An unexpected holiday gift
By Michael O'Sullivan
Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011
Who would have thought we needed another movie about saving Christmas? Judging by the full-throated carols that have been pouring forth from the P.A. system of Bed, Bath and Beyond stores since just after Halloween, the holiday isn't in need of rescuing.
Yet here comes "Arthur Christmas," ho-ho-ho-ing its way down multiplex chimneys just in time for the holiday movie season, with an improbably charming story about an improbable hero - the titular Arthur Christmas, Santa's son - and his efforts to deliver, to a little girl, the only present his father forgot to drop off one fateful Christmas Eve.
The animated film from Aardman Animations (the British studio that made the claymation Wallace and Gromit adventures and the CGI "Flushed Away") is a worthy addition to the Christmas movie canon. It's funny and good-looking, with an impeccable voice cast of U.K. actors.
It's also unexpectedly fresh, despite the familiar-sounding premise.
In the universe of "Arthur Christmas," Santa Claus isn't a person, but a job title, handed down from father to son. When the film opens, the current Santa (Jim Broadbent) is nearing retirement age. His North Pole-based operation is a paragon of 21st-century efficiency, resembling Amazon.com staffed by elf-sized Navy SEALs. Christmas gifts are delivered from a gigantic red space ship, backed by a computerized command center that is run, with military precision, by Santa's No. 1 son, Steve (Hugh Laurie). Steve wears a uniform of red-and-green camo and is next in the line of succession when Father Christmas steps down.
But then a little pink bike - earmarked for a girl in a quaint English village - is discovered to have been misplaced, and Steve persuades his father to write it off as an acceptable error.
That's unacceptable, however, to Santa's second, more idealistic son, Arthur (James McAvoy, a giddy, goofy delight). With his 136-year-old grandfather (Bill Nighy), a long-retired Santa, Arthur commandeers an old-fashioned sleigh and eight reindeer, and sets out to put things right.
Arthur's inexperience and Grandsanta's senility combine with the ills of the modern age - GPS glitches, civilian paranoia about airborne terrorists - to threaten Arthur's mission.
The fate of the film, on the other hand, is never in doubt. From the movie's opening, Christmas Eve-set sequence of gift deliveries - which parodies "Mission Impossible"-style derring-do - to its touching but never-cloying conclusion, "Arthur Christmas" demonstrates a storytelling assurance and visual grace that belies its hero's gawkiness under pressure.
Arthur Christmas may be an inept bumbler, but the movie that bears his name (and that shares his big heart) sure isn't.