The UK-based Aardman Studios, a sort of across-the-pond version of Pixar, has been an acquired taste in its 11-year history of stop-motion and computer-animated moviemaking. Their first release, 2000's "Chicken Run
," was quirky and heartwarming in the best sense of both terms, while 2005's "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
" and 2006's "Flushed Away
" left something to be desired, over calculated slapsticks with a quarter of the charm intended. Aardman's latest release, the madcap holiday romp "Arthur Christmas," may hold a less apparent ruthless British edge to its comedy, but that's okay. This particular story, which dares to answer the question of how Santa Claus can fly around the world dropping off presents for all the little girls and boys in one night, calls for a warmer, gentler touch. More than that, it's every bit as clever and impressively detail-oriented as most Pixar releases. There is nothing "thrown-together" about it.
Nestled deep within Santa's living quarters at the North Pole, Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) happily works in the mail room, reading and answering letters from children across the globe. An honorary elf in that he's the younger son of the currently reigning Santa Claus the Twentieth (Jim Broadbent), the tall, clumsy, irrepressibly cheerful Arthur is nonetheless treated as something of an outcast amidst the thousands of other little helpers around him. When it is discovered that Santa has somehow overlooked the delivery of a pink bicycle to a girl in Cornwall, England, Arthur is mortified when elder brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) assures their father that missing a single child is no big deal. Arthur knows better. With the crotchety, semi-senile Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and plucky, eyebrow-pierced elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) in tow, he hops aboard the old-fashioned, recently retired sleigh and reindeer (these days they use a massive, technologically advanced spaceship to get around) and set off for the small town of Trelew. They'd better hurry; there's only two hours left until sunrise.
"Arthur Christmas" was written and directed by Sarah Smith and co-written by Peter Baynham (the latter, having previously penned 2011's "Arthur
," presumably has a thing for Arthurs). An insider's look at the early-morning hours of Christmas within the Claus family, the film does not confront some of the more nagging questions people might logistically have about Santa. Time zones, for example, aren't taken into account, and how each gift and corresponding child are kept straight during the packaging and delivery operation is left vague. By the same token, Arthur's misadventures on his trek to the home of little Gwen Hines (Ramona Marquez) leave certain minor plot threads dangling. All of these negligible nitpicks don't really make a lot of difference, anyway, in the face of how winning the picture is overall. Far from just a movie for kids, this is a wry but emotionally earnest animated feature that talks down to no one and is sophisticated enough to steal away the attention of adults just as much as little ones who still believe in Santa Claus.
The sly humor runs the gamut, from one-liners with pizzazz to background details that prove the filmmakers were paying attention and thinking ahead about multiple viewings (love the "Chimney Lube"). The loving but dysfunctional family dynamic of Santa, Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton), Grandsanta, and siblings Steve and Arthur are amusingly observant as they attempt to unwind by playing "Christmas: The Board Game" and argue over the game pieces. When Grandsanta goads the current, less personal process of delivering toys via spaceships and elves, Steve archly retorts, "We don't just fly around throwing lead-painted toys down chimneys anymore." As the race against the clock gets underway, the film never loses momentum because there's always some new conflict or roadblock to face. An inadvertent stop in Mexico and a precarious fly-through in Toronto are especially inspired.
"Arthur Christmas" is imaginatively crafted and its computer animation is divine. With its wide-ranging international locations and seasonal color scheme, watching the film once doesn't quite seem like enough. While it might have been nice for the story to take more time to concentrate on the true spirit of Christmas over the act of receiving presents, the Claus family ultimately learn to put their differences aside and be there for each othera lesson all children would do well to learn. This includes the stubborn Steve, who yearns to take over his father's job title but finally must admit that Arthur is a better fit as the jolly, red-suited big guy. For anyone into more traditional holiday fare over Harold and Kumar
's crasser, cannabis-laden antics, "Arthur Christmas" earns its stripes as this year's festive cinematic go-to.