Despite its rather uninspired title, “Arthur Christmas” is a high-flying holiday entertainment that should appeal to a broad audience if they can pry themselves away from “The Muppets” playing next door.
Likely due to its defiantly British tone, this latest gift of animated magic from Aardman (the studio behind “Wallace and Gromit”) is preceded by an unnecessary music video for Justin Bieber’s rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” the better to draw the kiddies into movie theaters, I suppose.
Speaking as a middle-aged critic, I find the ploy to be counterproductive. Watching the teen sensation sing and shimmy in 3-D while intercut with footage from the film we’re moments from viewing strikes me as a stupid way to kick off a smart movie, a lump of coal that makes it difficult to warm to one of Aardman’s typically witty worlds – at least initially.
Despite its rather uninspired title, “Arthur Christmas” is a high-flying (seeing Santa’s sleigh dashing, dancing and prancing through the air nearly rivals the 3-D thrills of the flight sequences found in DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon”) holiday entertainment that should appeal to a broad audience, not just Bieber-fevered fans of bubblegum pop confections – if they can pry themselves away from “The Muppets” playing next door.
And although you might miss the tactile, hand-animated quality of Aardman’s stop-motion efforts like “Chicken Run” and the aforementioned “Wallace and Gromit,” the computer-rendered tale of Santa’s gangly, unheralded son Arthur (earnestly voiced by James McAvoy of “X-Men: First Class”) will quickly win you over, despite the lack of visible fingerprints on plasticine creations.
Sprinkled with sly adult humor that should flurry over children’s’ heads (blink, and you’ll miss the canister of “chimney lube”), this is the rare film – animated or otherwise – to be helmed by a woman, a fact that can be felt in the unusually strong female characterizations – even if most of the major players are male. Now that’s something to really cheer in this season of rampant consumerism and manufactured goodwill.
Sarah Smith makes her big-screen bow, not only directing, but also co-scripting with Peter Baynham. Both have backgrounds in British television, writing for comic dynamos like Steve Coogan; surely, the two had no hand in Bieber’s participation.
Moving past the music video, the movie begins just as a late-November sun rises over the snow-covered town of Cornwall, England. One of the sleepy ‘burb’s more diminutive residents, a cute li’l moppet named Gwen (Ramona Marquez of “The King’s Speech”) mails a letter to Santa that will arrive at its destination some six days later. An inquisitive lass, Gwen faithfully believes in the jolly old elf, asking him for a shiny pink bicycle, while questioning the real-world functionality of his operation. “If you really live at the North Pole,” she writes, “how come I can’t see your house when I look on Google Earth?”
Perhaps it’s because Malcolm (Jim Broadbent of “Another Year”), better known as the beret-wearing, medal-decorated Santa the 20th - the latest in a long line of Kringles - runs his snowbound operation with military precision shrouded in secrecy. Or rather, his oldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie of TV’s “House M.D.”) does, commanding the 1st Field Elf Batallion from the facility’s ultra-modern Mission Control in his red and green fatigues. Yes, Steve is the prodigal son; the Santa heir apparent who sports a greying goatee trimmed into the shape of a Christmas tree.
Returning from his final mission, a figurehead shuttled ‘round the world aboard a sleek, massive red craft that’s more Starship Enterprise than sleigh, Malcolm breaks with tradition and surprises the hundreds of gathered elves – and especially Steve – with his pronouncement that he “can’t wait for year 71!” The holiday sweater-wearing Arthur, meanwhile, cheerfully tries to stay out of everyone’s way, relegated to his role as the Santa surrogate who personally answers children’s letters. Since it’s Christmas Eve, most of his heavy pen-lifting has been done, leaving him free to discover that poor, adorable Gwen’s gift-wrapped pink bike wasn’t delivered.
“A child’s been missed!” shouts an alarmed Arthur, while Steve, willing to accept the .000001 percent failure rate, smugly concludes, “there’s no room for emotion during Christmas.” That’s the spirit, Steve; spoken like one of the 1 percent! Fortunately, Arthur actually cares for the plight of the other 99 percent, vowing that no child (or at least no child’s Christmas present) shall be left behind.
Aided by the spunky, punkish elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen of “Ugly Betty”) and Grandsanta (Bill Nighy of Aardman’s “Flushed Away”), who recommissions Eve – the original sleigh, built in 1845, mined from the Aurora Borealis and carried aloft by eight flying reindeer, the names of which he can’t quite remember. With two hours left ‘til sunrise, the misfit toy-deliverers take to the skies above the Atlantic Ocean, bobbing and weaving around glaciers until they take a noisy shortcut through Toronto, where no one will notice them. “Don’t worry, nobody lives here,” wails Grandsanta through his false teeth. This won’t be an easy trip.
But, it sure is a fun one. Backed by Harry Gregson-Williams’ lively musical score, the rest of the dysfunctional Claus clan – selfish Steve, clueless Malcolm and his dutiful wife Margaret (Imelda Staunton of “Vera Drake”) – finally see the North Star’s light, bringing the family together for a rousing, race-against-time finish.
It’s enough to make you believe in Santa all over again – or at least question the accuracy of Google Earth.
ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (PG for some mild rude humor.) Cast includes James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen and Ramona Marquez. 3 stars out of 4.