December 3, 2011
Consistent with most Aardman Animation productions, Arthur Christmas is never really laugh out loud funny nor is director Sarah Smith ever particularly concerned with overwhelming the story with technological gymnastics nor a wealth of pop culture references to distract the kiddoes or the adults. Instead, Arthur Christmas is a light-hearted and sweet tale about what actually goes on at the North Pole and how this whole Christmas thing actually works. The humor that really scores in the film is, in fact, more likely to be a hit with adults who will actually get it while the kids will mostly be captivated by the film’s animated reindeer and a myriad of delightfully fun characters.
Santa (Jim Broadbent), there’s been more than one you know, has been on the job for 70 years now and it’s about time for one of his sons to take over the responsibility. Steve (Hugh Laurie) is the expected and logical choice, a master logistician who has updated the entire Christmas operation and practically the brains behind the entire operation. Arthur (James McAvoy), on the other hand, is filled with lots of Christmas cheer but very little in the way of actual common sense. He finds himself assigned to the Letter Writing Department of the North Pole, the one who gets the wish lists, the letters and, of course, the “How does Santa deliver all those presents in one night?” questions.
Don’t worry. I’m not about to tell you. You really just need to believe.
North Pole style tragedy strikes when, Gasp!, Steve’s flawless plan experiences a glitch and one young girl ends up getting missed.
“Missed?,” Arthur seems to gasp. A child can’t possibly be missed at Christmas and, despite the proclamations from Steve and Santa that to do anything about it before sunrise is impossible, Arthur sets out on an adventure, along with 136-year-old GrandSanta (Bill Nighy) and an elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) to ensure that EVERY child has a present on Christmas morning.
If you’re familiar with Aardman’s films, like Wallace & Gromit and Flushed Away, then you already have a good idea of what to expect from Arthur Christmas, a film that possesses an animation style that irritates some, enchants others and has virtually no impact on even others who are more concerned about whether or not the film actually works.
The good news? The film works.
While Arthur Christmas doesn’t quite fire on all cylinders like the aforementioned Aardman films, it’s such a good-hearted, silly and sweet film that it feels like the closest thing we’ve had in a few years to a minor Christmas classic. The film’s mid-section flags a bit as Smith and co-writer Baynham can’t quite seem to figure out how to completely flesh it out, but they recover nicely and serve up the holiday season’s first salvo of cinematic delight.
The vocal work is uniformly strong, most notably the warm and imaginative take on Arthur by James McAvoy and Bill Nighy’s perfectly in tune snarkiness as GrandSanta, a former Santa who thinks that all of Steve’s upgrades and techno gadgets are a waste of time and who, repeatedly, stresses he used to do just fine with his old-fashioned sleigh and the original reindeer.
The messages in Arthur Christmas are simple yet perfect for the holidays – Be yourself, celebrate family and, the ultimate holiday message “Believe.” It is also worth noting that one should find the 2-D version of the film quite sufficient, though Aardman certainly hasn’t shamed themselves by also releasing the film in 3-D.
Somewhat surprising given the Aardman way of doing things is that the film is preceded by a Justin Bieber video, at least it was during the promo screening, of the tune “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” and Bieber also plays over the film’s closing credits. While these aren’t necessarily mortal sins, it does add a disappointingly commercial twist on an otherwise tender-hearted and infectious Christmas film for the entire family.