Written By Matthew Haviland
Arthur Christmas Plot:
Santa Claus and company carry out this year’s Christmas Eve without a hitch. Then an elf discovers that one present has been left behind. With power struggles and exhaustion clouding the Claus family’s holiday spirit, will one child really make a difference when everyone else has their presents?
What says “Merry Christmas” more than “Happy Christmas”? Great Britain is the land of A Christmas Carol, steam lamps over cobblestones, and stuffy people finding warmth and cheer in blustering cold. Okay, that was all from A Christmas Carol. But Great Britain is still the land of the atmosphere that we associate with Christmas (i.e., where you would be very happy to have a roasting fire). Harry Potter’s theme song has become associated with Christmas more than magic, for goodness sake. And yet a CGI Christmas flick from Britain sounds exotic to American viewers. Probably because it’s also the land of other Charles Dickens novels, of Wallace and Gromit and Monty Python. Well, what do all these things have in common? Arthur Christmas. Though the title sounds generic, and the origins, more refreshing than traditional, Arthur Christmas provides a thoroughly conventional, uncommonly entertaining Christmas yarn that deserves placement next to The Polar Express and Elf as a minor holiday classic.
We’ve been here before, but not on the ground floor. The Arthur Christmas Claus family are regularish people with great technology, holiday gusto, and thousands of elves. North Pole commando Steve Claus (Hugh Laurie) oversees his father’s worldwide operation from an underground control center straight out of a summer blockbuster. Santa, er, Malcolm Claus (Jim Broadbent), rides a high-tech spaceship that looks like Starship Enterprise (but red, and more sleigh-shaped) and makes it around the world without magic, dozens of elves sneaking through houses around him like a harmless battalion of Tom Cruise. And Arthur Christmas, er, Claus (James McAvoy), is the brother who still gets sentimental about the whole Christmas business. Resentment and disappointment bubbles between everyone like lumpy porridge, and when their mission leaves one present unplaced on Christmas Eve, the question is not immediately “How do we get there in time?” but “Why bother?”
Arthur Christmas is one of those hybrid Christmas movies that doesn’t skimp on the humbug (or the genuine laughter) but delivers lots of heartwarming holiday spirit. The magic is somehow enhanced by the contrast of advanced technology. The film opens with a humorously pragmatic letter to Santa asking how he delivers presents to so many children every year, while the camera scrolls across a frozen wall filled with portraits of Santa Clauses throughout the centuries. This contrast between “How the heck?” and the lineage of Saint Nicholas (whom we might otherwise consider one immortal constant) effectively sets the stage for the massive undertaking of the night before Christmas as a realistic endeavor. So there is a sense of revelation (“This is how”) as Santa and his helpers zip line down from their mothership. The old man makes an appearance in a few of the houses while dozens of elves dart around him, jumping through windows, loading stockings with their slick gadgets, sliding down rooftops, and taking readings of each child’s naughty-to-nice ratio with their glowing screens. When you wonder how Santa Claus would travel the world in one night, the answer Arthur Christmas gives is that Santa is an action movie hero with a support network, his son Steve strolling through rows of computers masterminding their way through hitches and woken children. These Mission: Impossible thrills continue with Grandsanta’s (Bill Nighy) rickety, gleaming sleigh of yesteryear, which flies with reckless abandon through several locales later in the film, encountering the majesty of moonlight over the Arctic Circle, the flashing lights of Toronto, and other ground-floor vistas. Whereas the first act shows the modern world’s realistic Christmas routine, full of keyboards, bureaucracy, and espresso, we now get to see Christmas Eve as the original Santa would have experienced it: 50,000 miles per hour at staggering heights with semireliable reindeer and magic dust.
Aardman Animations—responsible for those great feasts of claymation Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit—treat Arthur Christmas like it’s made of clay. Though the film occasionally falls prey to the lifeless aesthetic of computer graphics, and though we’re not quite talking The Polar Express (a high-water mark for CGI that feels like a roaring fire), Aardman’s work looks as good as Pixar’s and bears rosier cheeks than some of their celebrated features. CGI calls for as much care in every frame as you would find in Spirited Away or Beauty and the Beast. Even with amazing visuals, CGI films can become sterile when a floating house, thousands of balloons burning with sunlight, lands and the characters walk under fluorescent afternoons through homogenous scenery. When you’re dealing with cold climates and chrome interiors that probably have fluorescent lighting, the challenge increases, but Arthur Christmas offers consistently generous textures, roasting warmth and freezing cold, radiance ranging from flashlights to firelight, and multifarious background shenanigans. The animation stays engaging without necessarily leaving you saying “Wow.” Notable shots include a hallway choked with elves waiting outside Malcolm Claus’s bedroom door, the aforementioned Santa Claus oil paintings hanging around the North Pole, and Christmas morning seen through fogged glass.
What brings the CGI more fully alive is the rich storyline. When you’ve got Christmas to conduct every year, heartfelt questions arise, ranging from frustration over who gets to wear the red suit to whether you’re the right fit for it to whether one child matters when you’ve delivered presents to most of the world. Would close enough be good enough? Well-rounded characters keep this story moving along. We’re impressed by Steve Claus as North Pole commander even while we see his failings in Christmas spirit. We understand Malcolm’s reluctance to retire. We catch Arthur’s compassionate enthusiasm and recognize the motivation to “do the right thing” when everyone else has settled for good enough. Santa Claus is story time and people are people, we discover, but who plays Santa every year besides people? The motto of the Claus family and their elves is “In Santa We Believe,” stamped on the floor like “In God We Trust” on a dollar bill. Arthur Christmas contains enough good cheer to move mountains.
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