LONDON – For first time feature director Sarah Smith a five year journey into animation is finally about to peak on the big screen. Smith is the director and co-screenwriter, along with Peter Baynham (“Borat,” “I’m Alan Partridge”), of “Arthur Christmas,” the first collaboration of legendary animation studio Aardam and Sony Pictures Animation. It’s early Monday morning and Smith has less than two weeks to finish the picture.
“It”s been such a tricky deadline because, you know, delivering two weeks late on the movie means next Christmas release,” Smith says laughing nervously.
And just what does she have left to do?
“Just the sound mix,” she smiles.
Oh, just that. Thankfully, Smith took time out from the important part of the process to screen approximately 20 minutes of “Arthur Christmas” for some visiting press in London (screenings were also held for media in New York and Los Angeles). And what Sony sneaked was an intriguing mix of holiday cheer, quirky Aardman style (“Chicken Run,” the “Wallace and Gromit” series), very funny jokes that play just as much to adults as kids and some gorgeous CG animation (nothing new for Sony Pictures Animation).
“Christmas” is set in a world where there really is a Santa Claus (spoiler), but he’s just one in a long line of men to carry that family name. The current Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is conducting his 70th mission to deliver toys on Christmas Eve, but gets the job done in 2011 thanks to a futuristic operation run by thousands of elves under the command of his oldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie). Everyone but Santa seems to realize Steve is waiting for Santa to hand over the reins to Steve, but Santa who reveals to his wife Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton) that he’s not sure what he’d do with himself if he wasn’t Christmas’ favorite holiday hero, seems to have no intention of retiring. Santa’s own crotchety father, now known as Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), is middy amused at his son’s predicament as well as disappointed in the almost workman like operation Steve has set up to deliver billions of toys to children around the world. It appears that the only person who still believes in the “spirit” of the holiday is Santa’s younger son, Arthur, a clumsy, but lovable chap who is in charge of answering all of the letters that arrive at the North Pole asking Santa for Christmas presents. When a minor accident reveals that a young girl hasn’t received the bike she wrote Santa for, Arthur seems to be the only one in the family appalled by the mistake. With Grandsanta taking over, the duo pull out the classic sled, some antsy reindeers (the descendants of the original Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, etc.) and some magic dust to hit the skies. Their mission? Deliver the little girl’s bike before she wakes up around 7:30 AM.
The footage was funny, charming and – most important – had a voice different than the increasingly formulaic Pixar films (truth hurts) or the sometimes trying to hard to please everyone DreamWorks Animation endeavors. Simply told, while the concept of a techno-savvy Santa isn’t new, the set up and the characters are. It’s a bit of a down year for the best animated picture category for this year’s Academy Awards, but along with “Rango,” “Arthur Christmas seems to be the only shoe in for a nomination (the Aardman track record with the Academy doesn’t hurt either). For those playing at home, “Rio,” “Puss in Boots,” “Happy Feet Two,” “Kung Fu Panda 2” and the hand-drawn “Winnie the Pooh” are the other main nomination contenders in a year that could have three to four nominations (it’s a complicated new rule, don’t ask). Oscar glory is the last thing from Smith’s mind, however (or at least we assume), but she was more than happy to discuss how she and Bynam cooked up the underdog family flick. It all began after Smith started a development gig at Aardman in 2005.
“[Pete and I] had worked together before and he rang me up and I said, ‘Come on Pete, I”m going to be at Aardman — have you got any ideas?’ He said, ‘I think I might found one of my best ideas ever.’ And he pitched the like two-minute version to me. And because it was Pete, as I started working on it with him, I just totally fell in love with it and it sort of became our giant baby. So, we worked on the script for about, I guess a year-and-a-half, two years, and then it”s been in production for about two-and-a-half years now.”
In a world where kids seem to be growing up faster than ever, one of the duo’s goals was to help parents convince their kids Santa is as real as you and me just a little while longer. The logic of how Santa could pull off delivering presents to billions of kids around the world is a big part of the film’s first act, but that global perspective permeates throughout the picture.
“They go to so many different crazy places. I mean, they actually end up in Africa, you know, singing ‘Silent Night’ to the lions to try to get out of trouble,” Smith reveals.
She continues, “I think one of the essential things in the movie [is] it”s not like the old ways are good and the new ways are bad…but you also see that it”s impractical. How could Santa deliver all of those present? It”s the point of why you do it, not how you do it.”
Creatively, the look of the characters feels distinctively Aardman even though company mainstay Nick Park wasn’t involved.
“Nick”s character design, you know, he”s one of the best character designers in the world. People don”t think of him like that, but I think he is. I think it”s one of the things that make his movies spectacular because his characters are fantastic. But to me, they totally belong to Nick and they belong to stop frame [animation],” Smith says. “What I wanted for these characters was, in the end, to feel like they only could have come from Aardman, that they belong to the family of characters of Aardman and I think they do. We didn”t try to make any of them cute, particularly. They weren”t trying to look appealing. They are themselves. They have a slightly rough and ready kind of thing about them.”
As for the voice cast, some of the characters were easy to pin down, such as Oscar-winner Broadbent who is a natural for Santa or Nighy as Grandsanta. On the other hand, Smith says they looked for an actor to voice Arthur for a long time. Eventually a screening of the period drama “The Last Station” turned Smith on to James McAvoy. Smith notes, “We were looking around also for people who then kind of got fantastic careers like Andrew Garfield who”s doing, you know, ‘Spiderman’ now and Matt Smith who then became ‘Dr. Who.’ We were looking at all these kind of young actors. And then somewhere along the line I saw ‘The Last Station’ where [McAvoy] played a much younger character and I just thought there”s something about him. He”s such a sort of live wire and character.”
While box office success and critical acclaim are pretty much instant rewards in either animation or live action, Smith knows it’s different for Holiday films. These pictures are judged on how they stand the test of time against a slew of Christmas classics and it’s something she and her team have been very cognizant of.
“The technology is the hardest thing of all because, you know, in five years” time there may be no computer terminals, we will all just have glass screens or something, and then that would date us,” Smith says. “I hope not because…the aspirations for a Christmas film is that it”s something that lasts for people will you know love beyond one year.”
“Arthur Christmas” opens nationwide and in 3D on Nov. 23.
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