With the Christmas marketing juggernaut in full swing, many parents find themselves in the annual battle for the soul of Christmas. Will children see Christmas as a celebration of charity, family, good will, and peace on earth, or as a rare opportunity for sanctioned (and even sanctified) greed, where getting presents is the only thing that matters? Into this debate steps Arthur Christmas, a film with a uniquely repellant and materialistic message for kids -- that a single child not getting exactly the present they want exactly on Christmas morning is a cause not only for great sadness, but for Christmas being deemed a shameful, catastrophic failure. Just like Jesus said.
Sadly, Arthur Christmas gets there by way of a clever premise -- that Santa's feat of delivering hundreds of millions of presents on Christmas Eve is actually a highly complex, pseudo-military black ops-style mission launched from a hidden North Pole command center utilizing a sleigh-shaped stealth airship. Acrobatic elves armed with high-tech gadgets must infiltrate houses around the world to deliver presents while avoiding pets, alarm systems, and sleeping occupants.
Overseeing this mission is Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie), a capable military-type who's next in line to be Santa, which has become a largely ceremonial role held by Steve's aging father (voiced by Jim Broadbent), a figurehead with the delusion that he's actually running things. But the story's supposed hero is Steve's younger brother, Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy), a bumbling, good-hearted, Christmas-loving innocent who idolizes his father, but whose incompetence has relegated him to a cramped office in the letter-answering department. Watch the trailer for Arthur Christmas below.
After the last present is delivered and "Mission Accomplished" is declared, it's discovered that there's been a mistake and a single British girl won't be receiving her promised bicycle on Christmas morning. Since this would obviously be an unforgivable disaster, Arthur, accompanied by his somewhat delusional grandfather (voiced by Bill Nighy) and a gift-wrapping elf named Bryony (voiced by Ashley Jensen) dust off the old magic sleigh and reindeer and endure all manner of mishaps and wrong turns to deliver the bicycle before the girl wakes up on Christmas morning.
First, the 3D, as usual, is largely pointless, and also causes the white snow and ice to look dingy. Second, none of the characters are very likable. Steve, who starts out interesting as a military officer devoted to his job and waiting patiently for his much-deserved promotion, suddenly changes into a vain and uncaring CEO who hates kids. Santa is out-of-touch and supremely unappreciative of Steve's efforts, and Grandsanta seems to be solely motivated by pride and indignation at rightly being put out to pasture. Arthur and the elves seem more like cult members in their worship of Santa (who we've established is merely a figurehead) and Arthur's Jar Jar Binks-style klutziness and insistence on delivering the bike quickly becomes grating.
And then there's the message of Arthur Christmas. Do parents want their kids to think that if the object of their greediest desire isn't waiting for them under the tree on Christmas morning, that Santa doesn't care about them and that Christmas is ruined for every child on earth? The idea that the spirit of Christmas hinges solely on the happiness of a child receiving the present they asked Santa for would be disgusting in any year, but it's even more deplorable in this economy and is sure to have many parents cringing, especially if they're already struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table.
Because (**SPOILER ALERT**) there's no Santa Claus. So it will fall on parents to deal with their kids' new belief that Christmas is a failure if any kid anywhere doesn't get anything they want -- a sentiment that seems to come directly from toy companies and is a guilt bomb waiting to go off. It's holiday fare like this that makes me appreciate A Charlie Brown Christmas even more, as Charlie Brown grapples with his feelings of depression and alienation caused by the commercialization of Christmas. It's feelings like this that caused my family to abandon Christmas gift-giving years ago (one of the best decisions we ever made), and why A Charlie Brown Christmas means more and more to me every year. Sadly, pro-materialist junk like Arthur Christmas is evidence that something like A Charlie Brown Christmas would never be made today.