Despite an uninspired title, Arthur Christmas is one of the best -- perhaps even the best -- Christmas movie to be released in theaters in years.
Funny, intelligent and imaginative for both adults and kids, the animated film is a classic that should find a long shelf life for decades to come and is definitely one for the home video collection.
However, it's important to note that Arthur Christmas is so much more than a Christmas movie. It's more fair to say that the film is the story of family dynamics involving several generations of members and how their issues play out against the backdrop of having to get one single forgotten present to a little girl before the sun comes up on Christmas morning. And these issues make for humor that is timeless, ageless and universal.
Arthur Christmas takes the premise that Santa Claus is a title that gets handed down from one generation to the next, much like the Royal Family or any sort of Dynasty for that matter. In this case, the current Santa, Malcolm Christmas -- voiced by Jim Broadbent -- has had the mantle for 70 years, inheriting it from Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) who is now 136 years old (with an equally old pet reindeer complete with a cone collar). Soon, Malcolm will have to hand it over to his eldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie).
And this is where the family dynamics -- or rather, dysfunction -- begin. Malcolm, a bit more bumbling now that he's in his senior years, has essentially handed over the physical mission to the fit and athletic Steve, but refuses to give up the title and the glory.
Resentful that he doesn't get any recognition, Steve nevertheless carries out the Christmas Eve ride around the world like an Army General with hundreds of elves as his soldiers. He's got his iPad-like computer and commands a sleigh-type spaceship while the elves carry out the gift-giving, and stocking stuffing "missions" like covert operatives. Steve desperately hopes that dad will notice his hard work and finally bestow upon him the prestigious title. Steve even has his brand new Versace-designed Santa suit pressed and ready for when that day comes.
Meanwhile, Grandsanta is a feisty, angry old man who is upset that Steve has taken the delivery missions into the computer age. He longs for the simpler time when he, as a one-time Santa, used nothing but a sleigh and reindeer - no fancy GPS devices or headsets.
Then there is Steve's younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy), a sweet, pimply-faced boy who is accident-prone and has been removed from every imaginable job in the North Pole due to his clumsiness. Eternally optimistic and in awe of the magic of Santa, Arthur now works answering letters on Santa's behalf, urging children to continue to believe in him.
Ironically, his family doesn't really believe in him and has no hopes for him to be successful in the family business. Even Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton) has resigned that her kind boy will simply be just that -- a kind boy.
Family dynamics come to a head when the presents are all delivered and Arthur realizes that one gift was accidentally left behind on the sleigh-ship. While Steve thinks it's no big deal, given the percentage of children who did get presents, Arthur is heartbroken just thinking about the one child who will be disappointed that Santa didn't come. And thus Arthur sets off on a mission with Grandsanta, the cone-collared deer and a gift-wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) to find the town and the little girl.
Unbenownst to Arthur, Grandsanta is not helping out of the kindness of his heart. Unfortunately, he has his own motives - to relive the glory days of being Santa just one more time, using the classic sleigh and reindeer which he's kept in hiding all these years, waiting for a moment like this to occur.
Between Grandsanta's personal issues and Arthur's clumsiness, the mission sets off a series of events that involves accidental landings in Africa where they group is nearly killed by a pack of lions, and being mistaken for a UFO which leads to coverage by 24 hour new stations while the government tries to eliminate the perceived alien threat.
Despite all of this, Arthur's determination, his belief in the power of Santa and the spirit of Christmas, continues to drive him forward, no matter that there are plenty of obstacles and that time is running out. With seconds to spare before morning, Malcolm and Steve decide to fly in as part of the rescue mission and along with Grandsanta and Arthur, there are now four relatives scrambling to get in to one house to make sure that the precious present is delivered. It is in that moment that everyone realizes that the person who truly deserves the title of Santa is Arthur himself.
The writing in Arthur Christmas is strong, with plenty of jokes for adults to enjoy (like the fact that Grandsanta's sleigh was made using lead paint). The script is so sharp, it leaves the viewer not minding a second showing just to pick up jokes potentially missed the first time around. Credit goes to writer/director Sarah Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham for crafting a film with terrific intentions and terrific execution. Watching a family feud has never been so entertaining.
(We'll even give a pass to a couple of head-scratchers, like why Santa must remain unseen to children and how on earth does this family meet women to marry and continue on the family lineage?)
British animation studio Aardman produced the film. Famous for its Wallace & Gromit Claymation style shorts, the company segued in to computer animation for 2006's clever Flushed Away. Arthur Christmas is its first 3D film and thankfully the effects are subtle, which also makes it not necessary. Add to the fact that families seeing it together may not want to collectively pony up the higher prices when 2D will suffice. (Especially when it's opening weekend competition The Muppets was not in 3D and thus more financially viable for families in these economic times.)
Although the title and the marketing on Arthur Christmas could have used a complete overhaul, don't let that deter you from seeing this charming gem of movie. In a crowded holiday movie marketplace, Arthur Christmas deserves your eyes and ears more than most of the other options that are out there.