Making a truly classic Christmas movie is a feat that few achieve but many try their hand at. In recent years, studios have cynically tried to graft "edgy" material onto all-audiences Christmas approaches, often times involving Vince Vaughn for reasons that remain obscure, and the results are barely watchable trash-heaps like "Fred Claus" and "Four Christmases." The trick is to modernize an archetypal story for current audiences without losing the seasonal sweetness (there's a reason "Elf," for all its mediocrity, is so beloved). Aardman Animation and Sony have attempted to do just that with "Arthur Christmas," a surprisingly rollicking, visually dazzling, and emotionally rich Christmas movie that actually succeeds in its lofty goals of being an ready-made annual classic. It's practically gift wrapped for the occasion.
If you aren't feeling the movie initially, stick with it. As it opens, we're introduced to the inner workings of the North Pole, circa 2011. Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) is less a mischievous mythological icon and more a tactical military leader, with a massive, UFO-like space ship (roughly in the shape of his anachronistic sleigh) and a team of elves that act with the sharp precision of Seal Team Six. In a nifty visual gag, Santa's space ship hovers over major cities. Looking up at it, the ship's underside looks like a star field, until you realize that each star is a tiny opening the elves use to zip down to earth, sneaking through security systems and slyly evading dogs and restless parents.
Santa has two sons who help with his operation: Steve (Hugh Laurie) is a forward thinker who runs the North Pole's NASA-like mission control center (he wears fatigues patterned with blotchy Christmas tree shapes) and has designed many of its technological upgrades, and Arthur (James McAvoy), sweet and easily excitable, is responsible for writing letters to the millions of children who ask Santa for gifts. On the big night Arthur is more of spectator.
One of the things that sets "Arthur Christmas" apart from more saccharine holiday tales is the way that Santa is depicted. He might be a jolly mascot for ceremonial giving, but at home he's aloof, cold, and emotionally distant, especially to his two sons. (Steve is under the impression that this year it'll be announced that he's the new Santa, instead his father stays on for an extended, Bloomberg-like term.) It's a hard emotional edge for a glittery family film to have, but it's totally refreshing and shockingly real. There's a wonderful moment around the dinner table, family photos framed in glassy ice that is hilarious and awkward and should be instantly familiar to anyone who's ever had to share a holiday meal with their extended family.
When Arthur discovers that a lone child has been missed and tries to alert his family of the situation, Steve reacts with clinical detachment (calling it a "glitch") while Santa can't even be bothered. Instead he turns to his doddering Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), who agrees to help Arthur, but for possibly unscrupulous reasons. Grandsanta shows Arthur that the old school Christmas magic is very much alive: the original sleigh, once slated for incineration, still exists, and the descendants of the original eight reindeer are still kept at the North Pole. With the help of a small, wonderfully ambiguous elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), the motley crew takes off on an adventure to right the wrong of an overlooked child, using the most lo-fi, rudimentary technology available. And it's a blast to watch.
The film was produced by Aardman Animation, the British studio behind "Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and "Chicken Run," and it crackles with their signature wit. There were worries that when Aardman was teamed with DreamWorks Animation that DreamWorks would often force them to soften the "Englishness" of their productions, instead forcing them towards perceived Americanized "universality." This is clearly not the case here, where loving culture specificity abounds (the Anglophiles out there will be very pleased). Instead of mimicking the look of their stop-motion animated features (something that they did on the overlooked "Flushed Away"), Aardman has created an entirely new aesthetic – while the awkward, cartoony character design has remained, things are slicker and more streamlined, with virtually every surface, texture, and shape paying homage to Christmas in some fittingly clever way.
But as dazzling as "Arthur Christmas" looks (and, truly, there are some sequences that will take your breath away, even without the augmented 3D), it's the bittersweet core of the movie that leaves the lasting impression. For all of Arthur's gung-ho spirit, he's tragically undervalued and never given a proper place within the competitive family dynamic. In short: he's a goof. And he's the only character in the family who isn't trying to deliver this present for some selfish reason. He's not looking for career advancement or media attention he just wants to do the right thing. As embodied by McAvoy, who has softened his edges considerably for the role, Arthur is a pure distillation of the Christmas spirit: he's all shimmery good will towards men and selfless joy. In the wrong hands, it could have been bland and uninteresting to watch, but under the watchful eye of co-writer/director Sarah Smith, the character is multidimensional and utterly engaging.
Without the melancholic strains, "Arthur Christmas" would have been a zippy holiday fable, but with them it approaches the status of instant Yuletide classic. This is going to be a movie that families will treasure for many decades to come – the opening technology stuff, while at times bearing an uncomfortable closeness in tone and style to Disney's "Prep and Landing" short films – isn't so time-specific as to become easily dated, and the rest of the movie, with its mixture of clumsy human emotions and gleeful high-flying adventure, is pretty peerless. It's good, for goodness' sake. [A-]