CinemaTech: Prep & Landing and Arthur Christmas turn the North Pole into an old-fashioned tech hub

CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.

I often wonder if, or how, today’s parents are able to keep their children in the dark regarding certain realities in the world – such as, to pick a random example, the idea that a fat man in a red suit and cone-shaped hat might not live in an old factory at the top of the world, keeping track of whether every child that celebrates Christmas has been good this year while elves build toys for them.

After all, if an iPad’s so easy to figure out that even a toddler can use it, what’s to stop them from learning that if Santa Claus existed in real life his sleigh would need to move at more than 10.5 million kilometres per hour? Without stops?

My guess, however, is that more storytellers than I think know that modern technology would actually make Santa’s job easier than ever, and have incorporated that fact into the tales they share, which otherwise rest on the same folktale-friendly foundations they always did.

Prep & Landing is a perfect example. Produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios, these two ABC television specials depict Santa receiving help not only from elves at his workshop, but from an elite team of gift delivery specialists who, before the big guy arrives, use the latest gadgetry available to:

Scout every room to ensure no creature is stirring…

Make sure there’s enough space available for the gift(s) being given…

Check any cookies left out for traces of nuts…

And bring Santa and his reindeer in for a landing.

The tech component is even more pronounced in Prep & Landing’s sequel, Naughty Vs. Nice, which sends heroes Wayne (Dave Foley) and Lanny (Derek Richardson) to recover classified North Pole technology – a “fruitcake conduct calculator” – from a nefarious hacker known during the first half only as “JINGLESMELL1337.”

Wayne (far left) and Lanny receive a new assignment from their supervisor Magee (far right) and CIO Mr. Thistledon (via hologram).

But aside from their gingerbread-shaped digital display-driven window dressing, the Prep & Landing specials are no more disruptive than A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: In the first P&L, 220-year-old veteran Wayne stops feeling the spirit of the season after being passed over for a promotion yet again, and is pulled out of his rut by new partner Lanny, after nearly botching a delivery for a young boy named Timmy.

(Hey, nobody ever accused Disney of subtlety.)

Meanwhile, Naughty vs. Nice hinges on Wayne’s relationship with his braggart brother Noel (Rob Riggle), a “coal elf” whose night job is to visit the homes of naughty children and leave them a friendly reminder of why Santa passed over them – when he’s not giving his older-but-smaller brother holiday noogies and buying the limited-edition snowmobile Wayne had been keeping his eye on.

So it’s less than surprising to learn that “JINGLESMELL1337,” who has been trying all year to hack into the conduct calculator to change their status from “naughty” to “nice,” turns out to be a young girl named Grace who resents her baby brother for ripping apart her favourite stuffed animal and keeping her from asking Santa for a new one with his excessive crying.

And while Grace’s tech savviness comes in handy when Wayne and Noel need her help to reverse a nearly-catastrophic calculator malfunction, it’s less important than her witnessing the brothers’ reconciliation, which helps her reconcile with her own.

I’ll give you three chances to guess what’s in that box, and the first two don’t count.

Arthur Christmas, from the celebrated British studio behind the Wallace and Gromit shorts and Chicken Run, is even more explicit about the importance of maintaining certain traditions in the face of technological progress.

In this world, Father Christmas might very well be able to visit two billion children in a single night, considering his “sleigh” resembles the city-sized spaceships in Independence Day more than any real-life vehicle, and drops what appears to be hundreds of elves into every house within a multi-kilometre radius wherever it lands.

If you haven’t seen the movie (and if you like Christmas stories at all, you absolutely should), a YouTube clip illustrates it better than any description or single image can:

Yet despite the military precision with which “Malcolm” (Santa himself, voiced by Jim Broadbent) and his elder son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), run the most efficient North Pole delivery operation around, one gift manages to slip through the cracks, and clumsy younger son Arthur (James McAvoy), who has long taken it upon himself to personally respond to every child’s letter received by Santa, sets out with his grandfather (Bill Nighy) and the elf who discovered the missing gift (Ashley Jensen) to deliver it – using the former Santa’s sleigh and the eight descendants of its original reindeer.

From left: Grandsanta, Bryony the elf, Arthur.

Over the course of Arthur Christmas a central conflict emerges between Arthur and Steve: the latter’s belief that a single present delivered late is an acceptable margin of error, versus the former’s dogged insistence that after centuries of perfect deliveries, a little girl in England who was promised a bike cannot wake up on Christmas morning without one.

Of course Steve would think that. He even looks like he’s in the military.

As Arthur and his grandfather’s low-tech attempt to deliver that bike result in, among other things, their being mistaken for aliens, an international military incident, and the progressive loss of their reindeer (don’t worry – they find their way back home), Arthur refuses to give up and Steve refuses to help – neither admitting their pettiness is masking deeper issues until they and their father finally have a few honest conversations with each other at the very end.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about technology after writing about it over the past year, it’s that while humans can use tech to build new realities that even a decade ago we could barely imagine, it’s still built and driven by humans, and carries the associated risks. Though it’s solved many an old problem, tech is also very good at creating new ones – amplifying altruism, for example, but often strengthening inequality, possessiveness, and vanity along the way.

Prep & Landing and Arthur Christmas are both more than aware of this fact, and seem to suggest that since the foundations of these problems are old ones, sometimes the solutions ought to be too.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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