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. 

Then just when you think it’ll be a one-sided lament for days gone by, the story adds another layer of depth by showing how sometimes progress is good, that the old ways aren’t always necessarily the better ways, and that opposing generational sides would do well to humble themselves, support and learn from each other.

All of these themes, ideas and values are naturally embodied in the child-like optimism of Arthur. He sees the best and believes the best in everyone, is selfless to all, and so is crushed when others dampen that spirit with so-called practicalities and limited faith

But his heartfelt conviction that every child is important, that “the one” matters so much it’s worth it to sacrifice everything, drives Arthur to overcome his fears and insecurities. A truly indomitable spirit rises within him, not to prove anyone wrong or even to prove something to himself but, simply, to make sure that one little girl knows she is loved on Christmas morning. For a Christmas film with no reference to Christ throughout, that value is very Christ-like indeed. It’s emotionally resonant and, admittedly, left me choked up.

So too did the familial angle of Santa, his two sons, and the eldest Grandsanta.  Arthur’s sacrificial spirit helps them not only to see what they’ve lost sight of in themselves and each other, but also to realize that this young idealist whom they condescended to and dismissed is actually the truest Santa of them all. Arthur does not take pride in this victory; it’s not even in his nature to consider it. He meets their appreciation with love and an open heart, sharing the moment rather than reveling in it.

The voice-cast is universally spot on for each character type, and Jim Broadbent probably has the most fun as the lovably aloof Santa. It’s also available in 3D; while good, the higher-priced effect is not necessary to fully enjoy the experience, either narratively or visually. 

It’s the screenplay, its values, and effective emotional peaks that are the real foundation here. From that, first-time director Sarah Smith builds an entertaining and meaningful holiday treat that could well find itself into many families’ annual viewing rotations for years to come.

Arthur Christmas doesn’t have the level of slapstick we get from DreamWorks, nor is it as timeless as the best of Pixar. Nevertheless, it wins your heart. What it may lack in laughs it more than makes up for in energy, invention, feel-good charm, and a whole lotta heart. 

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: None.
  • Language/Profanity: None.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: None. Two elves kiss briefly.
  • Violence: Comic action and mayhem; nothing offensive or visually graphic. Occasional peril where lives are in danger, but no killings, deaths or anything frightening.