ARTHUR CHRISTMAS Review
Slender in story yet nourishing to the soul -- and very, very funny -- Arthur Christmas marks a number of "firsts" for Aardman Animations. It's their first feature in five years, their first in 3D, and their first under a deal with Sony to finance, co-produce, and distribute their films.
Of all the "firsts" that Arthur Christmas represents, however, the most important is that it's the debut of Sarah Smith. A former writer for "The Armando Ianucci Shows," she makes her directorial debut, displaying a sharp wit that dovetails nicely with the classic Aardman combination of visual and verbal humor.
Indeed, though Aardman is mostly closely associated with the stop-motion clay animation techniques that won three Academy Awards for short films directed by Nick Park (Creature Comforts and two of the Wallace and Gromit shorts), what really sets the company apart creatively are the characters they create and the visual style they showcase.
Smith, who shares a screenplay credit with Peter Baynham, captures those qualities perfectly. And the wonderful voice cast, which includes James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, and Bill Nighy, clearly were not cast for their name value alone, but because they can actually act with their voices alone, infusing their characters with personality to spare.
McAvoy voices the title character, Santa's bumbling younger son. Arthur, who appears to be a young adult, still has a child-like love of the holiday itself, and of all it represents to children worldwide. He slaves away answering letters from children to Santa, surrounded by stacks and stacks of mail, because he knows that Santa is real. He replies with the conviction of a True Believer, a cheerful proselyte, not merely because he knows that Santa exists, but because he's happy to share that knowledge.
That stands in stark contrast to the other men of the Claus clan. Santa (Broadbent) has grown old and weary in the role. After 70 years of service in the red suit, it's time for him to hang it up; he's been phoning it in, as it were, but he's not ready to face retirement. His father, known as Grandsanta (Nighy), doesn't exactly set a sterling example for his son to follow; he's fond of recalling the good old days and criticizing the current administration.
Steve (Laurie), Arthur's older brother and the heir apparent, is ready to take on the duties as a very modern Santa. Basically, he's militarized operations at the North Pole, wearing a uniform and issuing orders into a handheld PDA, commanding thousands of troops (i.e. elves) in the field and in the massive command headquarters. The elves in the field on Christmas Night shimmy down ropes, paratrooper-style, from the rocketship S-1 that's replaced the old reindeer-driven sleigh. Santa pushes a few buttons, makes perfunctory visits to deliver presents, and takes full credit for everything. It drives Steve nuts, who's desperate for recognition, but that's nothing compared to his disgruntled feeling when Santa passes him over and decides to remain Santa for at least another year.
The latest Christmas Night appears to have met with resounding success, until it's noticed that one present was not delivered. Santa and Steve are ready to mark it off as part of the margin of error, but Arthur is galvanized to action; he remembers the letter from little Gwen and can't stand the thought that a single child might have reason to stop believing in Christmas.
Grandsanta, who still has something to prove, decides to help Arthur, dusting off his old magical sleigh and rousing a new gang of reindeer. The Claus men are joined by Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an eager elf from the gift-wrapping section of the service, and Grandsanta's old friend, red-nosed Rudolph.
The movie begins with a cold, sterile look at the North Pole before introducing Arthur, and immediately I had misgivings. Arthur, a clumsy, idealistic lad, seemed too simple a character to hang a movie on, and the opening moments looked routine.
But it takes only a few minutes for the Aardman magic to kick in, and that arrives in the form of the "Field Elves Battalion," as hundreds of elves deliver presents as though they were parachuting behind enemy lines. The sequence, short as it is, is filled with funny, well-thought out bits of business, and it's just as likely that the laughs will flow from a character who's never seen again as from a major player.
It may be pushing it to suggest that a Preston Sturges influence can be felt in certain scenes, but Aardman films in general have always felt democratic in allowing the situation to dictate who delivers the punchline. That's felt in the voice casting as well; the actor behind the scenes disappears and/or merges into his or her character on screen.
While Arthur Christmas has affectionate callbacks -- I noticed one for "The Wrong Trousers" and I'm fairly sure there are others I missed -- those are merely used as grace notes, adding to the fun. The story, and the characters, are what drive the movie forward.
Along the way, however, delightful visual gags pop up unexpectedly. At least one flight of fancy will dance in my memory forever, and multiple other moments represent the vision of artists as realized by an army of helpers. It's nearly magical.
Wrap all that up with a bow and Arthur Christmas is a sheer delight, a gift full of holiday cheer that does not insist on ramming its positive message down anyone's throat. Instead, it merely sets spirits soaring.
Arthur Christmas opens wide today across the U.S. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.