We live in an age where six-year-olds have iPhones most of our possessions live in a "cloud" and even the refrigerator connects to the Internet. Like it or not technology has infused itself into every aspect of our lives—so it seems appropriate (and terrifying) that even Santa Claus' gift delivery operation would upgrade to the 2.0 world. Arthur Christmas the latest film from Aardman Animation (the Wallace & Gromit films Chicken Run) introduces us to the newfangled operation. These days Santa (Jim Broadbent) is just a figurehead for a full-scale war game run by the militant Steve (Hugh Laurie) and his band of black ops elves who cruise the December skies in their souped up spaceship sleigh. Business is conducted in the most controlled manner with each elf equipped with dog food launchers and back-up tape dispensers in case of any on-ground mishaps. On the sidelines is Arthur (James McAvoy) a bumbling black sheep who outweighs the entire force in Christmas spirit but can barely stand on two feet.
The opening deliver sequence is expertly directed by Sarah Smith whose action is reminiscent of the highly energized Ratatouille injected with the quirky British humor one would expect from Aardman. But the dazzling setup doesn't turn Arthur Christmas into a bombastic holiday riff instead using its lead to dig underneath the 2.0 landscape to find true magic. When one present goes undelivered Arthur stands up against his complacent family members to right the holiday wrongs. The anxiety-ridden younger son teams up with his Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and an eager wrapper elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) hitching up the classic sleigh and venturing into the great unknown all in the name of a young girl who might wake up gift-less.
The trio's adventure takes them around the globe from the busy streets of Toronto to a colorful Mexican town to the planes of an African wildlife preserve. With each wrong turn and each obstacle to overcome (outrunning a pack of lions while wearing reindeer slippers is no easy feat) Arthur's belief in the greatness of Santa and the wonders of the Christmas are tested. For kids it might be a familiar existential crisis but the warmth that accompanies Arthur's triumphant spirit should resonate with those young and old. That's an achievement in a Christmas movie but Smith's delicate balance of sentimentality and over-the-top humor blend and keep the movie moving at lightning speed.
The movie's 3D animation and stereoscopic display are top-notch but the real extra dimension comes from the cast. Aardman has a knack for realizing characters supporting or leads who feel fully developed—and Arthur Christmas is no exception. Smith and writer Peter Baynham (Borat Arthur) know when you trap the Claus family in the result will be brilliance: Steve commanding the floor Grandsanta telling "when I was young" stories Santa falling asleep Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) keeping the peace and Arthur reminding everyone that it's Christmas. That's as real as actual Christmas dinner gets. The elves of the North Pole are equally eclectic and odd—even with hundreds of workers scurrying around the ship each one gets their time to land a joke. Overlaid on the rousing tale his a whimsical score by Harry Gregson-Williams that much like his work on Narnia feels simultaneously fantastical and exhilarating (as any good sleigh ride should).
There are so many Christmas movies in the pantheon of the season that it's almost unimaginable that another could slip in without relying on a gimmick or cynical spin but Arthur Christmas is as warm fuzzy and hilarious as they come. Crafted with authentic joy performed by lively voice actors and subtly imbued with jokes for all ages (no frame goes by without at least one sight or pun gag) those who catch it this year may find themselves returning every season. It's just that nice.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Based on the beloved children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs tells the tale of Flint Lockwood an eccentric young inventor who spends his days in a makeshift laboratory building monkey-thought translators spray-on shoes “hair unbalder” serums and other strange creations. Regarded as a troublemaker and a nuisance by the residents of the small town of Swallow Falls Flint dreams of one day making something that will win their respect and earn him a place alongside the Edisons and Da Vincis of the world.
Flint thinks his latest invention a machine that turns ordinary water into gourmet meals at the touch of a button just might do the trick. But his big unveiling goes predictably awry when his machine launches like a rocket through Swallow Falls laying waste to the town square before eventually disappearing into the stratosphere.
Just when it appears that the townsfolk have finally had enough of Flint’s antics salvation arrives in the form of cheeseburgers raining from the sky thrilling the throngs of hungry people below. Success! Flint’s machine actually works — albeit not quite in the manner he originally intended.
WHO’S IN IT?
Lending his voice to the character of Flint is Bill Hader a Saturday Night Live regular who’s appeared in small roles in a ton of high-profile comedies including Tropic Thunder Pineapple Express and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Anna Faris (The House Bunny) co-stars as Sam Sparks a weathergirl whose bubbly on-screen persona masks a keen intellect she’s terrified to reveal — lest she be branded a “nerd” and shunned by the community of shallow talking-head news correspondents.
Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell voices the sleazy manipulative Mayor Shelbourne a wildly ambitious politician who eyes Flint’s invention as his ticket to higher office. James Caan (The Godfather) plays Flint’s well-meaning but emotionally distant father Tim a blue-collar fisherman who can’t find a way to relate to his brainy offspring. And fans of A-Team and Rocky III will instantly recognize the voice of Mr. T as Earl Devereaux the tough-minded town cop whose job is devoted primarily to preventing Flint from inadvertently destroying the town. Rounding out the main cast is Neil Patrick Harris (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) as Flint’s trusted monkey assistant Steve.
The animation of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is truly a joy to behold. With each successive meal that falls from the sky comes a brilliant new array of patterns and colors all of which burst from the screening in dazzling 3-D. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller rightly recognize the visual potential of the source material with its endless variety of colorful food items and serve up a delicious buffet of brilliantly-rendered set pieces.
But the film isn’t just a bundle of digital eye candy. Perhaps most pleasantly surprising about the film is the script’s sharp wit and clever observations which help make the experience enjoyable on a cerebral as well as visceral level.
Lord and Miller who also co-wrote the adapted screenplay did a generally solid job expanding the relatively thin source material for the big screen but the story still feels weak at times. It’s just engaging enough to keep you interested but not quite enough to make a lasting impression.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is something of a culinary rollercoaster. As food first begins to fall from the sky you might find yourself feeling a bit hungry. But as the plot progresses and Flint’s machine starts to spin out of control bombarding the town with every kind of slop imaginable don’t be surprised if your stomach starts to get a little queasy!
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!