Santa’s gawky Christmas-loving son gets a chance at the big sleigh in Arthur Christmas, an animated movie from Aardman, the group best known for Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run.
Santa is not just one man — the man to wear the mantle of Santa Claus is the latest in a long line of intrepid toy-deliverers stretching back to Saint Nick. The current Santa (voice of Jim Broadbent), whose given name we learn is Malcolm, took over for his father, now called Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) back in the 1940s. Santa’s sons — as well as Mrs. Santa (Imelda Stauton) — expect the current Santa to retire any Christmas now. In fact, Steve (Hugh Laurie), Santa’s oldest son, expects that this year is Santa’s last. Steve has worked long and hard on computerizing the who naughty-nice-gift-giving process and on creating the S1, a “sleigh” that is more like a space ship (complete with cloaking device) from which a strike team of elves can descend ready to gift an entire city in minutes. Steve expects that he will be the next Santa (and even, we later learn, has a natty Versace Santa suit waiting in his closet).
Arthur (James McAvoy), Santa’s younger son, does not have Santa ambitions but we suspect that he would like to have more to do with the big night than watching it on TV with Grandsanta. Arthur works in the mail department, reading letters and responding with genuine care to each child who asks for a gift or for information on the Santa delivery process. He is invested in each child’s receiving his happy Christmas morning and having his faith in the big guy renewed. Which is why Arthur is horrified when it’s discovered that a child was missed. Seems a sparkly pink bike slipped past the system and the undelivered gift isn’t discovered until after Santa and Steve have already called it a finished Christmas.
This simply won’t do as far as Arthur’s concerned. With Grandsanta’s help, he takes the vintage sleigh — powered the old-fashioned way, by reindeer and magic dust — and heads off to deliver the present before sunrise. Quickly he discovers that Grandsanta and an aging reindeer aren’t his only companions — an elf known as Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an eager recruit from the wrapping division, has come along for the ride. Her plan is to make sure that no matter what problems they encounter, that bike is perfectly wrapped when it gets to the little girl’s house.
I had to go kind of a long way to like this movie. The Muppets kicked off their show with a Toy Story 3 short; Arthur Christmas got as its intro a thoroughly awful Justin Bieber music video. (Like a gray hair or a desire to go to bed early, an inability to listen to crappy pop must just be one of those things that happen after 30.) Then, the sound in the theater where I saw this movie was wonky — background noises came through just fine, dialogue you had to strain to hear. I was all ready to hate this movie. But I didn’t. It has a likeable British sensibility. Yes, Arthur starts out all skinny legs and slip-and-fall jokes, but he turns into a real person — he’s not just a buffoon with a heart but someone who feels pride in his work and proud of the Santa mission. Likewise, Steve isn’t just a gung-ho villain who puts technology over Christmas spirit. We get to see that he wants to be the Santa not necessarily for ambition’s sake but also to have the authority to go with all the responsibility he’s been saddled with.
And on top of all these layered character motivations we get a very British screwy devotion to duty. Bryony may not appreciate the sudden sleigh dive bombs but she never stops making sure that bike is perfectly wrapped. And I like that the driving force in the Arthur/Bryony partnership is not some goofy romance or some plot to Save Christmas but a shared belief in the mission of No Child Left Ungifted.
Just as there is a Muppets sense of humor there is an Aardman Animation sense of humor. It is, as I mentioned, British but also surprisingly, quietly mad-cap, in ways that add a kind of liveliness rather than just turning up the volume on zany, as some cartoons can. Even though this is a movie about elves and reindeer and Santas run amok, it actually seems to become subtler and more dimensional as it goes on.
It’s rare that a family holiday movie transcends its one season and can be added to the collection of holiday classics worth rewatching — solid children’s fare that is worth viewing even after December. Arthur Christmas may very well do both. B
Rated PG for some mild rude humor. Directed by Sarah Smith from a screenplay by Smith and Peter Baynham, Arthur Christmas is an hour and 37 minutes long and is distributed by Sony Pictures.