What It Is
“Are you real?” writes six-year-old Gwen (voiced by Ramona Marquez) to Santa at the start of Arthur Christmas. She’s worried, you see, because she’s actually thought about how he might possibly be able to deliver presents to millions of children all over the world in a single night. “I think you’re real,” she closes her note, “But how do you do it?” Her letter, posted, of course, to the North Pole, is read not by Santa (Jim Broadbent), but by his son Arthur (James McAvoy). He’s assigned to keep track of all children’s letters to his father, their gift requests as well as their youthful queries, and he writes Gwen back to assure her that indeed, Santa is real, and he can do what he does because he’s a very good man.
Unfortunately, Arthur is soon faced with a dilemma, when his father and older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) actually make a mistake this Christmas night, and do not deliver the pink twinkle bike Gwen asks for. Steve, who aspires to become Santa when their dad retires, insists that the error (“We’ve missed a child!”) is miniscule compared to all the presents delivered each Christmas Eve by Santa and his team, that is, Steve and a squad of stealthy ninja-like elves, all aboard a superfast red spaceship called the S-1 sleigh. Their great success is underscored by the fact they’ve never been seen by humans, or at least, never documented. (A cute bit at the beginning, when a little boy wakes up while Santa’s in his bedroom — the boy is called a “waker” by the ninja-elves who scramble to keep Santa hidden from his look — lays out the high tech expertise with which the myth is perpetuated.)
But Arthur can’t forget his promise to Gwen, and so he and 136-year-old Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), along with a single elf, Bryony (Ashley Jensen), sneak out of the factory at the North Pole in Grandsanta’s ancient sleigh, powered not by turbo engines but by the inexperienced descendants of the first reindeer and a bit of magic dust. A quick dose of this makes them fly, or, more accurately and wonderfully, galumph through the air. They have just a couple of hours to get the present to Gwen’s house in England: they’re bickering amongst themselves, they get lost repeatedly, and their sleigh is awfully slow compared to the S-1. Not to mention the consternation their illicit adventure causes Steve, who worries they might be spotted by someone.
Still, the renegades persist, determined to do the right thing by Gwen, and by extension, all the children who believe in Santa. And along the way, they learn some important lessons about what it means to be a team, or, more precisely, a family. The four male Clauses — guided by the resilient and optimistic Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) — realize that they all really share the same ideals, even if they sometimes turn competitive or frustrated. Thank goodness that even the Santas have a mom to help them sort out their turmoils.
Why It’s Fun
Made by Aardman Animations, the studio behind Wallace & Gromit, Arthur Christmas is simultaneously silly and clever, designed to entertain a variety of viewers. The flying sleigh ride makes for all manner of antics, from goofy slapstick to headier gags, from a wrong landing in the Serengeti desert (where Arthur lulls angry lions to sleep by singing “Silent Night” before they make a madcap escape, batting lions off their sleigh as it takes off) to a zany ride through downtown Toronto (where Grandsanta jokes about Canada’s easy-to-navigate emptiness and his disdain for avoiding difficult areas, like that “You-can’t-cut-through-Saigon-there’s-a-war business”).
While the humor ranges from dry to rambunctious, the animation is partly lumpy, partly slick. Grandsanta brings along his longtime pet reindeer, a holdover from his Santa-ing days. The creature breathes hard, wears one of those cone collars older dogs wear so they don’t scratch their ears too much, and usually lumbers along after his master. He is also utterly delightful, like a funny aside. With the wind blowing his fur, his tongue hanging as he laps up every exciting moment back on the sleigh, the old reindeer will remind you of any old pet you’ve ever known, loving and thrilled to be alive and along for another ride.
Another sidekick is charming in another way: Bryony is an exceptionally gallant and quick elf, willing to take on all challenges. Standing out among the crowds of look-alike and rather fretful elves, and a girl to boot, she’s more than welcome here, especially when she begins doing what she does best, wrapping presents in a flash. “There’s always time for a bow!” she reminds a worried Arthur, offering up what may as well be the moral for the film.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of Aardman’s previous claymation work — Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, Flushed Away — will be happy to see the studio’s entry into CGI. This film maintains the animators’ famous attention to detail of facial expressions and background business, details that constitute their own comic brilliance.
The film is preceded by a 3D music video by Justin Bieber (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”). His fans will surely be thrilled to see the Biebs’ new short haircut, punk-goth leather outfit, and robotic dance moves with multi-culti backup performers. The song is reprised briefly during the film, one of several traditional tunes updated to be extra-up-tempo.
The animation is charmingly lumpy, the 3D probably unnecessary but also not annoying. If you’ve seen a lot of Santa movies, and also more than your share of movies where Santa’s passing on his legacy to his son, this version is well aware of that. And it doesn’t condescend to adults or kids in the audience.
What To Be Aware Of
The film is quaintly and quite faithfully PG, with few images or ideas that might upset young viewers, save for the lions who menace Arthur or the looming, somewhat abstract risk that Gwen won’t get her bike.
Some of the rollicking on the sleigh goes on a bit, and the frame might feel hectic for some viewers.
Some of the gags are either a little obscure or pass by too quickly. But if you only catch most of them, that’s more fun than most kids’ movies, so prone to un-amusing fart jokes.
8 out of 10
Director: Sarah Smith
Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Ramona Marquez, Michael Palin
Studio: Sony Pictures
US Premiere: November 23, 2011
UK Premiere: November 11, 2011