Sarah Smith, director of the holiday movie "Arthur Christmas,"… (Mel Melcon/ Los Angeles…)
The clumsy son of a washed-up Santa and his curmudgeonly grandfather embark on an audacious mission to deliver a Christmas present to a little girl in Cornwall, England.
Also embarking on a daring mission are the new studio partners behind the unconventional Santa tale, "Arthur Christmas," which marks the first collaboration between Sony Pictures Animation and British animation house Aardman Animations. Both companies have a lot riding on the success of the 3-D CG animated movie, which debuts in U.S. theaters Wednesday. Although pre-release tracking on the film suggests it could have a soft opening in the U.S., the movie has been well reviewed and is already doing brisk business in the United Kingdom.
For Aardman — best known as producers of the popular crime-fighting duo Wallace and Gromit — "Arthur Christmas" represents an opportunity to stage a Hollywood comeback after the failure of its previous computer animated release, "Flushed Away." The 2006 comedy about sewer rats, which flopped at the box office, caused Aardman's former partner, DreamWorks Animation, to take a $109-million write-off on the movie.
DreamWorks subsequently severed ties with Aardman, ending a five-picture deal afterthree movies: "Chicken Run," the Oscar-winning "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Flushed Away." Creative clashes also led to the dissolution of the partnership.
For Sony, which signed a deal to finance and distribute Aardman's movies in 2007, "Arthur" is the first of several projects the studio hopes will give its animation unit a more reliable flow of movies with broad international appeal. That could help the Culver City studio compete in an increasingly congested family market. This year, there will have been 15 animated releases, and a dozen are due next year.
This week, "Arthur" will go head to head with several other movies targeting children and their parents: Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," Walt Disney Pictures' "The Muppets" as well as the sequel "Happy Feet Two," which opened last weekend.
Bob Osher, who oversees Sony Pictures Animation, believes the partnership with Aardman will strengthen his studio's hand.
"Aardman is uniquely talented and when you look at the family space, a lot of these films perform extremely well internationally," said Osher, president of digital production for Sony Pictures Entertainment. "There's this creative brain trust there."
Sony's latest family movie, "The Smurfs," was a rare breakout hit for the studio's own animation division, pulling in nearly $560 million in worldwide ticket sales, 75% of which came from overseas.
Since its launch nearly a decade ago, Sony Pictures Animation has had a mixed track record at the box office and its share of growing pains and management turnover. Its first movie, "Open Season," was only moderately profitable, and its second release, "Surf's Up," fared poorly despite strong reviews. The 2009 movie "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" performed much better.
Osher has high hopes for "Arthur," which stars James McAvoy in the title role, Hugh Laurie and Bill Nighy (as the crusty Grandsanta) and was written by Peter Baynham, the co-writer on "Borat," and his friend and BBC alumnus Sarah Smith.
"Lovable idiots are our heroes," said Smith, who also directed.
The film, which cost about $100 million to produce, combines big-effects action scenes with the idiosyncratic designs and offbeat humor that is the trademark of Aardman's stop-motion films. Unlike computer-animated movies, the stop-motion process involves a painstaking technique in which each frame is animated by hand with plasticine puppets on a miniature set.
In his dealings with Aardman, Osher's strategy has been to give a wide berth to company founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton. During the making of "Arthur," for example, the storyboarding and design of the characters was done at their studio in Bristol. When animation began, a core Aardman crew of about 20 people moved to Sony's studio lot and set up a shingle dubbed Aardman West.
"The idea from the inception was to let Aardman be Aardman," said Osher. "The goal was total creative freedom."
The approach is an effort to avoid a repeat of the friction that built up between Aardman executives and DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg over creative control and style of filmmaking. Among other points of dispute, Aardman executives balked at Katzenberg's desire to have them abandon stop-motion animation in favor of focusing on computer-generated movies. So far, no such differences have flared up at Sony, which approved a stop-motion film for Aardman's next release, "The Pirates! Band of Misfits," a Monty Pythonesque comedy starring Hugh Grant. The movie, which is close to wrapping production, is based on the book by Gideon Defoe and is set for release in March.
"It's a very different organization," said Aardman co-founder Lord, director of "The Pirates." "They've continually displayed enormous faith in us and backed our decisions, which is all you can ask for. They've given us space."
Lord hopes to produce one movie every two years for Sony. Several other projects are in the works, including one being developed by Aardman's best-known director, Nick Park, creator of the Wallace and Gromit characters.
Park said he's happy with the new relationship.
"They speak so passionately about what we do," Park said. "It just fills you with a sense of self-confidence."