Most Christmas films are too often saddled with the same basic plotlines and tropes – “new” takes on A Christmas Carol or a focus on dysfunctional families gathering for the holiday or something about locating the perfect present – but few of those spins on the genre can match the magic of the good ol’ “but just how does Santa do it?” plot. How does Santa Claus make it around the world in just one night to deliver toys to all the good boys and girls, with only a sled and eight reindeer to aid in his journey? Well, according to Sarah Smith’s Arthur Christmas, he doesn’t. At least not anymore.
In Arthur Christmas, Smith and her co-writer Peter Baynham (who, strangely enough, also scripted this year’s Arthur remake) imagine a traditional Santa-Claus-at-the-North-Pole concept, but one that’s been turned on its head by the influx and influence of new technology. Santa and Mrs. Santa’s (Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton, giving the film some real British brio) eldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), has revitalized the way that Christmas is done at the North Pole, while youngest Arthur (James McAvoy) is still pleased as Christmas punch to keep doing things in the old style. Steve has outfitted each elf with a HOHO (an elf smart phone named after an acronym too fun to spoil here), while Arthur spends his days as a Mail Agent who is most happy to write back (with pen and paper and everything!) to each boy and girl whose letters he receives. There is, quite clearly, a philosophical divide within the family.
Steve has turned Christmas into a military operation, utilizing a mission control that would make most first world countries green with envy and dispatching elves that have essentially been trained as special ops to deliver the presents (we open with the elves completing a “mission,” some of the film’s most well-executed fun and razzle-dazzle). Arthur and Steve’s aging father, the currently sitting Santa, is all but a figurehead at this point, randomly tottering into various houses to grab a snack in an attempt to not fall asleep before he can place a gift or two under the tree. While Steve’s meticulous planning and execution makes Christmas deliveries nearly fool-proof (the Santas and the elves are working with their lowest margin of error ever), it also makes the entire enterprise nearly cheer-proof. Steve doesn’t care about the receivers of his gifts – he only cares about delivering them with a precision that makes his end-of-mission stats impeccable.
Unfortunately, the number of presents that Santa and Steve deliver on this particular Christmas Eve is so huge that when one present (just one) is accidentally brushed aside and not delivered to a sweet-faced little girl in a tiny British town, neither of them can be bothered to care about the perceived insignificance of one gift in the grand scheme of things. But Arthur cares. Arthur is the only Santa who has retained a stable sense of merriment. Arthur loves Christmas and, more than that, Arthur believes in the magic of Christmas. Being a Santa has not diminished the wonder that suffuses Arthur’s every Christmas-based action, to the point that even Steve’s cold-handed touch and Santa’s gift-giving-at-a-distance can’t bother him. But not getting a present to little Gwen, whose letter to Santa Arthur personally received? That does bother him.
Arthur has really no choice – he has to deliver the present to Gwen himself, or risk ruining Gwen’s childhood trust in Santa and the magic of Christmas forever. And while Arthur is working from a place of real love and affection, he’s also a miserable klutz and a misanthrope and a dreamer and a bit of a joke around the Pole. Of course, the only people who can be bothered to help Arthur (“what a puzzle”) Santa are an overachieving elf (Ashley Jensen), his wizened Grandsanta (an uproarious Bill Nighy, bent on reclaiming his good Santa name), Grandsanta’s geriatric pet reindeer, an antique sled named Eve, and eight reindeer who have never even flown. It should come as no surprise that things go wildly, hilariously wrong during what should be a relatively simple mission.
And while that sort of everything-goes-wrong road trip brand of humor would be enough to make Arthur Christmas enjoyable, the film is also peppered with enough adult asides to keep the grown-ups in the audience chuckling along (though I suspect a few parents will need to explain away Grandsanta’s comment about teaching women to read). Arthur Christmas is a thoroughly family-friendly crowd-pleaser in the least cloying way possible.
The film comes to us from Aardman Animations, who are best-known for their perennially delightful Wallace & Gromit series, and who are currently working on The Pirates! Band of Misfits which will open next year. But while some of the humor of previous Aardman works has often strayed to a decidedly British territory, Arthur Christmas has a wide appeal that should delight viewers of all ages, nationalities, and comic sensibilities. The animation itself is beautiful and delightfully detailed, and the 3D is of the rare breed that makes the supposed “gimmick” look to have real value, the bow on top of the already lovely present that is Arthur Christmas.
The Upside: A charming entry in the world of holiday animation, Arthur Christmas is rounded out with memorable characters, hysterical line-delivery, a wonderful message, and an inventive take on the classic “but how does Santa do it?” trope.
The Downside: Audiences who hate holiday cheer, goodwill towards men, general merriment, and animation will hate Arthur Christmas. Everyone else will likely note that the film sags a touch in the middle, and should likely have been trimmed by about ten or so minutes.
On the Side: I’ve started calling my iPhone a HOHO.