I don’t review first-run movies here very often because I simply don’t see movies in the theater anymore. Sure, occasionally I’ll hit the multiplex to catch something, but you can count the number of times in a year I see first-run movies on less than one hand. I actually can’t remember the last one I saw, though I suspect it was earlier in 2011.
An exception to my “no theatrical releases” policy is Arthur Christmas, and let me tell you right now that you should make time in your schedule to see this film before it’s gone from your local theater. If you enjoy Christmas movies at all, you will enjoy this movie. You will laugh and be moved and all the things that we say we want from our filmed entertainment. You don’t even need to see it in 3D to get the full effect.
Apparently Arthur Christmas cost $100 million to make. I don’t doubt this, as the movie looks fantastic. Coming from Aardman Animations, the people behind Wallace & Gromit, Arthur Christmas preserves the distinctive look Aardman’s characters have while rendering up a fully computer-animated experience. Unfortunately, because Arthur Christmas cost so much to make, it’s doing terribly in theaters. As of this writing it’s made less than half of its production cost back, which makes it an unmitigated bomb. That’s a wholly undeserved fate. I say again: if you have any love for the Christmas season and movies about it, you really, really need to see Arthur Christmas.
The story is elegant in its seeming simplicity. As the film begins, it’s Christmas Eve and Santa is going about his business. Rather than do the traditional down-the-chimney, one-kid-at-a-time routine that most of us would expect, Santa’s operation is huge, manned by scores of elves and unbelievably high-tech. This particular Santa has served in the office since 1941 and though he still loves what he does, his part in the whole process has been pared down to a purely symbolic role. The bulk of the Christmas present-processing is handled by his son, Steve Claus (voiced by Hugh Laurie), and Steve expects that now that his father has served 70 years in his role, he will be passed the mantle of Santa. Certainly Steve has his fans among the techno-elves.
On what should have been a perfectly smooth Christmas night, something goes awry, and all of Steve’s dreams of a flawless execution are shattered. But it’s not up to Steve to solve the problem. That honor goes to his brother, Arthur Claus — James McAvoy, doing a thoroughly excellent job — though only by default.
Arthur is Steve’s younger brother and rather than work in the operational side of things, the loveably goofy Arthur answers letters to Santa. Arthur is a Christmas true believer, convinced that all little boys and girls who’ve been good during the year deserve a picture-perfect Christmas, present under the tree and all. When that ideal is threatened, he’s one of the only people determined to set things right.
To assist him in his quest, Arthur has Grand-Santa — Bill Nighy, playing a 136-year-old and doing wonderful voice work — and an elf from the Wrapping Division, Bryony (Ashley Jensen). Grand-Santa has very old-fashioned ideas about how to do Christmas, complete with wooden sleigh and reindeer powered by magic dust, but he’s very much beyond his prime. As you can imagine, chaos ensues.
There have been a few Christmas movies that I’ve liked, though there have been far more that I’ve disliked. A recent favorite has been The Polar Express, which my family watches every year, primarily because its traditional Christmas message resonates with all of us. The computer-generated actors in The Polar Express are victims of the “uncanny valley,” however, where they’re almost good enough to be lifelike, but just artificial enough to sometimes be spooky. Interestingly enough, though Arthur Christmas has far more stylized character designs — you would not mistake these people for human beings, as they’re clearly animated people — they seem more real. Advances in computer-animation technology are no joke, and the evidence is clearly on display here.
One of the things that makes Arthur Christmas so special is that it engages our Christmas instincts so perfectly. It may be an unusual story with some surprising twists and turns, but its heart is unabashedly oriented toward the Christmas values we hold so dear: love, family, giving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christmas movie quite like Arthur Christmas, but at the same time I’ve seen lots of them because the DNA of the Christmas film is deeply encoded within their structure.
All of this praise aside, I should say that Arthur Christmas is, sadly, not for everyone. I don’t mean that the movie is schmaltzy, because it’s definitely not. If you have a heart at all, you’re going to love this thing. However, the film is rated PG and for the first time in a long time I think the rating actually provides something of a guideline as to what ages are appropriate to take along to see it. A G-rated film should appeal to the broadest spectrum of child, but a PG-rated film requires a touch more maturity, and that is definitely the case with Arthur Christmas. Sure, there are plenty of pratfalls and action sequences to keep younger kids happy, but the bulk of the movie’s humor comes from the dialogue and characters. If you have an impatient child, those sometimes lengthy scenes of arguing and/or impassioned speeches will leave them wondering just what the adults and older children are laughing about. I could tell whenever my son started to drift from the thrust of the film by the way he would turn to his mother at various points and ask how much longer the movie would be on. He said he liked it in the end and had favorite parts, but they had to do with the action and less to do with subtle jokes like jars of “chimney lube.”
Before I close this review out, let me plead one last time for you to see Arthur Christmas. It’ll be on DVD soon enough, but this is the kind of movie we should reward Hollywood for putting out: smart, touching and funny. You will enjoy yourself if you give Arthur Christmas half a chance. Please do.