It’s the dawn of a new pre-Christmas movie season and guess what—the same as every year, there is a new holiday-themed film trying to elbow its way into the fold of timeless classics. Unlike many of its predecessors, however, Arthur Christmas soars into the fray with style.
This animated feature from Aardman and Sony Pictures Animation is a feel-good family film with spunk and originality, the kind that has not been seen since the first of The Santa Clause franchise. Cast with voiceover talent of heavy-hitting stars who include James McAvoy as Arthur, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Laurie, Ashley Jensen, Laura Linney and another half dozen or so cameos, each character is brilliantly brought to life on screen.
The animation strays from Aardman’s usual claymation (Wallace & Gromit) and claymation-simulating CGI (Flushed Away) style, but works beautifully for this vividly colorful holiday genre. The settings are luscious and inviting to watch at every frame, and the textures and depth of detail are mind-blowing. Watch for the delicate knit on the characters’ sweaters and the magnificent sheen of the reindeer fur. It may not demonstrate anything drastically new in CGI history, but as an art form, Arthur Christmas is a joy to watch.
It’s also jolly good fun. The film gives its own take on the age-old questions about Santa Claus—primarily, how does the old fella do it all in a single night? The modern originality of the answer is a high-tech melee of spaceships, military precision, armies of elves, GPS systems, palatial computer power stations, and more. Watching the new and improved North Pole in action feels more like scenes from an adventure film than a family Christmas flick, and it is charmingly clever.
What makes Arthur Christmas even more exceptional is its endearing plot line—the Claus family saga, wrought with drama and rivalry, but ultimately powered by love. It’s a battle of old ways versus new, with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) cantankerously opposing all the technology that has replaced the tradition of sleighs, reindeer and good, old-fashioned map skills. Meanwhile, the figurehead Santa (Jim Broadbent) is on the verge of retirement and merely keeps up appearances while his oldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), takes charge of all the specifics. Then, there’s Arthur—the pimply, over-excited, nerdy younger son who is just a tad annoying but as innocent and caring as a child. Arthur is in love with Christmas and idolizes Santa for all he means to the world’s children.
When a toy is accidentally left undelivered this one Christmas Eve, the family splits over how to react. Steve tries to rationalize the mistake and reminds his father that the disappointment of one child represents a miniscule margin of error on their part. Santa seems to cave in to this reasoning while Arthur is outraged. Determined to figure out a way to deliver the gift—a pink sparkly bike for a girl named Gwen—before the light of Christmas morning, Arthur hatches a plan with Grandsanta. Unbeknownst to the family, Grandsanta has hidden away the sleigh, “Eve,” descendants of all eight reindeer, and all the other secretive tricks that got the original Santas around the world for generations. The two men fly off into the night with their precious cargo and a stowaway elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), blind to the calamities that await them.
The story is complex and yet compelling from start to finish. Surprises abound. It’s not a hilarious film, but it brings an extra-large portion of chuckles and grins to its audience. Yet, it’s more than just entertainment. Arthur Christmas brings a heart-warming message of valuing family—especially the elderly members!—doing the right thing, and above all, loving unconditionally.
Arthur Christmas is a home run for writer/director Sarah Smith, who cut her teeth on this film as her feature directorial debut. Teamed up with co-writer Peter Baynham (scribe of the outrageously controversial Sacha Baron Cohen films, Borat and Brüno), Smith has created a magical story on film that paints a picture of a more modern Santa but with all the heart of the original fable.
The only small let-down is in the film’s length of 97 minutes. This is very minor as the film was quite well-paced overall, but it just felt like the film could have been tightened a bit in the second half. Still, Arthur Christmas should find a solid audience with families and adults alike, along with a moderate following from Aardman fans.
It may not be a film one watches faithfully every Christmas to come, but Arthur Christmas definitely merits a trip to the theater this year, and deserves an eventual place on the shelf with all the classics as an example of what this generation came up with to celebrate the season on film.