Released appropriately late in 2011, Arthur Christmas (directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook) is an Aardman animation production distributed through Sony. Unlike some other notable Aardman films, such as The Pirates or Wallace and Gromit, Arthur Christmas is not done with clay animation; rather, it’s done with computer-rendered graphics, as has become the norm for animated features. This does mean that it perhaps doesn’t stand out in terms of visual style the way its fellow Aardman productions do, but it’s hard to hold this against it so long as the quality of the animation is kept to a high standard, and that is certainly the case with Arthur Christmas. Characters move fluidly, and their personalities are shown right in their visual design. And the scenery is always detailed — unless it’s meant not to be, such as austere mission control rooms or large snow banks. When the animators choose to “wow” the audience, they succeed easily.
The story is set in the modern times, and with its efforts to modernize the Santa Claus operation, it bears a definite resemblance to Disney’s Prep & Landing TV special from two years before. An army of elves secures Santa’s landing site before he arrives, and they check for awake children and other obstacles using high-tech devices that resemble Christmas-themed smart phones. Perhaps it’s just a natural consequence of the themes of the setting; there are only so many ways one can do “Santa Claus with modern technology”, after all. It also resembles the special in its main plot, however. Both stories involve a child who is accidentally passed over, with Santa reluctantly concluding he’ll have to make it up to the child later, and a few other characters deciding to make Christmas happen for the child after all. (I think one of the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials also has this plot, but memory fails me.)
What distinguishes the film, however, is that it has a different sense of humor than Disney’s special; it’s more British, but not in such a way as to alienate non-British audiences. There’s a certain wry humor at a lot of situations, and a greater willingness to go for laughs that have just a slight edge to them. The spiel that wrapping-elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) goes into when worrying about the fate of the overlooked child goes from reasonable to hilariously over-the-top in about three sentences.
The film’s real strength, and what forms the basis of both the emotional tone of the story and much of the humor, is that few films examine Santa Claus’s personal life, and those which do — at least among children’s films — seldom paint the jolly old elf as having a dysfunctional family.
This has “bad idea” written all over it.
In Arthur Christmas, “Santa Claus” is a hereditary title. The current Santa is Malcolm (Jim Broadbent), and although he’s run 70 missions as Santa, he’s not quite ready to retire yet. This irks his eldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who is the over-caffeinated head of mission control. Steve runs mission control like a military operation (and has a Christmas-tree-shaped goatee) and is next in line to become Santa, a job he really wants even though he has yet to assist a Christmas run in person. The other son, of course, is Arthur (James McAvoy). Clearly a fair bit younger than Steve (it’s implied the whole family lives a long time; the grandfather is nearly 150), Arthur still has dark brown hair and wide eyes, and all the awkward clumsiness an absent-minded young man can have. He’s Steve’s opposite in pretty much every way, and his responsibility — chosen to keep him out of trouble — is to answer all the letters that Santa receives. When Santa misses a child, and Steve concludes it would be impossible to get her bicycle to her before she awakens, it’s Arthur who sets out to prove him wrong, with his grandfather (Bill Nighy) and wrapping-elf Bryony in tow. It’s not about who’s right and wrong for Arthur; he just can’t stand the idea of a child not having a magical Christmas.
The film has everything it needs to be an entertaining movie for both children and adults. It’s colorful and a lot of fun to look at, it has a great sense of humor, and it has a sense of adventure that keeps it interesting — the more so due to the continually-growing number of mishaps that Arthur and company face. And it has enough heart to not feel like a disposable Christmas-themed romp. It won’t surprise even the most naive child that everything turns out okay at the end, but watching it get there is a lot of fun.
One word of warning, though; watching through the end credits isn’t recommended here. There is no post-credits stinger, and more importantly, one is subjected to Justin Bieber’s rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, which may be hard to take for anybody over the age of 14. It doesn’t affect the film itself, but it’s something to keep in mind.