Arthur Christmas, Sarah Smith, 100 mins
Immortals, Tarsem Singh, 110 mins
This Santa can find everything in his sack – except a decent storyline
Sunday 13 November 2011
Aardman's latest cartoon, Arthur Christmas, is all about Santa Claus's annual transglobal present-distribution run, so it seems appropriate to say that it delivers the goods.
It's bright, colourful fun, with zippy action sequences, countless visual gags, and a sprinkling of festive magic. But at the risk of being the sort of ingrate who sulks because he didn't get the PlayStation game he asked for, the film still isn't everything I wanted it to be.
Its big idea is that there isn't just one Santa Claus. In fact, the red suit has been passed down from father to son (bad luck, women) for centuries. The current Santa, voiced by Jim Broadbent, has been in the job for 70 years, but the brains behind the operation is his thrusting son Steve, voiced by Hugh Laurie. (He voiced the Easter Bunny in Hop earlier this year, so presumably the Tooth Fairy is next on his list.) Steve has mothballed the sleigh and the reindeer to make way for a spaceship and an army of elf commandos, all co-ordinated by the team in his vast Bond-villain headquarters, so you already know, don't you, that he's going to get his comeuppance. Sure enough, one girl in Cornwall doesn't receive the bike she asked for, so it's left to the Claus family's two black sheep to dust off the sleigh and get her prezzie to England the old-fashioned way. Taking the reins is the senile Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), alongside Santa's big-hearted but ineffectual younger son, Arthur (James McAvoy).
Despite the ostensible pro-tradition message, Arthur Christmas cleaves closer to Steve's methods than to Arthur's. Rather than having the hand-made, Heath-Robinson individuality of Wallace & Gromit, it's a precision-engineered model of corporate digital animation. That is, it's dazzlingly well done in many ways, with every last joke in exactly the right place, but it feels as if it could easily have come from Pixar or DreamWorks. And just as Steve's computerised command module leaves one present undelivered, the otherwise ultra-efficient Arthur Christmas forgets one thing, too: its plot. Most of the film is taken up by Grandsanta and Arthur's mission to deliver a bike to a Cornish village, but when you've got a magical sleigh at your disposal, and no villains or obstacles to get in your way, that's not difficult to achieve.
Tarsem Singh is one of those directors, like Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro, who are visionary production designers but who should probably leave the directing to someone else. Singh's new film, Immortals, is an action movie loosely based on Greek mythology, much like last year's Clash of the Titans. But while it shares that film's dingy, substandard 3D, it looks less like a typical Hollywood swords'n'sorcery saga than a fabulous collaboration between Salvador Dali and Lady Gaga. The high points include a town lodged in a hollow halfway up a sheer cliff-face, and Mickey Rourke sporting a helmet made out of a giant nutcracker (perhaps symbolic, given his character's habit of castrating enemies with a mallet).
Spectacle aside, though, Immortals is a tedious, confusing mess. And there's something very wrong with any film about Theseus (Henry Cavill) and the Minotaur which doesn't bother with a proper labyrinth. Singh should have published a coffee-table book of magnificent stills from his film, and scrapped the film itself.
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