Mark Reviews Movies

Arthur Christmas


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sarah Smith

Cast: The voices of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen

MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 11/23/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 22, 2011

We seem to need to constantly update the mechanics of Santa Claus with each new generation, and Arthur Christmas gives the jolly, fat man in a red suit perhaps his biggest overhaul to date. It only makes sense, as children have access to more of the world through technology. A little girl in the film wonders where exactly at the North Pole Santa's workshop could possibly be; she's searched and scanned satellite images online and, for the life of her, can't spot it. She's fully aware of how big a place the world actually is, too, and one night in which to deliver presents to children across the span of it seems like an impossible task for anyone. What of those reindeer, she must wonder; they must be getting pretty old no matter how much magical dust with which they come into contact. Also, she would like a pink bike.

Arthur Christmas answers all of those questions for the girl, who will, of course, never really know the details. The only important thing is that on Christmas morning there is a pink bicycle underneath the tree with a tag that simply reads, "From Santa."  How it got there doesn't matter as long as it gets there.

There's something a little thrilling in watching how co-writer/director Sarah Smith and her team of animators at Aardman Studios (mostly known for their clay animation efforts—this one is entirely computer-animated but maintains the typical look of their traditional characters) imagine Santa embracing technology. The sleigh is no longer made of wood but some sort of metal with the ability to camouflage itself against the night sky. It's also massive, covering multiple city blocks as it hovers high above the rooftops. After all, it must house gifts for every believing child in the world and a crack team of elves who rappel down from the giant saucer and infiltrate the homes of sleeping families by any means necessary. Underneath the North Pole, another team of elves and Santa's second-in-command occupy a huge, circular pyramid of a command center, where towering screens follow the trek across the globe. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of this operation, the old, red sleigh sits gathering dust.

Some things never change, though, and Santa's (voice of Jim Broadbent) letters are answered by hand. His son Arthur (voice of James McAvoy) spends the days and months leading up to the holiday in a small office, where the messages stack high and the most memorable ones hang above his desk. One such letter comes from Gwen (voice of Ramona Marquez), the girl with so many questions at the start of the film. Arthur replies to her doubts that, indeed, Santa is real, and he will surely bring her the pink bike she wants for Christmas.

Arthur's brother Steve (voice of Hugh Laurie) is the expert on all of the shiny, new equipment that tracks packages and counts down all the presents as they are delivered. In an unexpected moment, Santa becomes trapped in a boy's room, with his head resting atop the "Try me" button of a toy. The elves act as though they are defusing a bomb, carefully cutting wrapping paper and using the necessary, tiny tools in the arsenal to free their boss. In the commotion, Gwen's bicycle falls from its spot in the lineup, unnoticed and undelivered by anyone until after the sleigh returns and Santa stands under a large "Mission accomplished" banner.

The film loses some of its imaginative pop as the frenetic pacing of Christmas subsides and Arthur decides to go against the orders of Santa and Steve, who assumes he will be next in line to take on the mantle of Santa Claus (There's a rich history to the tile, although we have to wonder what happened to Santa Claus the 18th, whose portrait is missing from the wall), to transport Gwen's gift directly to her home. To do so, Arthur enlists the aid of his grandfather (voice of Bill Nighy), who despises newfangled devices and brings the old sleigh and eight reindeer out of retirement, and an elf named Bryony (voice of Ashley Jensen), who is inclined to compulsively gift-wrap everything.

What little plot there is involves the trio trying to make their way to England and becoming lost in the Serengeti and the shores of Cuba, as the United Nations takes note of them and thinks the Earth has been visited by aliens. Meanwhile, the elves at home, believing Santa doesn't care as much about children as they once thought, begin to question the entire process ("Do children even exist," one shouts in the resulting panic of what turns out to be a very existential crisis for them).

Still, Smith and crew have invented a cheerfully fanciful world in which the standard story unfolds, and the screenplay (co-written by Peter Baynham) offers some genuinely heartfelt interactions between its central characters as go about their misadventure (Grandsanta just wants to be noticed again, and Steve witnesses the glow of a child's joy when opening a present (and having her belief system reaffirmed)). Arthur Christmas might be choppily paced, but its bursts of imagination and emotion make up for it.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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