The old adage of “don’t judge a book by its cover” may be used to the point of cliche, but it does ring a good deal of truth. Case in point, Arthur Christmas may look like your run-of-the-mill Christmas-themed animated film from a glance. But if you take the time to delve into it, Arthur Christmas proves itself to be a genuinely touching animated feature.
Perhaps the fact that Arthur Christmas comes from Aardman – the studio behind the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep series – should have tipped me off to its quality. But the fact that Arthur Christmas is among the studio’s CG output, as opposed to their more famous stop-motion features, coupled with the Christmas theme (all too often a recipe for recycled plots and bland characters) gave me my doubts. But Arthur Christmas is certainly the best of Aardman’s CG features, and in a time when most Christmas films seem to be becoming more cynical and, strangely, merging with the raunchy comedy sub-genre more often than not, Arthur Christmas is probably the most sincere Christmas film in recent memory.
Arthur Christmas does continue some trends of past Christmas flicks. Most notably, it tries to find a means to “modernize” the whole idea of Santa Clause. Though unlike most of the Christmas movies that came before it, Arthur Christmas actually comes up with a charming means to successfully bring Santa up to date.
In Arthur Christmas, Santa Clause is more of a title passed down through the patriarchal family that runs the North Pole, as opposed to the name of a singular individual. The twentieth and current Santa is Malcolm (Jim Broadbent), who is in his seventieth year on the job. His father, simply referred to as Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) is long-retired and a bit cooky. Malcolm’s sons are Steve (Hugh Laurie), the most tech-savvy and efficient member of the family, and overdue to being given his father’s title, and Arthur (James McAvoy), who is well-meaning and cheerful, but his clumsiness has resulted in him getting the “safe” job of answering children’s letters to Santa.
By this point, the reindeer-pulled sleigh of Grandsanta’s time has become obsolete. Now, Santa and an army of elves travel to the different countries of the Earth on Christmas Eve via the S-1, Steve’s gargantuan flying fortress. Santa, now being passed his prime, only needs to deliver a single gift to each visited city, as the more nimble elves can more easily deliver most the gifts under Steve’s direction (Santa is even escorted by a number of elves just to deliver his minimal gifts).
The new setup seems foolproof, until a miscalculation results in one present not being delivered on Christmas Eve. Neither Malcolm nor Steve are willing to deliver the present. Malcolm clings onto his title of Santa Clause – despite an expected retirement – for the love and adoration that comes with the job, but is too elderly and tired to be bothered by one gift. Meanwhile, Steve, disheartened that he has been denied the title of Santa Clause for another year, despite doing all the hard work, doesn’t have the motivation to deliver the gift (“the S-1 takes up a lot of power, and there’s no need to waste it for a single child”).
Arthur, being more innocent and hopeful, can’t understand the idea of Santa missing out on even a single child on Christmas, and is desperate to find a means to deliver the present. Luckily for Arthur, Grandsanta is looking for one more chance to shine, and the two of them – along with a gift-wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) – dust off Grandsanta’s long-forgotten sleigh and round up the reindeer to deliver the gift themselves.
Of course, the trip won’t be easy, as Arthur doesn’t know the first thing about traveling around the world, and Grandsanta’s memory and sense of direction aren’t what they once were. Not to mention the sleigh is more than a little rundown, making for an even more turbulent trip around the world.
Admittedly, even with its originality, the plot may be a bit on the predictable side. But while you may be able to guess the ending, the film succeeds for the fun Arthur, Bryony and Grandsanta’s adventure provides, and for the dimensions it gives to its characters.
Most Christmas films go the easy route when depicting jolly old St. Nick, and simply showcase the jovial and giving aspects of the character and call it a day. But Arthur Christmas does a great job at showing some extra depth in all four of its Santa Clauses.
Malcolm, the current Santa, has lost his passion for the job, and simply sticks around for the glory. Steve wants to prove himself as a worthy successor to his father and a visionary for reinventing how Santa does his job, but is also vain and a little selfish. Grandsanta not only provides comic relief and crazy old man antics, but also has questionable motivations, as he seems to be helping Arthur equally as much for his own ego as he is for the sake of doing the right thing. Even Arthur, who is admittedly simplistic by comparison, works well in winning over the audience’s sympathy, and in making the whole plot work. Someone has to care about a forgotten child on Christmas after all, even if Santa himself doesn’t. Because of the added character dimensions, the emotion at the heart of the film rings all the louder.
On top of all of this, the film is also very well animated. I admit that watching an Aardman film that doesn’t utilize stop-motion can seem a bit odd at first, but Arthur Christmas quickly wins you over with a visual vibrancy that is consistently impressive. It may not match the sheer technical sheen of a Disney or Pixar flick, but it’s not too far off, and the character designs are fun (I find Steve and his Christmas tree-shaped goatee especially amusing).
On the whole, Arthur Christmas is certainly one of the most enjoyable Christmas films to be released in quite a long time. It has a sincerity to it that many holiday movies of today completely disregard, and the characters, humor and originality at hand are entertaining enough that you may forget that you’re watching a Christmas movie, and simply get sucked into watching a great film.