When I was a kid, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the height of animation technology, it aired every Christmas without fail, and if I failed to see it, I had a ten year old
meltdown. As an adult, I note the awfulness of the very basic stop motion
animation, and the awesomeness of the classic Hero Journey structure of the
story (read some Joseph Campbell if you don’t know what a Hero Journey is). As a
kid I related to the misfits (Rudolph; Hermie the Elf who had the coolest job on
the planet but wanted to be a dentist) and their struggles to find their place
in the circle of life...
...oh, wait, that's another story.
Enter the 21st century. Ho ho ho hum, another chipmunk movie, another rom com, another...
What's this? Another offering by the awesome geekiness that is Aardman (or is it Aardmaan???). Those brilliant Brits who brought us Wallace and Grommit (and the Wrong Trousers), Curse of the
Were-rabbit, a moon made of real cheese, a pet rat who gets Flushed Away, and a riff on WWII prison camp escapes called Chicken Run.
They have left behind their clever stop motion animation, trading it for CG, as the Santas trade in the old sled of carved and bent wood for the S1 (which looks as if the USS Enterprise
had spawned an illegitimate hatchling with a giant space squid). The CG still
has the look of Aardman, of their great characterizations and designs (the S1 is
actually quite awesome, and it's resemblance to the Enterprise may or may not be
intentional; it certainly looks like what our generation thinks of as a
spaceship). It's just easier to do snow, and hair, and stuff blowing around with
CG (it's impossible with stop motion).
Arthur is the younger, geekier son of the present Santa and Mrs. You know, the one who can never do anything right, the one who has the Perfect Older Brother Who Will One Day Be Santa (if
the present, rather absentminded one ever ever retires!). The Older Brother With SixPack Abs, Christmas Camo, and a military haircut... it took me half the movie to realize his closecut goatee was in the shape of a Christmas tree.
It's the stuff I loved about Rudolph in the 60s. Here, though, is a family we can identify with, imperfect, complex, warm, funny, the characters go beyond stereotype. They may begin as
archetypes, but then they take off at mach ten in their own mad directions.
There are fine little clues to character; Mrs. Claus, after playing the grandmotherly role of getting dinner ready and herding the family together, sitting down to the table with her sewing... we see some slashes on her jacket she is mending... she says something about polar bears and it's really good I took that defense course...
There's Grandsanta, using a reindeer antler as a crutch. The old reindeer in the doggie Elizabethan collar (those things you put on dogs to prevent them from bothering a wound). The
stable of young reindeer (animated beautifully; the artists clearly studied reindeer) whose first flight is rather like beginner surfers on really big waves.
And the Elves. Despite my love of Rudolph and Hermie, my idea of Elf is Legolas from Lord of the Rings. Steely eyed and longbow wielding, able to talk to horses, trees, or rocks, run on snow,
and take down a hundred orcs with only a knife.
Well, these are short, funny looking, squeaky voiced... and somehow hilariously real. Sort of like the minions in Despicable Me...or not. Diverse. Bryony the Wrapping Elf who comes
along on the journey (using her skills as a wrapper of gifts) is beyond brilliantly funny and quirky. Although I only figured out at the end of the film that she was a girl (must have been the mohawk).
It is a film suitable for smallish kids…that will entertain the adults thoroughly. Up there with Pixar,
with the finest offerings of Disney. Of Miyasaki. It is a film without villains.
There is no grand battle of Good and Evil, only the quirky interactions of a
hilariously real family. There is grand adventure; eye-popping “effects”, action
that makes the price of 3D worth it. Each character has their own set of
obstacles, their own Hero Journey to accomplish (even GrandSanta and the ancient
reindeer). It has huge imagination. Small moments of warmth, of humor (the Elves
holding up cell phones with pictures of burning candles, rather than real
candles… the seal sliding off the surfacing S1… the polar bear who wanders into
Santaland because, darn it Arthur, SHUT THE DOOR, IT’S THE NORTH POLE!
It bears watching a few times over; there are a plethora of nifty details you’ll miss the first time…or the second…or the 48th. It’s one you want to own, and savor over and over.
Move over Hermie; Bryony kicks butt!