Christmas is often one of the most important times of the whole year for families around the world; a special day that brings everyone together through giving and goodwill. It can also be a dour time of the year for others who just cannot stand all the nauseating cheeriness that occupies shopping malls, department stores and…well, everywhere else. At the North Pole, Christmas is looking less like a wonderful holiday and more like a covert operation organized by both the FBI and the U.S. Army.
This brings me to the first action setpiece in the animated film “Arthur Christmas,” in which thousands upon thousands of tiny elves descend from Santa’s (Jim Broadbent) military spacecraft (called the S-1), which surveys the entire city and uses a cloaking device to fool anyone who might awaken in the middle of the night. Each of old Saint Nick’s pointy-eared elves are trained like veteran spies to enter buildings, disperse presents accordingly (they have Geiger counter-like devices that approximate the percentage to which each child is ‘naughty or nice’), and convert cookies and milk into sleigh fuel, all without even the slightest hint of human suspicion. Rinse, repeat, onto the next city. The routine is to be completed before sunrise on Christmas morning.
Such speedy and meticulously detailed sequences remind me of Sony Animation’s 2009 film “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” in the way that it frantically throws minute little touches during parts where the screen is overloaded with action. This elf sequence and a few others almost warrant a play-by-play just so the viewer can soak in everything the animators snuck into the frame.
However, what happens when one present is not transported to an eager little child’s house in jolly ol’ England? Well, most of the staff at the North Pole simply shrug it off and congratulate themselves on a 99.99% victory (after all, it rounds up to 100). But no, they don’t understand that Christmas ain’t about running a business or record-breaking present distribution. It is about dispensing the happiness so that others may become happy as a result. Which is why Arthur (James McAvoy), the gawkiest of Santa’s two sons, flips his lid when he hears the news that a child might wake up on Christmas morning thinking Santa doesn’t care about her.
You see, Arthur may be a clumsy git, but he has a big heart from years of responding amiably to millions of children’s letters to Santa. Does Santa’s toy sack have to get bigger every year because of exponential population growth?, inquires a child in his note. How can he fit down my tiny chimney? How can he get around the world in one night? If the child thinks that judiciously about the existence of Santa, I am convinced that innocence is dead.
In fact, Arthur is the only one who shows any remote semblance of Christmas spirit and enthusiasm at the North Pole, which houses a surprisingly dysfunctional family. The current Santa is a bewildered fool who has little involvement in his own job. Arthur’s brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) is a strong-jawed leader of mission control who is destined to fill his father’s sleigh bell-laden boots someday. Steve, however, lacks the kindness gene that was passed on to Arthur. “Christmas is not a time for emotion,” he says as he gives orders like a military strategist. Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), Arthur’s grandfather, is a batty (borderline senile) old coot who condemns the newfangled doodads and whatchamathings that have taken the elbow grease outta Santa’s annual duties. Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton) appears to be a supportive wife and mother, but shows no real effort in bringing the family together.
So a determined Arthur, along with Grandsanta and a stowaway giftwrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), boldly sets out on an “outdated” sleigh with reindeer and a tank of magic dust to bring the present to the forgotten child before the sun rises. I walked into “Arthur Christmas” expecting to hate it and walked out kinda loving it. In collaboration with Aardman Animations (“Wallace and Gromit” and “Chicken Run”), Sony has made an appropriately jolly animated Christmas adventure that is mostly harmless for any age.
Unlike so many other modern Christmas flops, this one doesn’t promote ideas involving rampant consumerism or conforming to holiday tradition. “Arthur Christmas” emphasizes the more merry aspects of the holidays, such as togetherness and yuletide exuberance. If anything, the film might have a penchant for ragging on new technological advancements. A battery-powered toy nearly goes off and almost foils Santa in the middle of the night. Video surveillance leads people to believe that the magic sleigh is some kind of UFO. Radars and missiles almost destroy Arthur. A minor technological error is what causes the mishap in the first place.