Two Aardman Movies With Terrible Trailers

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Aardman Animation has released two animated movies in the past year. In both cases, the trailers made it easy to decide that I had no interest in seeing them. But also in both cases, I stumbled across some information regarding the actual content of the movie that changed my mind. In short, these reviews exist only despite the best efforts of their advertising department...

Arthur Christmas (2011)

Screenplay by Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith
Directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook
Running time: 97 minutes

The trailer: A young man in a festive sweater assures us that there is nothing to see here, that was not an elf behind that snowdrift, and we should just move along. All righty then, we will!

The actual movie: So far as I know, this is the only Christmas movie ever to be constructed entirely out of war metaphors.

No, seriously. Santa Claus as realized here is a title passed down through the Christmas family. Current reigning patriarch Malcolm (Jim Broadbent) looks the befuddled commanding officer of the World War II era, looking worn-out in his old beret but unwilling to hand over the (now figurative) reins to his elder son (Hugh Laurie). That son is the real manager of the massive Christmas night operation, presiding over a huge modern command center in red-and-green digital camouflage and the world's butchest holiday beard. Watching from the sidelines is Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), a knobbly old veteran of the early 20th century. The foot soldiers of the operation are still the elves, operating in well-practiced special-forces faction from a huge mothership which has replaced Grandsanta's beloved antique sleigh.

Even Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) is a tough lady, going about the business of running the household and baking cookies in between fighting off polar bears and negotiating peace treaties. It is probably no coincidence that her name is Margaret.

The younger son, Arthur (James McAvoy), is the black sheep of the family, serving as the letter-answering department and staying well out of the way on the big night. Until, that is, one present fails to be delivered, and everyone is willing to call it a good enough job but him.

What follows is a titanic struggle with no villain but Muphy's Law, but it's enough-working through weather, technology, paranoia, and more, the desperate mission piles up detour after detour, testing the limits of even Arthur's supernatural devotion to the Christmas spirit. The ending is a foregone conclusion, but by golly this movie earns it like no other I've seen in a long time.

This is also, incidentally, Aardman's first computer-animated movie. It plays like they have discovered the secret cache of all the joy and wonder that's missing from the mechanical plots of Pixar.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

Screenplay by Gideon DeFoe
Directed by Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt
Running time: 88 minutes

The trailer: A tepid-looking kids' movie about a pirate captain wanting to win the Pirate of the Year competition.

The actual movie: The original British title is The Pirates! In an Adventure With Science!, which leads to obvious speculation about why it might have been changed for the US. On the other hand, our science-hating creationists would probably have loved to know that while the plot really gets going with a fateful encounter with Charles Darwin (David Tennant) aboard HMS Beagle, Darwin spends most of the movie as the villain. Yes, really.

Much of the movie is based on such reversals. Since it's our heroes are pirates, the ships that inspire fear are those of Her Majesty's navy, the outlaw towns of the Caribbean are friendly territory, and London is a dark, dreadful place of fear where the welcome comes from a fellow pirate dangling in a gibbet. (Note for readers who may have been overexposed to "London Calling" already due to the Olympics and the London Worldcon advertising: here it comes again.)

But there they must venture, owing to a complicated and outrageous plan involving winning a science competition and then the Pirate of the Year Award. Along the way, the story is stuffed with equally outrageous and hilarious larger-than-life characters, from the Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) himself, to his chief rival (Jeremy Piven) who arrives on screen inside a flying whale, to the Pirate King (Brian Blessed, whose presence is practically required for a movie like this) and Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton again), who displays not only regal power, but some unexpected talents.

This is another claymation effort, and in the Aardman tradition the sets themselves practically become supporting characters thanks to being packed with entertaining details. Even when things are calm there's plenty to amuse you.

And for those of you wondering what this movie is doing in these pages at all, well, it's got Queen Victoria, mad science, and a chase scene involving an airship, and is therefore steampunk. Enough said!

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