A cynical slice of festive entertainment that will be as welcome as a lump of coal or a visit from the Krampus for most kids.
If you go to the cheaper shops around Christmas, you might find the shelves clogged up with DVDs of festive animated films that might sound vaguely familiar, but are almost certainly not the film you’re thinking of. Watch one of these movies and you’ll be confronted with cheap as chips basic level animation, a derivative story and possibly some terrible songs. This might not be entirely dreadful, depending on how much egg nog you’ve consumed, but you’re probably not going to want to give it to a kid – at least not one you like – as a gift, and it’s certainly not going to become a beloved Christmas favourite.
Saving Santa feels like a slightly more ambitious version of those films. It even managed an unmemorable theatrical run at the end of 2013, in 3D no less – a format that was then reproduced on Blu-ray during that brief and regrettable period when 3DTV was being desperately pushed as the next big thing despite widespread public indifference. A sort-of well-known name cast suggests that this UK/US co-production had hopes of becoming a holiday staple that adults will love as much as kids, but I fear that will never happen. A combination of a thin, yet needlessly convoluted story, unappealing characters, poor animation and songs that would knock the festive spirit out of Santa himself ensure that this would be one slice of turkey too much for most people, I suspect. Even the most undemanding child might find this a bit of an ordeal.
Bernard the Elf (Martin Freeman) is a reindeer poop scooper with ambitions to become an inventor, but his creations never quite seen to work out. His latest, a device to reply a person’s most treasured festive memories, seems to work, but when it is broken during a demonstration, it causes the holographic shield hiding the North Pole to malfunction, making it visible to the fiendish Neville Baddington (Tim Curry), who is out to impress his mother (Joan Collins) by capturing Santa (Tim Conway) and using his secrets to set up the world’s fastest delivery company. Bernard has to try to save the day by using Santa’s time travel device to go back a few hours and warn everyone – but as Santa has pointed out, you can’t change the past, only add to it (something that makes little sense as things go on – every time Bernard does anything in the past, he’s surely changing it?). Soon, there are three Bernards running around trying to defeat Baddington, save Christmas and give all the little kids watching major headaches.
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of juvenile festive fun, of course, even if the film’s digs at the Baddingtons’ attempts to commodify Christmas seem rather hypocritical – if this cynically opportunistic film isn’t a symptom of the commercialising of Christmas, I don’t know what is. But this feels like a rather weak affair that struggles to be remotely festive. The CGI animation is decidedly third rate – it looks like something from an early 2000s game and seemed substandard even in 2013. Time is rarely kind to CGI and this is a prime example of something that was barely adequate at the time and now looks like the work of rank amateurs. While I can perhaps accept stylised characters with hair that is a solid mass, the barely-developed backgrounds, clumsy movements and lack of expression is rather harder to take. Admittedly, the one-dimensional style perhaps fits Freeman, who seems to have a single acting style – that of the slightly bemused everyman – and does the same old thing here. His rise to some sort of international celebrity is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the modern age. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag too – Curry is an old hand at camping it up as cartoon villains, of course, and does his usual solid job here, but Collins seems ill at ease, and Ashley Tisdale as a cute female security elf is completely underused (though she does get to belt out an entirely unfestive, though catchy pop song over the closing credits).
The plot, meanwhile, seems needlessly complex, with its triple time travel theme and replaying of the same scenes with slight variations for much of the film, as each newly arrived future Bernard tries to save the day while not interacting with his other selves. For a film aimed at kids, the strict adherence to scientific time travel theory seems somewhat unnecessary. And the idea that Bernard’s rejected invention could save the day is a bit too contrived, frankly.
Still, the film moves along at a fair pace, and if you have young ‘uns who are only after eye-candy and safe action, it could perhaps pass muster if you are for some reason desperate for a new Christmas film and are not feeling fussy. But even the most undemanding audience are bound to be put off by the genuinely terrible songs that litter the film and lack the most basic requirements from a musical number, i.e. a memorable tune or decent performance. They seem so randomly inserted that it makes you wonder why anyone felt they were necessary. I can guarantee that no child has ever left an animated film and said “it would’ve been better with more sub-Lloyd-Webber show tunes”.
The biggest flaw of Saving Santa, though, is the lack of originality. We’ve seen all this before, often in better films. I’ve no doubt that the target audience for this will be less film-experienced than curmudgeonly old farts like myself of course, but even so – if you want to show the kids about Christmas being saved from grumpy old villains, there are plenty of better films with that story already out there.
Given that we are told that under sixes should avoid 3D, it seems that the audience most likely to watch this uncritically are also the ones who will be denied the questionable attraction of the third dimension (the version under review is the ‘flat’ one, just to be clear). Older kids will possibly find this a little lame, and parents might be annoyed by the general lack of charm involved as well as the cheap and nasty look of the whole thing.
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