When the newest generation of Santas misses a child on Christmas Eve, it’s up to Santa’s awkward but caring youngest son, Arthur, to deliver that last present to save a little girl’s faith.
The advance screening of Arthur Christmas was preceded by the music video for Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, by Justin Bieber. Maybe it’s the steampunk North Pole, but it was surprisingly good [though Bieber is still Bieber – make of that what you will…].
Arthur Christmas is from the folks at Aardman [Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run] and marks their second foray into CG [after the underrated Flushed Away]. It’s both smart and clever, funny and witty, and heartfelt without being mushy. In short, it’s a Christmas tradition just waiting to happen.
The film opens with Arthur Christmas [voiced by James McAvoy] in his mailroom office, responding to letters from children – surprisingly smart letters that ponder Santa’s ability to deliver presents to every child in the world in the face of exponential population growth and the basic effect of friction. This is followed with the revelation that Santa has gone high-tech – gone are the sleigh and eight not-so-tiny reindeer and, in its place, a giant starship [the S-1] that looks like a cross between the traditional sleigh and the U.S.S. Enterprise.
This technological marvel – and a team of hundreds of elves [moving with military precision] – commanded by Steve Christmas [Hugh Laurie], Arthur’s older brother, who is decked out in Christmas camo and is more interested in the technical challenge of delivering gifts than the children who receive them. Along for the ride, a figurehead in the captain’s chair, is the latest Santa [Jim Broadbent].
When an accident leaves one present undelivered, neither Santa nor Steve seem terribly troubled – what’s one child out of hundreds of millions? They congratulate themselves on a job well done and head for bed.
When Arthur learns of this, he freaks out. He does not want young Gwen Hines of Trelew, Cornell, England to think that Santa hates her, so he tries to get Steve to fire up the S-1 and make another trip – unsuccessfully.
Now it’s up to him, his Grandsanta [Bill Nighy] and Bryony [Ashley Jensen], a third-class gift wrapper, to save Christmas with the S-1’s predecessor – an actual sleigh called Evie and real reindeer.
What follows is a colossal case of chaos – for starters, there’s more than one Trelew. Then there’s Grandsanta’s inability to navigate [North Africa, you say?], and Arthur’s fear of heights, speed, large animals and, well, pretty much everything! Add in a subplot about world leaders trying to figure out what to do about the UFO that’s circling the globe, and you even have a bit of danger to give an added burst of drama.
The script, co-written by director Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham, is filled with wit, humor, charm and more than a little genuine sentiment – not to mention some genuine poignancy. Each of the characters has a key art to play and none feel superfluous or token [there’s a nice arc for the current Mrs. Claus, voiced by Imelda Staunton, for example].
Smith keeps things moving and finds imaginative ways to create visuals that stay with you – from the S-1 to a pesky Chihuahua that pops up a couple of times, to Arthur’s unique Christmas slippers. If there’s a flaw to the film, it’s that the 3D is pretty ordinary – and a bit blurry during some of the action sequences. It’s enough for me to suggest that the 2D version might be a better choice if one is available.
Overall, though, Arthur Christmas is the kind of holiday film that has something for everyone – and enough interesting stuff is happening throughout that it will hold up to repeated viewings. It is the best Christmas film of the 21st century.
Final Grade: A-
Photos courtesy of Aardman Animations for Sony Pictures Animation