By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood October 14, 2011 at 3:33AM
At a time when Christmas movies are box office poison and Santa's been done to death, leave it to Aardman to re-animate the holiday spirit and freshening up old Saint Nick with Arthur Christmas (November 23). It's a far cry from Flushed Away, their first frustrating attempt at CG, in which DreamWorks pushed too hard for a domestic blockbuster instead of letting Aardman be Aardman.
Based on the first 30 minutes, the new partnership with Sony Pictures Animation seems a better fit, as the Bristol, England-based creators of Wallace & Gromit have figured out a better way of handling CG without compromising their famed British wit and fractured sensibility. In other words, Aardman was given the freedom to craft and design the movie in their inimitable way, while SPA and Sony Imageworks supplied the CG artistry and rendering power to bring the hyper real world to life and populate it with Aardman's wacky characters.
"The whole point of the movie is that children are always wondering how Santa could do all that in one night and to show the answer in a way that makes them go away and say, 'Yeah, maybe that could be true,'" explains first-time director Sarah Smith. "And we wanted to really respect what children believe about Santa, so we tried to make it so that any version of Santa that children believe in can co-exist within our world."
Smith actually joined Aardman in 2006 to head development after working in live-action with the BBC, but wound up helming Arthur Christmas herself. In fact, the original pitch was for a live-action Christmas tale by her old comedy sketch pal, Peter Baynham, but Smith immediately gravitated toward an animated movie ("Once you cast Santa with a famous actor, you can't believe it anymore"), and realized that the scope and look required the CG touch instead of Aardman's famed stop-motion technique.
So they collaborated on the script together and approached Sony with their notion of a commando-style Christmas Eve operation involving a space ship, an army of elves with high-tech equipment, and a command station at the North Pole outfitted with thousands of workstations.
Everything works like clockwork, of course, until they discover that they've forgotten to deliver one lone present to a precious girl in an English suburb. Thus, it sets up a heated rivalry among the Santa clan, in which the least likely heir apparent emerges: the hapless Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy).
"The Santas are a family, a dynasty, a royal family," Smith suggests. "And they've changed with the times and now it's very high-tech." But it's pitted against the more old school method of a sled and reindeer. "The movie is about how any little organization has to grow and change -- the corner grocery store becoming a super market and the super market becoming [Costco or Walmart]," she adds. But at the end of the day, the point of the movie isn't to say that modern is bad, but that the passion for what you're doing is what's most important."
The way it worked logistically is they first brought the Sony team to Bristol and then the Bristol team to Culver City. But Smith insists that it's worked like one studio in sync instead of a front-end/back-end hand-off. In terms of design, Smith took inspiration from Pixar's Ratatouille, because she thought "it was the first CG movie that had hit the artistry of old Disney 2D, when every picture was a work of art." But she wanted a sense of heightened reality, in which there were very common homes and shops and cul-de-sacs. But that when kids wake up Christmas morning, there's that magical glow. “Only Imageworks [and a couple of other studios] could’ve achieved what we’ve done,” she continues. “We couldn’t have managed such an immense and complicated pipeline [at Aardman].”
But when it came to the characters, Smith relied on the tried and true Aardman style of showcasing imperfections and asymmetrical design. Arthur has bad skin and even worse hair. It's an inside out approach that has always served Aardman well (leading to a slew of Oscars for Wallace & Gromit) and works just fine in CG.
That's why in terms of marketing, Sony was just fine with Aardman producing small-scale, European-centric animated movies. But when they heard the Arthur pitch, Sony co-chairs Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal leapt at the chance at something with a lot more commercial potential. Indeed, the upcoming stop-motion The Pirates! Band of Misfits (March 30) also offers the possibility of reaching a larger audience.
And yet there are definite risks, not only because of the Christmas theme but also because of differing tastes and expectations. "It's been very interesting to see what audiences on both sides of the Atlantic like and dislike, and there are differences," Smith admits. "For instance, I think that British [test] audiences expected an Aardman Christmas movie to be more traditional than it is. It actually has quite a contemporary edge. It's trying to talk to kids today about what it's like to be Santa in their world. Here, I think, [test] audiences completely loved the fact that it was a cool, high-tech action/adventure at the beginning of the movie because they have an expectation of what an Aardman film would be."
In the end, Smith says it's all about letting animated films be treated like any other, grappling with big, difficult issues about horror and fear and working those emotions out. But in the Aardman way, which is why Arthur Christmas will surely be an Oscar contender for best animated feature, leveraging the Wallace & Gromit legacy that is so popular with Academy voters.