Arthur Christmas (***½)

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With the slate all to itself, “Arthur Christmas” has the benefit and the burden of being the only new Christmas-themed movie for families in 2011 (no offense there…Harold and Kumar). Thankfully, with the fantastic team of Aardman Studios (Wallace and Gromit films, Chicken Run, Flushed Away)steering the ship, “Arthur Christmas” is a blast – an energetic, endearing, and irreverent holiday comedy that will stand up to annual viewings and engage the grown-ups, teenagers, and youngest of viewers all and the same.

“Arthur Christmas” explores the often wondered and theorized concept of how Santa Claus is able to deliver all of those presents to all of those children, around the world, on one particular night. A 2009 Made-for-Television special, “Disney’s Prep & Landing”, explored a similar theme and shared the scenario that Santa has elves which make toys, but also elves which work with the latest technologies and surveillance equipment to orchestrate all of those happenings. Disney’s special proposes that the elves are dispatched all over the world and prep the home for Santa’s arrival. Children and parents are made sure to be asleep in their beds, chimney flues are clear, and they get in and get out without detection. To Disney’s credit, their special is light, fun, and simple entertainment and perfect for what it is.

“Arthur Christmas” has its sights set much more grander and wider and in turn, delivers a much more memorable film. Written by Peter Baynham and first-time director Sarah Smith, “Arthur Christmas” essentially incorporates the same basic premise but fleshes it out in much more detail. Here, we learn that becoming Santa Claus is a birthright, passed through generation after generation, with ties to one specific family. Currently presiding over the Christmas holiday is Santa The Twentieth (Jim Broadbent) and this mission will serve as his 70th consecutive trip spreading good tidings and cheer to all the world. With his advanced age and population levels at an all time high, the delivering of Christmas presents is a massive and militaristic operation of epic scope and vision.

Next in line to be the next Santa is Steve (Hugh Laurie), clad in his Christmas-tinged camouflage and sporting ridiculous white Christmas tree facial hair. In this version of events, Santa Claus is nothing more than than the moneymaker, the icon, the image. Steve is the man in charge and his battle-trained and tested elven brigades are the reason why Christmas is efficient, successful and executed flawlessly. Steve runs a tight ship and also created the ridiculously overbearing, but necessary S-1 sleigh/spaceship hybrid. A mile long, this is the new reindeer-powered sled; possessing the ability to blanket the cities it flies over, house countless numbers of elves, reach invisibility with the pressing of a button, and about a million other impressive tricks to make things appear effortless.

James McAvoy voices Arthur in "Arthur Christmas" (Sony Pictures Animation)

And then we have Arthur, voiced by James McAvoy. Kind-hearted with a do-anything-to-help-out temperament, Arthur is the youngest of Santa and Mrs. Claus’ children and a bit of a misfit, bumbling and stumbling around here and there, clad in a wonderfully obnoxious Christmas sweater. Arthur is not particular good at anything but always around and is often the go-between for Santa and Steve, Santa and Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), Steve and the elves, the elves and the elves…well, you get the idea. Arthur, however, is also the one who handles the answering of the letters to Santa, a job itself now outsourced to others because Santa simply cannot do the job anymore. Arthur is particularly taken by a letter from a young girl named Gwen, who wants a new bicycle. He writes her back, but the letter is left behind, resulting in the shocking discovery during a post-delivery audit, that one child was missed. Gwen. And no one knows what to do about the situation.

Under the impressive guiding of Sarah Smith, “Arthur Christmas” soars from here on out, incorporating the stubborn, bitter, and hilarious Grandsanta into a storyline, where at the age of 136, he decides he is going to pull the old reindeer-powered sleigh out of mothballs and deliver the bicycle before sunrise. The film becomes a joy to watch as everyone rushes around trying to find out how to fix an unfathomable situation, but as wild and over-the-top as the adventure becomes, chiseling through all the action and adventure is a story focused on the joys of Christmas, the wonderment in waking up and finding out what is beneath the tree, and the overwhelming joy so many of us have experienced on December 25.

Bill Nighy's Grandsanta steals the show...

The voice work is all top notch, with McAvoy settling in nicely as the all too kind Arthur. Hugh Laurie plays loose and free with his dialogue as the next-in-line-hopeful, but while Jim Broadbent voices a likable and engaging Santa Claus, Bill Nighy steals the film with his outstanding turn as Grandsanta. Even if you recognize the voice, and I cannot imagine you will, Nighy infuses the cane-walking, hunched over retiree with more life and vitality than anyone else in the film. Although in a limited role, Imelda Staunton also has some winning moments as Mrs. Claus struggles to keep her scattered husband focused and on point.

What I loved most about “Arthur Christmas” was the ability to become immersed in it. For an animated film, that is a rare feat but the voice work, the winning screenplay, and the visuals all blend together effectively and stand as another fine achievement for Aardman and their team. Perhaps it treads over a story that has been told before and the 3-D is pointless and unnecessary when it comes to how you see the film, but in all other ways, “Arthur Christmas” is simply a success.