DVD Release Date: November 6, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: November 23, 2011 (3D/2D theaters)
Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Family
Run Time: 98 min.
Director: Sarah Smith
Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen

Through a creative evolution from Oscar-winning claymation Wallace & Gromit shorts to feature-length efforts to CGI animation, the U.K.-based Aardman Studios has put its distinct brand of British humor and style into the modern animation landscape. Now they’ve given us their first holiday movie.

It’s Arthur Christmas, a comic adventure that lands somewhere between the high-octane attitude of DreamWorks Animation and (perhaps more closely to) the warm, character-driven sensibilities of Pixar. Softening the caustic Brit tone a bit into a more mainstream accessibility, Arthur Christmas is an inventive entry into pop culture’s ever-shifting and expanding narrative of Santa lore.

This is a twenty-first century North Pole. No longer quaint and antiquated, Christmas Eve is a high-tech operation on a scale we’ve never seen before. The sleigh isn’t a sleigh, it’s a starship; a hulking craft capable of warp speeds and equipped with cloaking devices. Reindeer are gone; magic dust is no longer of use in this gadget-driven fleet. Each present drop is an impossible mission, should the elves choose to accept it (and they do, gleefully), filled with danger, near-misses, and executed with absolute precision. The lengthy opening sequence is quite a ride.

It’s all happening on the 70th anniversary of the latest Santa, a particularly important landmark as it is traditionally the end of a particular reign. Steve Claus (voice of Hugh Laurie, TV’s House), Santa’s eldest son, is in line to take over the position—and who better, given how he has overseen the modernization of the entire Kringle corporation. Certainly not Arthur (James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class), the youngest, a clumsy chap whose innocent zeal for every child on the Christmas list has no place in a system of percentages.

That level of production, though, has also taken its toll. The percentages may be impressive, but a purity has been lost. This reality hits home when the delivery of a child’s gift has been missed. One mistake out of two billion is acceptable, Steve argues, and Santa (Jim Broadbent, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)—sweet-hearted but bumbling—passively defers to Steve’s logic. Arthur alone cares for “the one” and, with the help of the retired Grandsanta (Bill Nighy, Rango), he goes on a rogue mission to deliver a little girl’s promised bike before dawn breaks on Christmas morn.

This is when the film’s heart finally begins to beat, and open. What initially seems to be a fast-paced action-adventure becomes a story about things we’ve lost in the wake of progress—not only cherished traditions but also the meanings behind them, and the relationships at their core.