Christmas brings a myriad of traditions, including the annual deluge of holiday films. There are three types of Christmas cheer movies. The first are those permanently burned in America’s collective conscious like “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The second tier is at least watchable, like “Ernest Saves Christmas.” The third category is reserved for yuletide kindling –films where Santa is saved, Santa is missing, a holiday romance is almost dashed, and other such drivel.
“Arthur Christmas,” belongs in category two, whimsical enough to make children glad and entertaining enough to not make parents cringe. The Sony/Columbia/Aardman collaboration answers every child’s question about Santa Claus – how on Earth can one man deliver presents to over two billion children in a single night? The answer is that he can’t – by himself. The North Pole is less holly jolly and more expert precision. Santa, (voiced by Jim Broadbent), is a figure head in an operation led by his techno wizard son, Steve (Hugh Laurie) and an elite team of thousands of elves who seem plucked out of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Santa and the first team of elves fly faster than the speed of light in an Enterprise-like red aircraft capable of cloaking itself lest anyone mistake them for UFOs. Hundreds of elves repel from the ship and it is they who do Santa’s real work – delivering presents to nice children. Meanwhile Steve and his team operate from the North Pole’s NASA-like mission control center overseeing every part of the operation. The opening scene is the best part of the film, brilliantly staged and animated with a healthy dose of slow motion action.
Trouble, for both the stars and the plot, starts when Santa’s younger and more Christmas spirit aware son, Arthur (James McAvoy), discovers that one toy was left behind. And no child gets left behind on Christmas on Arthur’s watch. This starts a chain reaction involving Arthur, Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), and Bryony (Ashley Jensen), the wrapping expert elf who found the gift, racing through the night on the original sleigh to complete the mission.
This is where the film becomes unhinged. Like most live action and animated films, the main issues with “Arthur Christmas” are due to story problems, not the visuals. Four problems prevent it from being truly exceptional. The less offensive of the group, weird jokes, and stiff facial expressions, are forgivable, in part because Grandsanta is so endearing that you (almost) forgive him for the politically incorrect flubs that tumble out of his mouth like mashed fruitcake. The stiff facial expressions are due to the fact that 3D people are still difficult to animate. Although technology has vastly improved over the past 20 years, even films made by Pixar occasionally fall flat in the face department. Everything ends up looking plastic, which helps explain why there are three “Toy Story” films.
What are not forgivable are the excessive uses of dialogue that grind the movie to a halt and the introduction of outside antagonists nearly halfway into the film. Several times throughout the movie Santa, Steve, Arthur and Grandsanta begin to pontificate about whether it is necessary to worry about delivering one gift to one child – and these conversations are long. We’re talking now’s a time to get more popcorn long. One could (and should have) easily cut the arguments in half.
The other damaging aspect is that the film introduces characters from the UN who mistake Arthur and Grandsanta for UFOs due to their lack of flying expertise. This would be an excellent set of scenes if they were introduced 30 minutes earlier. However, due to their late arrival in the film, they feel almost tacked on, as if someone in the final part of the production asked “Hey wouldn’t anyone notice two dudes, an elf and reindeer flying over Idaho?”
Animation-wise, the film is nearly solid. Story-wise, it needs a little work, but the emotion is displayed expertly on screen. And in a field where lousy Christmas tales and trite sentimentalism are usually the norm, especially for family movies, “Arthur Christmas” has the distinction of rising above the holiday morass.