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by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007


Because of their high profile in the entertainment business and a talent track record of near mythic proportions, it’s easy to forget what Pixar meant to the technological end of the artform. Granted, they are the leading light when it comes to pushing the creative boundaries of CGI, using invention and aesthetic depth to deliver definitive examples of the post-modern genre. From Toy Story to Ratatouille, Finding Nemo to the upcoming Wall-E, they’ve provided a platform for some of the most wonderful, most awe-inspiring cinematic spectacles since pen and ink hit paper. Yet it’s the tools with which such visions are realized that will remain the company’s strongest legacy, a selection of software and applications that allowed everyone else to explore this infinitely fanciful environment of expression.

More than the inherent charm of seeing the medium in its infancy, or the overwhelming value of tracing it’s growth into the juggernaut it is today, the 13 wondrous works offered as part of the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1 (new to DVD from Disney) are perhaps one of the most amusing and insightful history lessons ever offered. Utilizing the added capacity of the digital format, John Lasseter and his merry band of pranksters are on hand to guide us - via commentary and added content – how a purchase by Apple’s Steve Jobs in the early ‘80s transformed a small tech concern into one of the biggest cartoon conglomerates ever. Along the way, we see how each new mini-movie illustrated and expanded some significant corporate progress, and how a string of industry eyes only promo reels became the cutting edge of a whole new way of bringing manmade movement into the 21st Century.

It all began with The Adventures of André and Wally B (1984). Made under the auspices of Lucas Films, it was the then unformed Pixar’s first production. Wanting to showcase two different innovations in the burgeoning bitmap realm – a pointillism inspired program used to create realistic landscapes and the introduction of the tear drop shape for characters – the story of an alien robot and the bumblebee tormenting him was under five minutes of simplistic action. But it was the proverbial giant step in both form and function. Next up, shadow and physical reality were explored in Luxo Jr. (1986). Named after the desktop lamp on animator Lasseter’s drawing table, this complicated comedy involving a hyperactive fixture and its befuddled father became the recognizable face of the company. Even today, Pixar uses the loony light as its mascot and logo cue.

But it was the story of an unwanted unicycle that made Red’s Dream (1987) the first legitimate animated film for the company. Hoping to combine semi-realistic character modeling (a rather freakish clown) with a true emphasis on story and emotion, the amazingly effective piece became a rallying cry for taking the company into the realm of full length feature moviemaking. Of course, there were obstacles along the way, and Tiny Toy (1988) would be used to address many of them. Winning an Oscar for its clever combination of design (the company’s initial foray into dealing with anthropomorphized playthings) and detail (for its time, the rather monstrous baby was a technical marvel), it proved that the untried novices could definitely play with their most established peers.

Knick Knack (1989) and Geri’s Game (1997) would confirm said status. Both were narrative based, utilizing software advances and new programming paradigms to realize their goals, not visa versa. Similarly, both advanced the concept of the media’s seemingly inexhaustible creative elements. While the former film dealt with a group of souvenirs, and one particularly perplexed snowman, the latter was a single character tour de force that indicated the medium’s malleability as a traditional means of storytelling. Many of the problems solved and trials survived helped the company make the leap, resulting in the first real masterpiece of the fledgling medium, Toy Story (1995).

What followed then was a series of tie-in efforts, films made to accompany the next big screen release from the sudden producer of blockbuster popcorn fare. For the Birds (2000) followed the adventures of some snotty little fowl, while Mike’s New Car (2002) took character’s from the hit movie Monsters, Inc. (2001) and gave them a small showcase all their own. Jack-Jack Attack (2005) did the same with The Incredibles 2004), while Mater and the Ghost Light (2006) expanded on the Route 66 mythology that Lasseter used to make the 2006 masterwork Cars. The remaining efforts – Boundin’ (2003), One Man Band (2005), Lifted (2006) – were all commissioned to complement a theatrical title, offering audiences a chance to experience the ‘short film before the feature’ novelty, just like their grandparents did decades before.

Along the way, Pixar also produced four Luxo-based pieces for Sesame Street. Dealing with simple concepts like “Surprise”, “Up and Down”, “Light and Heavy”, and “Front and Back”, the kid-friendly facets argued for the company’s overall approach. And when viewed all at once on this amazing DVD, you get the real impression of craftsmanship being channeled and challenged in a way that few formats have been capable of balancing. It may have been a 50/50 split in technology and talent at the beginning, but over the years, the outside the box thinking used by the brains behind the scenes have meant that Pixar established the benchmarks used within a burgeoning artform, instead of trying to live up to them.

Indeed, everything that’s right – and wrong – about CGI today is encompassed in this baker’s dozen of definitive films. While Pixar could never be accused of pandering, watching the crazy critter musical extravaganza of Boundin’ belies what most misguided mimics believe defines the production company’s most successful facets. Similarly, the recycling of favored characters matches the constant sequelizing of the entire Shrek/Ice Aging of the genre. Of course, the lushness of the backdrops, the Autumnal feeling behind Geri’s chess match (it practically reeks of fallen leaves and far off campfires) is also indicative of Pixar’s presence. In fact, in an effort to best the big boys, some overdo the detail. A film like Fox’s Robots may seem like a perfect amalgamation of everything innately good inside the format until you see how far out of whack the minutia vs. amusement ratio really is.

Throughout the commentary tracks offered (only Jack-Jack Attack is missing said conversation, and Mike’s New Car has a couple of company kids – grade schoolers – mindlessly riffing away), the members of the Pixar staff, the old stalwarts and the acknowledged new guard, ascertain the sense of freedom and creative license given by the company and the decision to go digital. For them, CG was not all cold, sterile passionless processors (though the 25 minute behind the scenes documentary The Pixar Shorts: A Short History, will flabbergast you with how horribly old fashioned the first company supercomputers were) – it was a means to a much more magnificent ends. In light of the current overabundance of substandard 3D animation, it’s clear that many wannabes missed this part of the presentation. Now, thanks to The Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 1, everyone has access to the instructions. The ability to utilize them properly? Luckily, that remains a trade secret.

by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007


For the weekend of 9 November, here are the films in focus:

Fred Claus [rating: 7]

Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas

Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special – a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.  read full review…

P2 [rating: 6]

Sometimes a hoary old cliché can come bubbling back to life if handled in a respectful and direct manner – and this describes P2 perfectly.

Since the earliest days of cinema, the woman in jeopardy has been a narrative staple. From the perils experienced by Pauline to the quid pro quo of Clarice Starling’s interaction with a certain serial killer, the seemingly helpless female has been perfect thriller protagonist fodder since nitrate was first silvered. They get the audience interested, tweaking both the paternal and maternal instincts among viewers. Some have even suggested a much meaner, misogynistic explanation for such story structures. Ever since the slasher film in the ‘80s, gals have been garroted for reasons that have remained insular and disturbing. Even when eventually empowered, there tends to be a viciousness toward our heroine that’s almost inexcusable. Even in cases like P2, where our lead is obviously much smarter and more controlled than our craven psychopath, there’s a backwards blame game being played that just doesn’t seem fair. read full review…

Sleuth [rating: 5]

Constantly upstaging the rest of the cast, and reminding us over and over that we are watching a stogy, old fashioned stage play, Branagh’s loopy lens is indeed the best part of Sleuth. Everything else is just plain pointless.

The true star of Sleuth, the remake of the 1970’s cat and mouse thriller, isn’t its up to date A-list cast. Michael Caine, playing the role originally essayed by Sir Laurence Olivier, is a decent enough heavy, and Jude Law, inhabiting Caine’s old part, is an equally adept dandy. Together, they forge a unique performance unit that literally grabs the screen. Nor is it the work of playwright/literary lord Harold Pinter. While off his typical linguistic game by a few disadvantage points (he is adapting another’s work, after all), his exchanges percolate with the type of tongue twisting that makes theater types gush. Nor is it the sterile modernity of Tim Harvey’s production design. It may look like Caine’s Andrew Wyke lives in a funhouse version of Hitler’s bunker, but it’s really a contemporary ruse, a way of making the conventional seem unreal and daunting. read full review…

Lions for Lambs [rating: 4]

For all its studied sturm and drang, Lions for Lambs is superficial, piecemeal, and woefully unprepared to argue its points.

There are basically three levels of debate. The first type is often called the slam dunk, the common sense position (racism is wrong, children should be protected) that rarely gets a legitimate rebuttal. If and when it does however, the opponent typically looks foolish, battling against an established maxim than no one really challenges. Then there are the unwinnable clashes - conversations about abortion, God, musical taste, etc. – that even King Solomon himself couldn’t resolve. It could be because there are too many internal facets to each side to successfully maneuver, or it might have something to do with how personal the positions really are, but no one can ever win during these discussions, no matter the side.  read full review…

by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007


LIONS FOR LAMBS (dir. Robert Redford)

There are basically three levels of debate. The first type is often called the slam dunk, the common sense position (racism is wrong, children should be protected) that rarely gets a legitimate rebuttal. If and when it does however, the opponent typically looks foolish, battling against an established maxim than no one really challenges. Then there are the unwinnable clashes—conversations about abortion, God, musical taste, etc.—that even King Solomon himself couldn’t resolve. It could be because there are too many internal facets to each side to successfully maneuver, or it might have something to do with how personal the positions really are, but no one can ever win during these discussions, no matter the side.

And then there are the arguments at the center of Robert Redford’s surprisingly inert Lions for Lambs. Floating somewhere between the obvious and the impossible, this anti-war diatribe wants to be as fair and impartial as its left leaning capacities will let it—and it wants to accomplish this by using the mightier pen, not the far more cinematically interesting sword. Scribbled—literally so—by Kingdom writer Matthew Michael Carnahan and wearing its well meaning intentions as far out on its sedentary sleeves as possible, this is a thinking man’s thriller, except both the brain and bravado are hardly engaged. We are meant to see the three intertwining stories here as all possible paradigms surrounding the War on Terror. Sadly, not a single one adds up to a moment of significant clarity.

We first meet seasoned Washington reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) as she prepares to meet Senator Japser Irving (Tom Cruise). He has set aside an entire hour for a one-on-one “interview” over a new military strategy in Afghanistan. It turns out to be more of a con job than a confab. At the same time, a wise old college professor named Stephen Malley (Redford) is having a meeting with one of his more promising students, Todd Hayes. He hopes to convince the boy to do more with his college career, and his options afterward, than merely selling out and seeking a cushy, cash heavy career. He does this by explaining what happened to a previous pair of outstanding underclassman, Ernest Rodriguez and Arian Finch. They took Malley’s words to heart—and ended up joining the Army. Now serving in Afghanistan, we see how the new policy in the Middle East, as outlined by Irving, has the duo dealing with issues they never anticipated. In the end, all involved must decide which side of the fence they reside on, and how that determination will affect their ethos, and their life.

From the above description, Lions for Lambs should be a barn burner. From a more than competent cast to a whirlwind approach to the subject (think Babel by way of the John Birch Society), the idea of paralleling fates tested with those behind the scenes marginalizing said destinies has enough aesthetic potency to plow through any number of clichés or jingoistic jolts. And for a while, one gets the impression that this film will pull it off. Redford, who deservedly won his directing Oscar for the pristine Ordinary People, gives us impressive set-ups, complicated cross cuts, and a feeling that we are about to enter a Category 5 human hurricane of politics, personalities, and philosophizing. All we have to do is ride it out and enjoy the metaphysical life or death experience.

And then the storm never comes. Instead, it just drizzles for 90 minutes before turning dull. What should be aggressive comes across anemic. All the high minded ideas being tossed around like buoyant buzzwords end up aimed squarely at the smallest percentages of the lowest common denominator. For all its studied sturm and drang, Lions for Lambs is superficial, piecemeal, and woefully unprepared to argue its points. It’s high school level forensics, novice division vs. big time verbal firefights. The most compelling element of the storyline—the gifted if disenfranchised young men who decided to use the military as a means of making a difference (their logic is suspect at best)—is marginalized by a movie that wants to pound us over the head with “Bush is Bad” pronouncements until we acquiesce. While such a sentiment may be valid, it could be handled in a far more rational manner. Indeed, all the animosity Cruise and Streep spit at each other over the media coverage of the war and the GOP response to same could very easily apply to Redford and Carnahan as well.

You see, Lions for Lambs might appear to play fair, but if one could glimpse behind this Wizard of Fixed Odds’ curtain, they’d see a bunch of high minded hippies holding “Down with LBJ” placards. This is a movie using Vietnam as a slightly skewed way of describing our current Middle East policy, and while the analogy might have some play, the conclusions are clearly light years apart. No Asian country plowed two commercial airliners into our New York skyline, and while the Domino theory had very little long term regional resonance, our current thickheaded policy in Iraq has put us in a catastrophic Catch-22 dilemma. We can’t win, but we can’t leave—at least, not cleanly. As some pundits have suggested, we are no safer than when our bedeviled President declared “Mission Accomplished. But the fear of post-evacuation havoc has us so spooked, we can’t see a logical way of leaving.

Lions for Lambs plays these particular cards, and Cruise is so expert at delivering these carefully crafted swindles that you wonder if Scientology automatically disqualifies an actor from seeking higher office. Unfortunately, his cohort in conversation (for the first time in her career, Streep is a cipher here) constantly low balls his ludicrous pronouncements. Instead of challenging him, she keeps waiting for Irving to step on his own dicta. It never happens. It’s the same when Malley takes on Hayes. Redford is dermabrased and ready to dig in. He’s got his conceptual combat boots on. But as the role of up and coming idealist, Andrew Garfield is as blank as a fart. Watching his vacant, disconnected performance, one’s not sure if he’s playing a slacker, or simply inhabiting the personification of sloth. He is intellectually dead, emotionally sparse, and above all, unworthy of the movie’s championing.

Which, of course, leads us back to Rodriguez and Finch. While their storyline sinks along predicable military missteps, there are some genuine moments between the characters. As played by Michael Pena and Derek Luke, we get a real sense that both are the kind of individual who deserve our motion picture attention. They don’t come across as forced and feigned—though, again, their rationalization for becoming grunts leaves a lot to be desired—and we sense in them the gravitas missing from almost every other aspect of the film. By the time we’ve reached the anticlimactic conclusion to the other two tales (Cruise and Streep at stalemate, Redford and Garfield purposefully vague) we find ourselves wanting more of the dedicated duo. In a film filled with half-assed heroics, they remain the only victors.

This is why Lions for Lambs is so inexcusable. It shouts the loudest, pounding its flimsy fists on the desk for ineffectual dramatics. In a season which has seen equally limp interpretations of our life and times (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition), Robert Redford and his well meaning company of civil shills have a big fat, slightly damaged, diatribe to sell you. It doesn’t get great mileage, and isn’t very dependable, but if you like your positions on the retractable side of extreme, this overly verbal vehicle will get you to where you want to go. It’s stagey and talky, more off Broadway than broadminded, and there will be some who cotton to such expositional exercises. If you want to see superstars yak on endlessly however, Inside the Actors Studio is still on—and it’s a lot more politically astute than this overdone discussion group. 

by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007


P2 (dir. Franck Khalfoun)

Since the earliest days of cinema, the woman in jeopardy has been a narrative staple. From the perils experienced by Pauline to the quid pro quo of Clarice Starling’s interaction with a certain serial killer, the seemingly helpless female has been perfect thriller protagonist fodder since nitrate was first silvered. They get the audience interested, tweaking both the paternal and maternal instincts among viewers. Some have even suggested a much meaner, misogynistic explanation for such story structures. Ever since the slasher film in the ‘80s, gals have been garroted for reasons that have remained insular and disturbing. Even when eventually empowered, there tends to be a viciousness toward our heroine that’s almost inexcusable. Even in cases like P2, where our lead is obviously much smarter and more controlled than our craven psychopath, there’s a backwards blame game being played that just doesn’t seem fair.

It’s Christmas Eve, and go getting executive Angela Bridges is stuck smoothing out the wrinkles of an important client contract. In constant contact with her eager to celebrate family, and warding off the wounded pride of office lothario Bob, all she wants to do is get finished, get home, and get partying. Unfortunately, when she finally makes it to the parking garage and her car, the darn thing won’t start. Even worse, the creepy facility security guard, a guy named Thomas, keeps asking her to stay for his own personal holiday dinner. Without warning, she is suddenly kidnapped and confined. Apparently, Thomas is far from harmless. In fact, he apparently wants to be “friends” with his longtime obsession, and he’s not about to take “No” for an answer. It will take cunning and courage to escape this unhinged villain, and to make matters worse, the entire building is locked down tight. It’s just Angela, Thomas, his vicious Rottweiler, and any unfortunate bystander that gets in their way.

P2 is the perfect example of a thermostat style thriller. It keeps its superficial suspense percolating at just the right level throughout its entire 96 minutes of its running time, only stopping on occasion to let the dread’s temperature ebb and subside a few empty degrees now and then. It doesn’t go the rollercoaster route, and it’s unsure about the proper ratio of goofiness to gore. But when you’ve sat through a wealth of grade-Z genre schlock, films that wouldn’t know thrills and/or chills if they rose up from the grave and bit them in their lofty ambitions, this first time feature from Alexandre Aja protégé Franck Khalfoun is an authentic attempt at terror. Certainly it stumbles along the way, and someone needed to inform bad guy Wes Bentley that juvenilia and joking doesn’t really equal insanity, but for the most part, this by the book boo fest serves up some engaging shivers.

As they did with the fabulous slice and dice Haute Tension—Aja, producing pal Grégory Levasseur, and Khalfoun all contributed to this script—these French film geeks are out to prove that they know movie macabre. They’ve studied it, absorbed the many fright flick nuances, and found a way to tweak them just enough to bring the standard stereotypes and formulas into the cynical contemporary era. There is nothing really new here, no attempt at rewriting the rules or deconstructing the format. But sometimes a hoary old cliché can come bubbling back to life if handled in a respectful and direct manner—and this describes P2 perfectly. It’s all creepy cat and mouse for about an hour and a half, a by the numbers knuckle biter that delivers the fake shocks, the ineffectual rescues, and the last act beat down we’ve come to expect.

Part of the reason why P2 doesn’t aim (or reach) higher is its less than impressive cast. Don’t get the wrong impression—Rachel Nichols’ Angela and Bentley’s Thomas are professional and far from distracting. Each tries to bring something new to what are basically cardboard cutouts (overworked type-A corporate pawn, insane lowlife stalker), and without much success in that category, still keep us quite interested. It could have something to do with Khalfoun’s direction. There is a purposeful pace to P2, a story structure that moves determinedly through each and every marker on the horror horizon. Getting there may be half the fun, but what happens once we arrive is guaranteed to give you only the most minor amount of goosebumps.

If you’re expecting Haute Tension 2, however, or another dose of overdone gorno (got to love the studios’ bandwagon tendency with even the most mindless of movie trends) P2 will leave you rather disenchanted. What Aja did with his revisionist slasher (and what he managed in the otherwise perfunctory Hills Have Eyes remake) is clarify the potency of certain fear factors. From an unseen force of pure evil that is only glimpsed in small doses to a last act twist that was both predictable and prescient, we were guided through a geek’s official terror talking points. The difference here is that Khalfoun is clearly locked in apprentice mode. He can get away with some solid setpieces (like the fate of the aforementioned Bob), but there are times when the film appears to fade away. And since he’s not trying to bring anything new to the discussion, there’s no novelty to keep things focused and fresh.

Still, in a genre that stumbles more than it soars, where your average camcorder creator can’t figure out a way to properly dredge up the dread, P2 is perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t demand much and gives just slightly more than same in return. It does argue for Aja’s growing status as a horror maestro, and that his sphere of influence is capable, if still a bit basic. Don’t let other macabre marginalizing critics convince you that there are not some solid scarefest pleasures to be had here. They are viewing said subject through some decidedly biased eyes. Take the word of a fellow aficionado of fright—P2 is pretty decent. Not the most glowing of recommendations, but then again, this isn’t the most original of woman in peril plotlines—or motion pictures.

 

by Bill Gibron

9 Nov 2007


FRED CLAUS (dir. David Dobkin)

Christmas is a mess. It’s not sacrilegious to say it. Between the remaining religious significance, the retail desire to cram the celebration down our throats earlier and earlier, and the ‘ME! ME! ME!’ sense of materialization and entitlement, it’s hard to figure out a proper yuletide reaction. There is still a lot of inherent magic in the holiday, but there’s an ever increasing amount of grief, gratuity, and groveling too. Alt-rock darlings Low provide the perfect analogy to the season with their Gap Ad special—a cover version of the classic “Little Drummer Boy”. Applying a shoe-gazing slowness to the track, and amplifying the angst by using a single sample from Goblin’s soundtrack for the George Romero zombie stomp Dawn of the Dead, they captured the sullied season in a nutshell. Oddly enough, David Dobkin’s Fred Claus is a similarly styled mixed message. It takes the standard Noel and gives it a good old tweak in the tinsel.

Ever since he was a boy, Fred had to live in the sainted shadow of his practically perfect younger sibling Nicholas. As they aged, the constant doting of their mother and the growing gregarious nature of little “Santa” finally got to his big brother. Irritation turned to ire, and when a prized possession is suddenly destroyed, Fred decides he no longer needs the Claus clan. He winds up in the Windy City, playing repo man. While his woman Wanda puts up with his issues, it’s street kid Slam that really appreciates his cynical poses. After getting arrested in a charity scam, Fred looks for someone to bail him out. Sadly, only Santa is available. He agrees to help his distant relative on one condition—he must come to the North Pole and work in his little brother’s toy concern. Initially reluctant, Fred signs on, and it’s a good thing too, since evil Efficiency Expert Clyde Northcutt has just arrived—and he’s looking to put the jolly old elf out of business.

Fred Claus is the perfect post-millennial holiday film. It’s funny, smart, wicked, warm, and above all, completely clued-in to our growing crass commercialization of Christmas. It’s a movie steeped in mythos, overflowing with heart, and devilishly deceptive about its contrasting seasonal dichotomy. On the one hand, the narrative wants to champion a theme of “no bad children”, arguing that Santa’s outdated “naughty or nice” judgment misses the much bigger picture. Yet there’s an equally effective subtext which hints that such touchy feely pronouncements have ruined the real spirit of the holiday, a time when giving was based on your approach to life the other 364 days out of the year, not just your status as an annual gift machine. While it may not have been the intention of director David Dobkin, Fred Claus exposes the layers of fake sentiment that tends to destroy every celebration. Instead, he boils Christmas down to its iconic basics—snow, Santa, smiling faces—and then encloses it all in a veil of dysfunction which wants to mirror everyday existence. 

Oddly enough, it’s not Vince Vaughn’s Fred who’s the main culprit. He’s supposed to corrupt our silent night. Capable of playing both way big and too small, he’s just right here—angry but approachable, selfish but not completely self-centered. And Kevin Spacey’s Nortcutt is not the killjoy either. Granted, he’s the stereotypical bureaucrat that manages to stamp out the joy of such a season (he could kill a kitten’s inherent cuteness), but he’s nothing but a bully, a plot point waiting for its comeuppance. Other potential suspects include Mrs. Claus (Miranda Richardson), the very definition of a silent shrew, and the perplexed parents (Kathy Bates and Brit Trevor Peacock) who dote on their gift giving offspring without once considering Fred’s feelings. So who’s the biggest baddy of them all in this film filled with potential problem makers? Why Santa of course.

Fred Claus’s single genius stroke is to make Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of the Christmas fixture a flailing, neurotic mess. Old St. Nick is a walking disaster, a stressed out soul who’s eating away his troubles. As a child, we see how, sometimes, Santa was misguided in his decisions. He believes he can gift issues away, and as he grows older, he keeps toys away from deserving kids because he won’t make quota if everyone gets a present. While it’s very sly and almost too subtle, Dobkin delivers a red suited symbol who’s at the end of his rope. He’s just a single bad business report from going postal—and Fred may be the fuel to start such a shooting spree. Of course, Fred Claus never careens that far over into bleak black comedy, but a great many of the gags here are definitely based in anger, desperation, and interpersonal shame.

Certainly this is not a perfect film. A tiny elf character named Willy, essayed by Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins, is about as convincing as the CGI used to render his miniature status. We know he lusts after the human sized Charlene, but his motives are really unclear. Similarly, there’s a lot of unexplored potential in the tiny DJ played by rapper Ludicris. The talented artist is more or less wasted in what amounts to an uncreative cameo. There are scenes that don’t really go anywhere (an intervention with Fred falls flat) and Oscar winning actress Rachel Weisz is a weird choice for a Chicago meter maid. Her relationship with Fred is fine, but her presence in the US is never explained. Some could argue that for a funny business fantasy that intends to do nothing more than make you laugh and enliven your spirit, Fred Claus need not be flawless. But when there’s so much good material surrounding them, the miscues are more than evident.

Still, it’s hard to hate a Christmas movie that allows Roger Clinton, Stephen Baldwin, and Frank Stallone to riff on and rip on their far more famous siblings, and there is a wonderful montage toward the end that effortlessly captures the reasons for the season. And thanks to the bifurcated back and forth, the constant countermanding of wholesomeness with hackwork, tradition with the tainted and the tasteless, we wind up with a reflection of post-millennial holiday cheer. Some will come in expecting Bad Santa meshed with Wedding Crashers, but Fred Claus is friendlier, more away in a manger manageable than such a hard R conceit would create. This is truly a family film, albeit it one that acknowledges that you too hate the annual ridiculousness of such forced reunions. If Xmas has become a royal pain in the credit, this highly enjoyable romp knows the reasons why. Somewhere along the line, we lost the true meaning of decking the halls. Fred Claus won’t help you rediscover the significance, but it will make forgetting a whole lot more understandable.

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