Now that the Thanksgiving festivities are past and we are sufficiently stuffed with leftover turkey, dressing and cranberry sandwiches, it’s time to turn our eyes toward the remainder of the Holiday season. The new Aardman animation yuletide offering Arthur Christmas debuted at number four in the midst of a jam packed weekend at the box office.
The film adds a fresh twist to the classic Christmas tale by beginning with one simple question: How is it that Santa delivers all of those presents in just one night? From there it draws the viewer into a world that presents a very humanized and novel version of Santa, Mrs. Clause and their children.
Christmas, you see, is a family business and the role of Santa passed down through generations. Arthur is the well intentioned, but somewhat bumbling, son of the current Santa; a man who has lost touch with his sons and the details of his global, happiness in a box, delivery service. Enter Steve (Hugh Laurie), next in line to take the Santa reins as it were. Steve has devised a high tech militant operation to ensure that all the worlds presents “get there on time.” His methods include a space ship, a team of highly disciplined elves and a tightly held schedule.
When Arthur (who is in charge of receiving and answering the “dear Santa” letters that children send) discovers that one little girl did not receive her Bicycle, he and Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) take off in a reindeer driven adventure that leads them back to the essential truths about themselves and Christmas that had (even for the Clause’s) somehow gotten lost in the bustle.
We had the opportunity to speak with Nighy recently – he in a blistery cold London and we in an unseasonably warm Los Angeles – about his own Christmas traditions, voicing the father of Father Christmas and his most memorable Christmas present.
Screen Rant: Did you have Christmas traditions in your family where you would leave things out for Saint Nick or did anyone dress up as Santa?
Bill Nighy: “My parents never dressed up but my father would oversee the letter to Santa. We had a coal fire and I was never allowed to put the letter on the coals because I was too young to be given that responsibility. But my father would put it on and I can taste, as it were, the feeling still. It was just a brilliant idea that you burn the note and the message travels in smoke form to the North Pole and Santa gets to hear what you want. It’s such a brilliant idea. How I ever believed it I don’t know, but I did.”
How outrageous did you get in your requests in the letter?
“I don’t know that I was ever outrageous really. The greatest thing (and this isn’t because of the movie I promise you), the greatest thing I ever got was a bicycle. I can remember standing at the top of our stairs and there was a frosted window, like a frosted glass kind of a thing where you could look down into the yard, and I could just see the shape of what looked like a bicycle. And I can feel that memory. That bicycle was a constant companion for years after that. And that was easily the best present that I ever got.”
You auditioned for this role, yes?
“That’s absolutely correct.”
How did Grandsanta’s voice evolve over the course of auditioning or in rehearsals? Did you ever go to any surprising or completely off-the-wall places with it?
“They have to audition you really, they have to try you out because they have to know that you have some kind of voice up your sleeve. Particularly to play a 136-year-old man and I guess I tried to avoid the cliche, but I think in trying out I probably strayed into traditional old man acting. And I think I did it rather upper class and Sarah Smith, the brilliant director said, ‘No,no no, no no. That’s not what we’re looking for.’ And what she wanted was sort of like an ex-military man. Somebody who had a very formal kind of speech that sort of deteriorated somewhat through age. But it was a struggle. And it took me awhile to arrive at the voice that’s in the movie. But thank God I passed the audition.”
Take a look at Nighy voicing Grandsanta in the booth below:
You were able to actually work directly with your costars in this film which is quite unusual, what did that bring to your experience?
“We did, and it is very unusual as you know, I expect. James McAvoy and I worked quite a lot together because we had so much to do together on the big journey in the sleigh. There is no substitute really. You get timing and you get inspiration to bounce off and it’s invaluable. I know James quite well. I’ve played James’ father and now I’m his granddad. So, things are either looking up or not. Then when we did Christmas dinner, Hugh (Laurie) wasn’t there because he was filming in Los Angeles, but Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton the brilliant Mr. and Mrs. Christmas were there so most of the family was there. And that is very handy for a scene like that where it’s quite tight cuing and you want to hear the other person live in order to respond.”
Can you relate to Grandsanta’s desire to return to the simpler days of sleighs and reindeer and his romanticized view of the past?
“Yes I can. You know I think the past is difficult because memories play tricks. But there is a nostalgia, particularly around Christmas. Christmas is one of the ways in which we measure our lives, along with New Years. And I guess you do look back and you think the snow was whiter and certainly in England it used to snow more. But then again I could be proved wrong. But it was less commercialized because there was less commercial enterprise in the world and there was less technology so they couldn’t translate the technology into commercialism in those days to such a degree. And there are good things about the new technology and there are bad things. I was very happy with the reindeer. I’d settle for a reindeer anytime over a spaceship.”
Take a look at the reindeer and the spaceships that make up Arthur Christmas in the trailer below:
You’ve played Davy Jones, a Vampire and now Santa, is a demon prince in I Frankenstein next?
(Laughing) “Maybe! I’ve just played a giant in ‘Jack The Giant Killer’ you know, and a I’ve also played a Demigod with a limp (Hephaestus) in ‘Clash of the Titans 2.’ It does get weirder, it gets stranger, and I’m glad to be able to play a variety of parts.”
There are so many great Christmas tales, but this one is really fun. It’s a nice turn to have this new take on Santa as being human and flawed because it’s a fresh way to remind us that it’s not any one person, or thing, that defines Christmas.
“Yes, I liked everything about the script, and I really badly wanted to be in it, and I felt that it was very original, and I like the way it personalized Father Christmas and his family. You get to identify with them to some degree. They are really real and they have familiar human failings and frailties. But that film expresses that simple idea that in the end it’s the thought that counts, and the feeling and generosity of spirit that you hope Christmas inspires and what everybody seeks.”
Arthur Christmas is in theaters now.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc