Making films about Santa Claus is difficult business. Besides the fact that he mostly plays to those under ten, the very act of Santa Claus-ing is hard to make cinematic. But the wizards at Aardman animation figured out a way to crack that nut: it’s about Arthur Christmas (voiced by James McAvoy) the younger and goofier son of the current Claus (Jim Broadbent), who loves Christmas more than his diligent but mechanically driven brother Steve (Hugh Laurie). in what feels like a snuck out release, Christmas has real charm and should become a seasonal perennial.

The Players:

The Plot:

The Clauses have a flow of work. The elves do most of the building and organizing, while son Arthur (McAvoy) responds to letters and Steve (Laurie) deals with the tactical operations. Steve’s work is so smooth that Santa (Broadbent) has very little to do, except act as a figurehead. But on the completion of this Christmas Santa upsets the order by not retiring and passing the reigns over to Steve. Arthur then finds out that one gift hasn’t been delivered, and with the prodding of Grandsanta (Nighy), the two dust off the reindeer and go to deliver that one forgotten package. As they do, all heck breaks lose back at the North Pole

The Good:

  • It’s about Family and Pride: The film is mostly about pride, as Steve feels he’s been snubbed by his father, who doesn’t understand all the work he’s done, nor that he’s become a figurehead of little relevance to the work itself. But through his bureacratic ways, he’s also become innured to the joys of Christmas. Santa is so impressed with himself that he’s no longer aware of all the work that goes into making him look good, while Grandsanta just wants to prove that he’s still got it. These relationships are very much tied to Christmas and how people deal with what should be good holiday cheer. Only Arthur understands what Christmas really means, and even if you don’t believe, it’s still an affecting story because it’s about innocence and how that is the real meaning of Christmas.
  • Flights of Fancy: Many of the Reindeer get sidelined during their adventures, which leads the world to think there’s UFO’s come to earth, and Arthur and his grandfather end up in the Sahara dessert at one point, having to escape lions, and spray pixie dust over the native population. These sequences take the film into giddy heights of fantasy, and it enlivens an already solid piece of work.
  • Great Casting: All of the voice actors are perfect in their work and give smart nuanced performances. Part of that is the story, but Imelda Staunton’s performance as Mrs. Claus berings great life to a smaller role that could have been nothing.
  • Clever Scripting: There must be a drive for making Christmas oriented family films, but the people at Aardman, and director Sarah Smith crack the story and made it something special. I went into the film wary of a film that celebrates Santa Claus, but by the end was cheering along the story. As a minor Grinch, that’s a great success.

The Bad:

  • Not Much: Really, this is a smart film about Christmas, which may make it minor, but it’s still perfectly engaging.

Overall:

As someone who has a strong distaste for much of the pagentry of Christmastime, it takes something special to rise above the numerous pointless terrible attempts at dressing up the holiday for cheap sentiment. Arthur Christmas does.

Rating: 8.0/10

Arthur Christmas opens November 23.

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