Santa’s son saves holiday in sweet, funny ‘Arthur Christmas’
From Aardman Studios, the deliciously nutty outfit behind the Wallace and Gromit movies, and Chicken Run, comes Arthur Christmas. This sweet, yet sly animated family comedy views the seasonal festivities from a particular insider’s perspective—that of Arthur, Santa Claus’ number-two son. Gauche, clumsy, and somewhat inept as he is, Arthur is nevertheless imbued with the most holiday spirit of anyone at the North Pole in this wry comedy of dynastic family dynamics. Directed by Sarah Smith, from an original screenplay she co-wrote with Peter Baynham, this tall tale supposes that Christmas Eve at the North Pole has become a high-tech enterprise.
Of course, there’s still a Santa (voice of Jim Broadbent), the latest in a long line of Claus men to hold that title. But this current Santa is something of a genial duffer, scarcely more than a figurehead in a paramilitary operation run by his square-jawed, elder son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), in which thousands of elves are deployed with split-second precision to deliver presents to all the world’s children out of a hovering red mothership called “S-1.” Another few thousand elves man Mission Control back at the North Pole, stage-managing every nanosecond of the operation. Marching around in red and green fatigues, with a buzz-cut and a tree-shaped goatee, Steve expects to inherit the family business as soon as his 70-year-old father retires. His kid brother, on the other hand, Santa’s klutzy, sweet-natured younger son, Arthur (a goofy, warm-hearted vocal performance by James McAvoy) is afraid of heights and fast-moving vehicles. In his comfy, messy, Hobbit-like den, strewn with family photos and Santa memorabilia, Arthur’s job is to answer all the letters that children send to Santa from all over the world. But despite all of Steve’s high-tech innovations, one present destined for a little girl called Gwen in Cornwall, England, doesn’t get delivered on Christmas Eve; it’s discovered by the clean-up crew in a forgotten corner of Mission Control later that night. Steve doesn’t consider one disappointed child a significant enough percentage of error to worry about. But Arthur thinks it will be a horrible catastrophe if even one, single child stops believing in the magic of Santa and Christmas. Egged on by his rascally, 136-year-old “Grandsanta” (Bill Nighy), timid Arthur determines to conquer his fears and right this terrible wrong. With only a few hours left before sunrise, Arthur, Grandsanta, and a gift-wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen)—who can fix anything with three pieces of sticky tape—set out to deliver Gwen’s present the old-fashioned way: aboard Grandsanta’s dilapidated old jalopy of a red sleigh (he calls her “Evie”), pulled by the descendants of the original eight flying reindeer. Of course, Grandsanta isn’t as spry as he once was, the historic Map of the Clauses is a tad out of date, and the trio gets hopelessly lost before Bryony’s GPS can point them back in the right direction. Along the way, Arthur finds himself singing lullabies to lions in Africa, rowing across the Atlantic Ocean in a dinghy, and even suffering a crisis of Christmas faith on a moonlit Cuban beach, all in the process of growing into the destiny he so richly deserves. Meanwhile, back at the North Pole, the elves and self-effacing, yet supremely efficient Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton) pressure Santa and Steve into joining the operation. The movie is full of funny sight gags, particularly during the Christmas commando ops, with the multicultural stealth elves rappelling down chimneys and across rooftops. The generational family saga is delivered with wit and affection—along with the message that high-tech efficiency is no substitute for a caring human heart. And, like all good holiday movies, it all comes wrapped around a core of wonder for the magic of the season. (Gazing down at the peaceful, sleeping world from their sleigh, Grandsanta sighs, “We Clauses used to be the only men in the world who could fly…and see all this!”) It may feel a bit long for an animated movie, but chances are you’ll be laughing all the way.
★★★ (out of four)
With the voices of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, and Bill Nighy. Written by Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith. Directed by Sarah Smith. A Columbia release. Rated PG. 97 minutes.