Right down Santa Claus Lane
Given that "Christmas" is right there in the title, Arthur Christmas is surprisingly less of a holiday movie than you might think, and much more of a standard-issue CGI cartoon based heavily on the Pixar model, right down to the third-act slapstick chase that quickly morphs into a warm and gooey sentimental ending. It is, admittedly, an animated film that takes place almost entirely on December 24th and 25th, and most of the main cast are either Santa Claus or his immediate relatives. So in a strictly literal sense, there could not be more of a holiday movie that did not primarily deal with the nativity of Jesus Christ. But if you take away all the red and green trappings, it's basically an animated family adventure-comedy comme un autre. A damn good one, at that; in fact, one of the best animated features of 2011, a year that has proven extremely rough for the form after 2009 and 2010 witnessed such a huge number of animated classics-in-waiting and little masterpieces. This is not the right place for thoughts on that matter, though.
The film opens with a little girl named Gwen (Ramona Marquez), from Cornwall, writing a letter to Santa in which she asks a number of cute questions ("Why don't I see your house on Google Earth?" is a knockout line, clever and modern without being annoyingly hip) before getting to the real stuff, which is a pink sparkly bike. Her letter is answered, with an intense surfeit of enthusiasm, by Santa's son Arthur (James McAvoy) - and if I may take a moment, I'd love to know what his family name is meant to be: I know in Britain, the man that Americans customarily call Santa Claus is also known as Father Christmas, but it's not clear whether that makes it Arthur Christmas or Arthur Claus, and if "Santa Claus" is the title of the individual who is at that point holding the office. It is a sign of how well the filmmakers built their world that such a petty issue seems like something that ought to have an answer - where was I? Right, with Arthur, who loves Christmas more than anything. In the grand tradition of animated protagonists, though, Arthur is something of a screw-up, and he is kept far, far away from the heart of things, the massive Mission Control center where his elder brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) directs the Christmas Eve gift-giving operation like a huge military campaign carried out by the city-sized hovercraft S-1, on which thousands of elves and Santa himself, known to his family as Malcolm (Jim Broadbent) ride around the world in just a few hours.
The high-tech efficiency of the operation is surely impressive, but it meets with the abject dismissal of the previous Santa, Malcolm's father (Bill Nighy), annoyingly referred to as "Grandsanta" throughout. It turns out that he has a point, too, for one tiny accident results in a single present - Gwen's sparkly bike - being left undelivered. With Steve preferring to bury this infinitesimal mistake and Santa having already gone to bed until the 26th, it falls to Arthur, Grandsanta, and a keen elf in the wrapping department named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) to drag the old low-tech sleigh out of mothballs and fly off with eight untested reindeer, risking the wrath of Steve in the process. "No child left behind!" says absolutely nobody, and the writers Sarah Smith (who also directs) and Peter Baynham earned all my respect just for that. The thing writes itself from here (madcap accidents on the way to everything working out for everybody), but the screenplay is sufficiently full of witty asides and ingenious conceptual touches that it's honestly just not that easy care if the whole thing is a bit on the familiar side. I will say this: the film tricked me by not using the whole "mechanized starship vs. rickety wooden sleigh" theme as a way of arguing that Christmas is all about doing things according to tradition, at least not in a straightforward way.
Arthur Christmas is the fourth feature (the first in five horribly long years) by Aardman Animations, a wonderful studio that probably cannot ever make enough other projects to stop being identified as "the company behind the Wallace & Gromit shorts", which says a lot more about those shorts' durability than anything else; for the four features have all been awfully sharp, clever things, mixing pop culture references, slapstick, sentiment, and far more intelligence than any American studio is likely to feel comfortable in supplying to a children's movie. I'm also inclined to call it the best Aardman feature since Chicken Run all the way back in 2000, with all due respect to the charming but overlong Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and the overly polished Flushed Away; it has a more ebullient sense of humor and playfulness, and while it's disappointing that it's CGI, not stop-motion, there's less than no value in complaining about that sort of thing.
Besides the archly silly sense of humor, one might not instantly realise that this was an Aardman film at all - it doesn't have the Aardman look, exactly (you know, the thing they do with teeth), but it still has some pretty fantastic design: the characters look squishy and fleshy in a cute way, but with just enough idiosyncratic quirks (big, gnarly noses; Arthur's slight case of acne, Bryony's eyebrow ring, which might be my favorite detail of character design in any 2011 animated film) to avoid being cutesy. Santa's wife (Imelda Staunton) looks and moves like she was made of plastic, but she stand out like a sore thumb on account of it, surrounded by a whole cast of fantastic-looking co-stars. It is, in short, one of the best-looking - and more importantly, one of the most fun-looking - of the year's animated films, a much better showcase for Aardman's animation in the computer realm than Flushed Away, and a damned miracle given that Smith has never directed animation before - nor anything other than television comedy, in fact - and does an absolutely magnificent job of handling the film's sci-fi action, its character comedy, and the warm rosiness that overlays all of it, as though this was what she was born for.
The sentiment is, perhaps, the film's weakest angle, admittedly (and for this reason as well, something about feels somehow not-Christmas), but it's a fantastic enough comedy to make up for it: this is what happens when you cast celebrities in an animated picture based on their being top-notch British character actors, I suppose, and not Hollywood stars who don't actually have distinct voices, I am looking at you DreamWorks, and every single woman in every single one of your films. Which is to say, the actors have a field day with their roles, and the script gives them enough great lines to make it work: what is most surprising about Arthur Christmas is not that it is beautifully animated nor that it is the most conceptually rigorous animated movie of the year with the most fascinating world (its idea of hereditary Santas is kind of like the Easter Bunny kingdom of Hop, only without the part where it is indescribably horrible in every possible way - I do think, however, they could have given their chronology one more glance to get the dates exactly right), but that it is, legitimately, one of 2011's funniest comedies, animated or live-action or shadow-puppetry. It lacks the sweetness of touch to be a future holiday classic, but as a delightfully silly cartoon adventure... I can name at least one family that will be introducing it into their annual December viewing rotation, at any rate.