it got lousy reviews in its theatrical release overseas and was largely ignored in America. But you know, you’ve gotta give the filmmakers credit for having the audacity to give this production the title Christmas Carol: The Movie, as if all the dozens of other versions that came beforehand weren’t actually movies at all, but rather live performances, interpretive dances, brands of licensed underwear or dried fruit snacks… anything but “a movie.” Really.

Thoughts: Although some releases of this movie feature a live-action bookend with Simon Callow as Dickens reading his book to a group of children, the DVD release I have cuts straight to the animation, which looks like it was done by a better-than-average Flash artist. (Which is to say: it’s still pretty bad.) But rather than starting with Scrooge or Marley or… y’know… anything recognizable, things kick off with Dr. Lambert (Arthur Cox) being arrested for his debts and leaving his wards – an entire hospital of what I have to assume are orphans – without any hope, as Lambert’s debt has been transferred to the offices of Scrooge & Marley.

As it turns out, the woman left in charge of the orphans (Kate Winslet) is Belle, an old acquaintance of Ebenezer Scrooge (Simon Callow again). She writes a personal letter pleading for mercy, which she delivers to an uncharacteristically unsympathetic Bob Cratchit (Rhys Ifans). It takes almost 15 minutes (in a movie that lasts 77) before we get to something that resembles the Dickens novel, as Fred (Iain Jones) shows up to beg his uncle to come to Christmas Dinner. The Fred design here is awful – ragged and wearing a thin cap, looking more like a waif out of Oliver Twist than Scrooge’s fairly well-off nephew.

Then we watch mice play in a bucket. Why are we watching mice play in a bucket?

I have no flippin’ clue what Kroon and Llewellyn were trying to do with this script. If I didn’t know this was a British production, I would think this was the result of Hollywood filmmaking-by-committee. Some yutz in a boardroom says he doesn’t get the story or he thinks it needs more of a hook so the audience can relate to the characters or some other stupid comment that makes you think he knows better than Charles Dickens how to tell this story, and the next thing we know we’ve got an entire hospital full of kids about to freeze to death and a couple of mice sidekicks. Then, just to make Scrooge a little more evil and to make the stakes in the story a little more personal, Scrooge dumps the bucket of water out the window right on Tiny Tim’s head, in the freezing cold. You can probably guess where this is going.

Nicolas Cage plays Marley’s Ghost, which is a bizarre choice. You cast Nicolas Cage in a movie for one reason and one reason only: so that everybody knows you cast Nicolas Cage. But the reading he gives Marley’s lines doesn’t even sound like Nicolas Cage, and by that I don’t mean that it’s not wild or crazy like many of his roles are, I mean it literally sounds like somebody else performed the voice. If I wasn’t staring at the IMDB page I wouldn’t have thought it was –

–why in the hell are the charity workers showing up after Marley’s ghost? Scrooge’s redemption was supposed to have already begun, having him denying Marley at this point is just stupid. Before everything could be chalked up to Scrooge’s greed, but once he’s already been told he has to change and he keeps rambling on about decreasing the surplus population, he just starts to sounds like an idiot.

And why are the mice riding in his pocket? Dear God, they’re going to subject us to those things for the entire movie, aren’t they?

Anyway, off to the Cratchit house, where Tim (who doesn’t appear to be crippled in this version) is exhibiting the Cough of Death, no doubt because Scrooge himself doused the kid with water, because it wasn’t enough that he was just neglectful. Nope, he had to actively murder the child. We’re 26 minutes in and I hate everyone involved with this movie.

Back in his room, the same Ebenezer Scrooge that just fatally soaked a little boy and callously refused to give money to the poor finds the mice in his pocket and cheerfully agrees to share his gruel with them, because the writers of this movie tore the page of their dictionary with “characterization” on it out when they ran out of toilet paper one day. Just as he’s nodding off, Jane Horrocks shows up as a Candle-like Christmas Past that fluctuates inexplicably between a child and a ghoulish old woman. We go from there to Schoolhouse Scrooge on the day his sister picked him up from school and introduces him to her best friend: Belle! Because nobody would believe it if he met her at Fezziwig’s like in every other version of the story.

I feel like I need to say something here: I’m not opposed to minor changes in the story in principle. If there were no changes from one version to another it would be sheer lunacy to even make another one. But I do insist that those changes make sense or bring something to the story that other versions do not. Having Scrooge meet Belle as a child doesn’t change anything. Having her present to watch his father dress him down doesn’t improve the story. The subplot with the hospital is utterly superfluous to the point Dickens was making about a man’s redemption – if anything it weakens it, because instead of doing good for the sake of goodness, now we have to wonder if Scrooge’s later good deeds all come as a result of him feeling guilty over how he treated Belle or, even worse, holding hopes of some sort of reconciliation with her.

And the damn mice. Add. Nothing.

And before we leave the past we see the reading of Scrooge’s father’s will, where he gives everything to Scrooge and leaves a pregnant Fan out in the cold and about to die, which Scrooge is perfectly happy to allow to happen. Then, in a move that would make Sheldon Cooper proud, he presents Belle with a “marriage contract” before she walks out on him. This movie strives to make Scrooge and everyone in his world as miserable and heartless as possible, except for when it comes to giving mice food. But by the time Christmas Present shows up we don’t even want Scrooge to be redeemed anymore, we want him to die of typhoid and get buried at the bottom of the river.

Michael Gambon is our Christmas Present, and he at least feels true to the character, showing Scrooge his feast and talking about giving it out in the spirit of love. Unfortunately, the filmmakers choose to waste our time showing us the mice eating a pie instead of focusing on the ghost. He flies around, showing off people making merry in a sequence that looks hand-drawn in a way that would actually be kind of charming if the rest of the animation was adequate and therefore serving as a real contrast.

Christmas Yet to Come is a similarly poorly-animated apparition, waving his arms around at a rate of four seconds per frame to show Scrooge the aftermath of Tim’s death (which, in case we forgot, Mrs. Cratchit directly attributes to him). Marley shows up to tell Scrooge he’s dead, then he wakes up alive. Ebenezer Scrooge has been redeemed, but as someone forced to watch Christmas Carol: The Movie, I have officially lost all hope.

Anyway, because the screenwriters added a completely useless subplot, as the redeemed Scrooge walks around town, Belle weeps over her empty hospital. Scrooge takes the blood money he got for foreclosing on the place and gives it to a homeless guy, because lord knows Belle couldn’t use it at this point, and then starts wandering the city aimlessly. When he gets home, Belle shows up and chews him out for closing the place down. He begs forgiveness from her and she tells him it’s not too late, which of course begs the question of why she was just dressing him down instead of asking him for help. Dr. Lambert is let out of prison and sent to treat Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit gets his raise, the damn mice ride around on Scrooge’s shoulder and I resist the urge to club a puppy over the head. The end.

The good news is that, thanks to this film, An All Dogs Christmas Carol only had to keep the title of “worst adaptation” for a mere three years. The bad news is that this version even exists. I used to think the worst thing a version of A Christmas Carol could be was forgettable. Now I’m afraid I’m going to remember this one because of how stupidly bad it actually is.

Also, buy mouse traps.

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!

The Christmas Special Day 22: Hooves of Fire (1999)

hooves-of-fireDirector: Richard Goleszowski

Writers: Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, Richard Curtis

Cast: UK VERSION-Robbie Williams, Ardal O’Hanlon, Paul Whitehouse, Jane Horrocks, Steve Coogan, Caroline Quentin, Jean Alexander, Ricky Tomlinson, Rhys Ifans, Harry Enfield; US Version-Ben Stiller, Britney Spears, James Woods, Brad Garrett, Hugh Grant, Leah Remini, James Belushi, Jerry Stiller, Rob Paulsen

Plot: The red-nosedRobbie the Reindeer (Ardal O’Hanlon/Ben Stiller) has long dreamed of winning a spot as the navigator on Santa’s sleigh team, and it looks like he’s finally being given a chance.  He reports to the sleigh team, run by a taskmaster-lke Blitzen (Steve Coogan/Hugh Grant). As Donner (Jane Horrocks/Britney Spears) shows him to his room, Blitzen begins plotting… he’s been jealous of Robbie’s father ever since the day that (unnamed) most famous reindeer of all saved Christmas, and now he can take revenge on that reindeer’s son. Donner quickly develops a crush on Robbie, but he’s oblivious, only having eyes for Vixen (Caroline Quentin/Leah Remini). Robbie meets Santa Claus (Ricky Tomlinson/James Belushi) for the first time at a party the boss is throwing for the elves, where Santa gushes over Robbie’s father and Vixen rebuffs his advances. Santa has a surprise for the party as well: he unveils the Sleigh Mark II, a new high-tech vehicle full of bells, whistles, and a computer navigation system. Robbie suddenly realizes that, to keep his spot on the sleigh team, he has to be physically fit… which will be hard, as Blitzen has been sabotaging his fitness training. Disheartened, Robbie wanders out into the snow to walk south. He winds up frozen solid and would be lost if he wasn’t found and thawed out by a group of elves. He joins them working in their toy factory, but a series of mishaps bumps him lower and lower on the totem pole until he’s stuck using his antlers for a forklift – which is where he is when Donner finds him. She tells him he’s still got a chance to make the sleigh team, if he can compete in and win the upcoming Reindeer Games. She also convinces him Blitzen has been his enemy all along, and they turn to a legendary reindeer named Old Jingle (Harry Enfield/Jerry Stiller) for help.

They find Old Jingle in his house, precariously perched at the top of Pointy Mountain, and Robbie asks him to help him train. Jingle tells him his best shot at winning is the Steeplechase event, and Robbie begins training. On the day of the games, Robbie suddenly becomes a crowd favorite by saving a baby from a fall. Vixen tries to use Robbie’s crush on her to force him out of the games, but he’s fallen for Donner instead. He leaves the stadium, however, when he learns that Jingle has been trapped under his house. He rushes off and saves the old reindeer, but misses the start of the race, and Blitzen gets an enormous lead. Amazingly, Robbie makes up ground quickly, and one of Blitzen’s cronies has him stumble into a steeple. Robbie uses his special “Nose Jump” to vault to the finish line, but the photo finish reveals Blitzen to be the winner. Donner kisses him, and in his glee Robbie rushes off and performs in every event, breaking all the records, albeit unofficially. As Robbie’s dad sends a congratulatory blimp over the stadium, Blitzen is carted off for drug testing and Santa gives Robbie the keys to the sleigh for the night. He takes Donner out for a romantic evening on the moon, where together they watch the Earth come up.

Thoughts: It’s always nice to see a tweak to a Christmas classic, and this BBC special from 1999 definitely qualifies. While they’re always careful to avoid mentioning Robbie’s famous father by name, there can be no doubt who he is or what made him so famous.

Hooves of Fire picks up on Rudolph, creating a bizarre semi-sequel by way of sports story. Robbie’s tale echoes his father’s in certain ways – picking up on the Reindeer Games, for example. His journey is not just a copy of his father’s however. Although his own nose does some weird things, it never becomes the center of the storyline the way Rudolph’s does. Robbie is made an outcast not because he’s different, but because Blitzen holds an old grudge against his family. Even when Robbie pulls out his nose’s special abilities at the end, they don’t directly contribute to his success. Remember, he loses the games. He wins in the end because he’s made everyone love him for reasons that don’t have anything to do with his nose. Also because Blitzen is a jerk who, evidently, was ‘roided up.

The plot with the Reindeer Games is a mirror of cheesy 80s sports movies… particularly, and appropriately, films like Ski School. We have the jerk jock and the Yoda-style mentor there to help win the day, the goofy protagonist who focuses on the sexpot without realizing the cute girl next door type is in love with him. The writers load up the tropes, and it’s usually for the purposes of ridicule. That’s kind of the weird thing about the comedy, actually – half of it is straight-up parody of Christmas movies, of sports movies, of romantic comedies and so forth. In the other half, though, the BBC gives the show a really sharp, unmistakably British sense of humor, full of cutway gags and non sequiturs that feel almost Monty Python-esque in their scope.

The stop motion used here feels a step beyond Will Vinton, closer to the sort of thing Aardman Animation puts out on their best days. Something about the character design is really bizarre, but in a funny way. The reindeer, for example, are actually weird 2-D designs, with eyes and a mouth that all go on the same side of the head like a character in Peanuts. The designers keep that feel when they plump the characters out for their animated forms, resulting in a set of reindeer heads that obviously don’t work in the real world, but work perfectly in the quirky version of the North Pole director Richard Goleszowski puts forth. The costuming is cute as well: Jingle walks around with briefs on over his clothing, the elves have several diverse designs that range from the traditional to the mini-biker. The steeples in the steeplechase are actual steeples, looking like they were ripped right off the houses.

And Mrs. Claus had a beard. What else is there to say?

If there’s any major complaint, it’s that for some reason they re-dubbed all of the voices with American actors for the stateside presentation of the film. (Except for Blitzen. In his case, they replaced British actor Steve Coogan with… more widely-known-in-the-US British actor Hugh Grant.) I can only assume this was some sort of effort at marketability. In the 13 years since this film was first made, of course, British pop culture has become much more popular here in the US of A – I imagine if this cartoon was released for the first time today, they probably wouldn’t have bothered with the American voices.

Robbie has returned in two other cartoons – Legends of the Lost Tribe in 2002, and 2007’s Close Encounters of the Herd Kind, the latter of which I was actually unaware of until I did the research for this article. I’ve got an older DVD, with the first two cartoons on it, but now I’ve got a quest. I’ve got to see the 2007 film, because Robbie rocks.