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Arthur Christmas (2011)

December 2, 2011

 

 

written by: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith
produced by: Carla Shelly, Peter Lord and 
directed by: Sarah Smith
rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: November 23, 2011
 
By now, it’s almost impossible for feature films to come up with any new or different take on Christmas. From the classic Rankin-Bass animated gems to the soulless mo-cap of “The Polar Express”, just about every branch has been trimmed on the O Tannenbaum. Now, Aardman Animations (of “Wallace and Gromit” fame) have released their first 3D computer-animated feature, designed to give a unique and hilarious look at the inner-workings of the North Pole. The tale is clever and comedic, focusing on the complex Santa Claus family dynamic (and dysfunction) and how Christmas has become a high-tech business for them, instead of the warm-natured yuletide good cheer it’s known for.
 
It seems that Santa’s son, Arthur (James McAvoy), with his ugly Christmas sweaters and light-up reindeer slippers, is the only family member exuberantly embracing the holiday. He works in the letters department, where he meticulously responds to each and every request from children all over the world. Arthur takes pride in this act, imagining how elated each child will be when they receive such a personal response and envisions them waking up on Christmas morning to find their desired gift, neatly wrapped underneath their tree.
 
Unfortunately, the rest of his family find themselves concerned with the high-pressured requirements and routines leading up to The Big Night – Christmas Eve. Due to nifty technological advances, all Santa (Jim Broadbent) has to do is show up. His other son, the broad-shouldered and militant, Steve (Hugh Laurie) is in charge of mission control (a set-up that would make NASA scratch their head), which intricately sends St. Nick out with an armada of stealthy black-ops elves. With the help of enormous red spaceship shaped like a sleigh (it kind of resembles the spaceship from James Cameron’s “The Abyss”, actually), these agile helpers work their way into homes all around the world. They’re the ones working up a sweat as they maneuver around pets or (gasp!) children that are still awake, as they carefully place wonderfully wrapped presents in order to maintain the legend of the jolly figurehead. 
 
 
 
 
When Arthur finds out that one little girl’s present is accidentally left behind,  he is horrified and determined to correct such a disastrous error. After all, he’s the one who promises these kids they will get what they want. Steve doesn’t see it as a loss, sighting the billions of children served on the night before Christmas, even convincing a helpless Santa to gloss it over. Determined to deliver the forgotten gift by any means necessary, Arthur winds up riding along with crazy old Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) in Evie, the outdated wooden sleigh and trusty (more like crusty) magic-dusted reindeer, accompanied by the crafty Bryony (Ashley Jensen), who can gift wrap anything with just three pieces of tape. Without the bells and whistles they normally rely on,  the improvising trio embark on a haphazard trans-continental journey to bring Christmas magic to one little girl. 
Aardman films are generally known for being more clever than they are funny, but “Arthur Christmas” is an enjoyable combination of both, providing plenty of wit and slapstick to delight viewers. Directed and co-written by Sarah Smith (kind of odd, considering the off-putting jabs concerning the role of women), does a good job at providing rollicking action and frolicking laughs, opening with an amazing covert gift-delivery sequence consisting of countless inventive details. Underneath the red and green cheer and comic hilarity, there’s a genuine family tale involving the two neglected sons, their out-of-touch father, and the doting Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton). The sentimentality never feels too manipulative though, with the film navigating between sly cynicism and big-eyed wonder.
 
 
 
The unpredictable Christmas Eve flight provides the bulk of the picture’s laughs, as we see the trio experience an assortment of precarious setbacks. They accidentally wind up in South America, have to outsmart a pride of lions in Africa, and lose their sleigh in Cuba. On top of all that, they also get mistaken for aliens which grabs the attention of government officials who are ready to blow the “UFO” out of the sky. We also learn the crotchety senior Santa’s hidden motives during the journey, revealing a man seeking to claim his own relevance. 
 
What drives the film isn’t the colorful animation or original approach to familiar characters, it’s the consistently entertaining Brit cast. McAvoy exudes the needed idealistic hope and determination of Arthur that’s integral to the story. With this role and “Gnomeo and Juliet”, the actor seems well-suited for future animated work. He gets understandably upstaged working alongside talent like Jensen (also in “Gnomeo and Juliet” and so great in Ricky Gervais’ “Extras”) and the wily Nighy, two actors who are clearly having a good time. As Mr. and Mrs. Claus, Broadbent and Staunton are a charming old couple, working off each other like their relationship is second nature. Laurie provides the same smug arrogance and utter lack of empathy to the role of Steve, that we see in TV’s “House”. 
 
 

 
Seeing the film in 2D was just fine, so you can save yourself the annoying upcharge that comes with 3D. What slightly stained my viewing experience was the dad in the audience who thought no one else could hear his wailing toddler and the Justin Bieber “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” video I had to endure before the movie even started. 
 
The big question you have to answer with a movie like this is whether or not it warrants repeat viewings this time each year. My answer is yes. It’s uncertain if this will be embraced as a Christmas classic, but the successful ingredients combined together make “Arthur Christmas” a delightful revisit. 


 
 


RATING: ***
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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