Arthur Christmas (2011)

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I thoroughly enjoyed this festive treat from Aardman animation when it was out in cinemas last year and I’m pleased to see it stands up to a repeat viewing. There’s been a definite lack of quality Christmas films in recent years and this heart-warming caper is a much needed shot of family fun. It’s never overly schmaltzy and while it’s not as laugh-out-loud funny as some previous Aardman efforts, it’s still sure to raise plenty of smiles.

The film’s centre is loveable klutz Arthur Christmas (James McAvoy), the permanently upbeat son of Malcolm ‘Santa’ Claus (Jim Broadbent) and Margaret Claus (Imelda Staunton). Arthur has never lost that child-like sense of wonderment about Christmas and maintains his enthusiasm for the festive season until the end. Up at the family’s North Pole HQ, he is entrusted with replying to the letters of kids from all over the world, partly with the intention of keeping him out of the way of the more serious work undertaken by his big brother Steve (Hugh Laurie). Steve is the true brains of the operation and has turned the North Pole into a slick and fully modernized gift dispensing machine. The secret truth behind how Santa reaches all those kids in one night; he is assisted by a crack team of elves who use acrobatic espionage techniques and a supersonic sled to zoom around the world undetected. As the eldest brother and the real director of all Christmas operations, many of the elves, as well as Steve himself, soon expect him to take over the reins from the ageing Santa. Malcolm appears to be more than happy to sit back and let the others do the hard work and seems to long to get home to his comfy bed.

This particular year though, something has gone terribly wrong and one unlucky child gets accidentally missed on Santa’s rounds. Malcolm himself doesn’t appear overly worried however after Steve points out that given the billions of successful deliveries he and the team have made, the mission can still mathematically be deemed a success. It falls to young Arthur and his unwavering belief in the spirit of Christmas to point out that they cannot let a child wake up without a present on Christmas morning. He and the cantankerous Grand Santa (Bill Nighy) , who is himself not best pleased with modernisation of Christmas, decide to deliver the present themselves using the old fashioned sleigh and eight reindeer Grand Santa himself used to use. The two of them are joined by stowaway dwarf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) as they set out into the night to deliver the last present. Unfortunately though, things don’t quite go according to plan and with morning fast approaching, it soon becomes a race against time.

The animation on display in Arthur Christmas looks fantastic. From the warm colourful glow of Arthur’s little cubbyhole, to the glorious expanse of the North Pole base, its beautifully rendered and full of detail and character. Aardman is a studio of course best known for its stop-motion animated movies and after the relatively poor reception for its first traditionally animated movie, Flushed Away, this is a strong statement of what they can still achieve. Despite the use of computer animation though, the typically Aardman sense of good-natured family fun is still present and correct and it would appear they could teach several of the larger studios a thing or two in that regard too.

The star-studded voice cast is on great form throughout. The likes of Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy are all perfectly cast with Nighy in particular having great fun as the borderline insane Grand Santa. On top of his various protestations in favour of the traditional system of delivering presents, “what happened to going down the chimney?” One of my favourite lines in the film comes when he is trying to remember the names of the eight reindeer, “Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Bambi, Dave, you with the white ear, you and you.”

James McAvoy’s Arthur does get a little grating as the film wears on, and while never quite going full-on schmaltz, he does tread a fine line at times. That’s only a minor quibble however as for the most past he’s an entirely enjoyable and loveable character. The humour is a little broader than in previous Aardman outings, the typically British aspects toned down in order to play better in the international market, but it’s never to the detriment of the movie as a whole.

More than anything, Arthur Christmas feels like an enjoyable new take on the standard ‘Santa Claus’ legend.  Adding in aspects such as the dynastic nature of the role of ‘Santa’ and the use of hi-tec gizmos as befits the modern age, help to give the film a welcome fresh appeal. It’s a charming and warm family movie and one which I can see slowly becoming a Christmas classic.

Directors: Sarah Smith, Barry Cook
Stars: James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy
Runtime: 97 min
Country: UK, USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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