Arthur Christmas: Jim Broadbent as Santa

An unexpectedly Christmas present has arrived from Aardman Animations (working with Sony Pictures Animation) called “Arthur Christmas.”

The film begins rather subversively with some of the real questions that kids are likely to ask about the whole Santa Claus deal—especially when they are just beginning to lose their faith in the dream.  Principal among such questions is the issue of time, “How could it be possible for him to deliver all those presents to the whole world in a single night?”

The answer offered up by “Arthur Christmas” is that Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) is hardly working alone. He has a formidable elf army that travels with him in a spaceship around the world every Christmas Eve.

The delivery of the presents resembles a surprise military attack, with some elves always returning to the ship injured by mousetraps and other occupational hazards.

The operation is actually led by Santa’s son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who is eager for his aging and apparently bored father to retire. Steve can then take the reins as the world’s next Santa.

But the son lacks the human touch, especially and damningly with children, and he has no qualms about directing the elves to turn their little backs on the Christmas spirit.

In Steve’s eyes, all those Christmas sentiments can only wind up interfering with the smooth running of the family business.  Steve is not necessarily a bad guy—he just does not get it.

The main plot in “Arthur Christmas” takes a long time to kick in: Santa’s other son, the klutzy and nerdy Arthur (James McAvoy), who is the only Claus family member who still actually believes in Christmas magic, learns at the end of one Christmas Eve that a child has been missed. Due to a technical malfunction, the girl’s dream bicycle never left the North Pole.

To Arthur, this is absolutely inexcusable—a human tragedy in the making.

The younger brother, encouraged by crotchety Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), becomes determined to lead an emergency mission to right this wrong before sunrise on Christmas Day. Grandsanta convinces Arthur to do it old school: the ancient sleigh is pulled out of hiding, and the reindeer are finally put back to work. It is not too hard to figure out who the next Santa will actually be.

But it is too bad that the Aardman folks do not take things one step further than they do here and have Arthur’s hilarious sidekick Bryony (Ashley Jensen), a feisty and fearless elf from the Gift-wrap Battalion, become the next Santa. After all, why does Santa always have to be a guy?

As much as Arthur—who has long toiled in the Letters to Santa Department, responding to children’s sincere requests—is meant to embody what Christmas is supposed to be all about, Bryony’s selfless and mad devotion to the Claus cause (and to the art of gift wrapping) is something to behold and the real heart of this film. Maybe she needs her own movie? She certainly steals this one.

The Aardman studios, previously responsible for “Flushed Away” (2006), “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005), and “Chicken Run” (2000), again showcase their animators’ great attention to detail and wild visual imagination. A sequence with floating African animals is one for the annals. And a running joke with reindeer dropping like flies as Arthur’s mission hits snag upon snag adds some needed salt to the sugar for jaded adult viewers.

While director Sarah Smith gets things off to a slow start and hits some bumpy patches in the final act, this is overall a superior family entertainment that will hopefully connect with a large audience despite its inherent Britishness.

It is also one of the better Christmas-themed films in a long while. Only Scrooge could remain unmoved.

Cast

Arthur – James McAvoy

Steve – Hugh Laurie

Grandsanta – Bill Nighy

Santa – Jim Broadbent

Mrs. Santa – Imelda Staunton

Bryony – Ashley Jensen

Credits

Columbia Pictures release.

Directed by Sarah Smith.

Written by Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham.

Produced by Peter Lord, David Sproxton, Carla Shelley, and Steve Pegram.

Cinematography, Jericca Cleland.

Editing, James Cooper.

Original Music, Harry Gregson-Williams.

Running time: 97 minutes.

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