It was all so different a few years ago, before the era of DVDs. My kids were small and we bought classic Disney videos by the truckload. And the kids watched them avidly! There were Fantasia, The Aristocats, Bambi, Snow White and many more. And at least one adult would be watching with them, time and again. They developed an unquenchable thirst for other animated movies – Toy Story, Lion King, Cars, The Incredibles and many more.
Ah, and the Pixars and Disneys became wiser, deliberately inserting lines that went way above the heads of children in order to amuse the omnipresent parents, forced to accompany their kids to these movies. Perfect family entertainment?!
Well…. as my pair headed relentlessly towards teenagerdom (actual and virtual), something became painfully obvious to them, as it had to we adults: all these kids movies were formulaic, built from exactly the same story elements, no matter what the flashy animation, cute characters and 3D gimmicks might tell you. In short, they are utterly predictable, have happy endings and go through well-defined stages in order to manipulate your emotions. Some people are suckers for it, particularly people who can never resist “the magic of Christmas”, others grow weary.
Thus, as I went to see Arthur Christmas with the 13 year old Adam, at his suggestion, it was with ambivalence. Would charm see through? Could I overcome my cynicism about the movie industry and enjoy the film on its own merits?
To be fair, this retelling of the hoary Santa Claus present giving legend with a twist is done very well – Santa’s grotto run by a sophisticated control centre and much computer technology, making it look like NASA’s space command centre. This is helped by a fine cast of British actors among the voices (Hugh Laurie, James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Michael Palin, Ashley Jensen, Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Laura Linney, plus the odd American like Eva Longoria), excellent CGI animation by the Aardman team, and a well-honed storyline.
It falls down in two ways: the script should be funnier; and the storyline IS predictable and erring towards the shallow. You know it will do the happy ending, nothing bittersweet. And everyone will go home happy! Kids probably like that just fine, though to my mind it needs more to sustain it.
But then as Frank Lloyd Wright famously said of television, it is “chewing gum for the eyes.” So it is – Hollywood has no expectations of longevity here – it is pulp fiction for the Christmas market, and another one will be along to replace it next year. This I find a real shame, particularly when the traditional Disney stories seem to have achieved that ethereal quality of timelessness.