REVIEW: Arthur Christmas
Produced by: Steve Pegram
Written by: Peter Baynham, Sarah Smith
Story by: Sarah Smith (uncredited)
Edited by: John Carnochan, James Cooper
Animation studio: Aardman Animations
Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams
Starring: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Ashley Jensen, Imelda Staunton, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez, Michael Palin
Every year, we hear that people are losing the true Christmas spirit, how everything’s become focused on material possessions rather than family togetherness. Horror stories from Black Friday sales frenzies flood the news, and having the most presents under the tree dominate our thoughts, so we’re told. But what if that attitude started spreading to one of the season’s most iconic figures, Santa Claus? That’s the basic start for the premise of Aardman’s contribution to the Christmas film pantheon, Arthur Christmas.
Modern day Santa operations, we learn, are heavily technological, with the standing Santa largely being nothing more than a figurehead and symbol rallying point for the elves than an actual laborer. Instead of a sleigh, they fly around in an enormous ship that nearly rivals the size of the saucers in Independence Day, and the elves, highly trained, adapt to the local customs on the fly, pouring out of the ship and delivering presence with precision, speed, and a great deal of technology, doling out presents based on the kids’ naughty vs. nice ratio, as measured by their little scanners. Santa, a sweet-natured but increasingly weathered man, has been reduced to placing a single gift amongst the thousands in each location.
His eldest son, Steve, has obviously been in training to take over from his father, as is the custom, and has largely been instrumental in the technological progression, but he’s far more interested in the hard numbers than the actual meaning behind this holiday, and Santa pretty much seems to be resigned to this, as well. Arthur, Steve’s brother and Santa’s youngest son, however, seems to be the only one focused on the true Christmas spirit, and so he’s been placed in charge of responding to all those letters children have written to Santa, doing so with enthusiasm and passing on to them the utmost admiration for his father.
This Christmas, however, an unforeseen kink in the operations results in the unthinkable: a bike has been left behind, which means that one little girl will not be receiving her present from Santa this year. To Steve and Santa, it’s an acceptable loss – one child out of the millions of successful deliveries still means a high percentage of efficiency. But to the mortified Arthur, all he sees is one little girl who will be singled out for not receiving anything at all, and Christmas just wouldn’t be complete unless every child is recognized. So he sets out to deliver the present personally, despite the fact that his general ineptitude and clumsiness will undoubtedly get in the way.
I’m not going to lie. I hated the teaser trailer for this movie, and it turned me off the film entirely. It wasn’t until the DVD release that following Christmas season that I finally saw it, and even then, it left me cold. I wasn’t a fan of the animation, which abandons from Aardman’s signature stop motion style for CGI, and I especially was turned off by the character designs, which deviates from their usual Wallace & Gromit-style designs that was also used in Chicken Run, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, and all those Chevron commercials for a more unusual bit of distorted hyper-reality, complete with skin blemishes, freckles, and individually animated hair follicles. It just didn’t have that hand-crafted charm we’ve all come to expect, which wasn’t helped by the sterile designs of so much of Santa’s operations. The story, too, wasn’t that remarkable, and the jokes not exactly a highlight, even if they weren’t exactly terrible, either. Yes, Arthur Christmas wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t think it was very good, either. It was just… unremarkable.
I watched it for a second time a few weeks ago, however, as the Christmas season began. I wasn’t in a particularly great mood that week, and I was pretty stressed out, on top of it all. Arthur Christmas was among the first of the holiday season films in my Netflix DVD queue that delivered that week, though, and so when I popped it in and began watching, I wasn’t exactly expecting my reaction towards the film to be all that much different from my first viewing – my putting it back in my queue was largely so I could refresh my memories. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did this time around.
Perhaps my foul mood that week ended up making this film seem a lot more bright and warm-hearted in contrast rather than cloying or trite. Arthur’s infectious enthusiasm for the season is joined by the all-around enjoyable comic relief presence of his traveling companions, the excitable Grand-Santa, the last Santa to complete his operations on a genuine reindeer-drawn sleigh, and the spunky Bryony, an elf with a Scottish brogue from gift wrapping department who could probably moonlight as a stuntwoman if she wanted to. Arthur himself also seemed to carry a lot more weight, oddly enough because of the simplicity and pureness of his motives and James McAvoy’s perfectly innocent, sweet-natured voice acting. There’s not a mean bone in his body – just pure kindness and enthusiasm for bringing joy into the lives of others, and it’s immediately endearing and imbues his mission with a poignancy and nobility. On a purely human level, Arthur represents that true meaning of unconditional generosity, at any cost – something that even the most devout of Christians can even lose sight of this time of year.
I’m still not completely sold on the animation, but I respect their attempt to try out something completely different, and it’s not nearly as off-putting on subsequent viewings. Arthur Christmas luckily wasn’t a wacky DreamWorks-lite, fourth-wall-breaking family-targeting film about the accidental exposure of the North Pole operations at the hands of a doofus named Arthur, though, as its teaser trailer seemed to suggest. It will likely never reach true must-watch Christmas season viewing on the same level as Elf and A Christmas Story, either, but Arthur Christmas is a fun, sweet change of pace from many family-targeting holiday films that certainly deserves your attention and a fair chance, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s certain to entertain both children and adults, and I can almost guarantee it’ll be one of those dark horse movies you can pull out should you find yourself at some holiday party, talking about Christmas movies, and everyone has pretty much listed off all the usual suspects, and you want to stand out by making an unexpected suggestion that will seem both sophisticated and won’t leave you embarrassed, should one of them actually take you up on the recommendation and watch it. Arthur Christmas definitely deserves new classic status.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3.5 / 5