It’s rare for me to laugh out loud, repeatedly, during a movie these days, but 'Arthur Christmas' gave me that welcome opportunity. It is so ingenious, endearing, and downright funny that it instantly joins the ranks of first-class holiday movies, intended for viewers young and old. I even enjoyed the use of 3-D in this felicitous collaboration between Aardman Animations (the folks who brought us Wallace and Gromit) and Sony Imageworks.
I also admire the fact that the film retains a distinctly British personality, and the kind of odd, eccentric character design we’ve come to expect from Aardman. There is nothing remotely conventional about the look of these figures, including Santa Claus, which reminds us that we’re watching a cartoon—not a replica of real life. (Credit goes, at least in part, to Peter De Seve, the gifted artist and illustrator who has done design work for Blue Sky and Pixar as well.)
But it’s the clever story, by Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith, that lifts this film above the norm. Santa, it turns out, holds a hereditary position, and the current man filling the post (delightfully voiced by Jim Broadbent) is getting a bit old. His likely heir is his son Stephen (Hugh Laurie), who supervises the ultra-modern, highly efficient operation that enables him to deliver millions of presents around the world in just one night. But it’s the jolly man’s other son Arthur (James McAvoy) who retains the sincere sweetness to answer children’s letters to Santa. And it’s he who teams up with the doddering Grand-Santa (Bill Nighy, channeling his inner Spike Milligan) who steps up to the plate when it’s discovered that one child hasn’t received her toy on Christmas Eve.
The voice cast (which also includes Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Claus and Ashley Jensen as a determined elf named Bryony) is so exceptional that simply listening to' Arthur Christmas' is a treat. If there were an award for best animated voice ensemble they would win in an instant.
The opening sequence, establishing the methodology of Santa and his army of elves, is a bit frantic, especially in 3-D, but once the story-proper begins the staging and timing are right on the money. If I had my druthers I’d prefer seeing all Aardman films populated with clay figures like Wallace and Gromit, but I can’t complain when this movie makes such engaging use of CGI.
It doesn’t seem possible after such an unexceptional year that we could get three wonderful family films (this 'Hugo', and 'The Muppets') in the same week, but I am not inclined to look this gift horse in the mouth. Let’s just say that our holiday presents have arrived early.