ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011) (***1/2)
The holidays have different meanings to everyone. For better or worse it's usually a time for family. Now from Aardman Animations, the creator of WALLACE & GROMIT, comes a modern look at Santa and his family. What we find out is that even good ole Saint Nick has a dysfunctional family.
Being the big guy in the red suit is a Claus family tradition that has been passed down for generations. The current Santa (Jim Broadbent, IRIS), however, is more of a figurehead these days. The one-night present delivery enterprise has been streamlined by his heir apparent, his oldest son Steve (Hugh Lurie, TV's HOUSE), a military type hunk with a Christmas-tree-shaped goatee. Steve has the elves working like special ops soldiers who can get a package in and under the tree in a matter of seconds.
Santa's other son Arthur (James McAvoy, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS) is the opposite of his older sibling. He loves Christmas like a child, but his clumsiness has relegated him to the letter response division. After the gifts have been delivered, he tries to get his family to play Christmas the board game and the fight over who will get the Santa player piece underlines the resentments between fathers and sons... and grandfathers. Grandsanta (Bill Nighy, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST) is over 130 years old and turns up his nose to the giant rocketship that passes for a sleigh these days. Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton, VERA DRAKE) calmly watches it all from a distance with the ability to take charge when called on.
When the elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen, GNOMEO & JULIET) finds a missed present during clean-up, she alerts Steve, who seems unfazed because one missed gift out of the millions of gifts properly delivered is a great success rate. But when Arthur finds out he is aghast. One little girl will wake up on Christmas day believing that Santa doesn't love her. Grandsanta decides to break out the old sleigh named Eve and the reindeer and get that present under the tree with Arthur and Bryony along for the ride.
At its core the film addresses the loss of the Christmas spirit in the holidays, but it is never made too obvious or maudlin. Arthur is the one who keeps it alive and his simple joy is all we need. The others have other motivations. Santa likes being Santa because of the status, even though he has long handed over the day-to-day operations to a younger guy. Steve is that younger guy who has lost the point of the family business at some point while patting himself on the back for being so much better than the older, out of touch guys. Grandsanta just wants to prove that the old ways are better. Arthur has to battle against these family conflicts and his own self doubts, but he gets some help from the plucky Bryony, who is the best gift wrap elf around. Her belief that there is always time for a bow is unflappable.
Coming from Aardman there is certainly a dose cheeky British humor, but this isn't just for those who say happy Christmas. This is a film about the awe of gift giving and family. For those who don't even celebrate Christmas, they can relate to the family dynamics and how they come to a head during holidays. Humor is mined from this conflict much like A CHRISTMAS STORY or HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS.
As a new take on the Santa myth, Sarah Smith's film does take ideas we have seen before, but does so in a fresh way. The elves slick operation and skills are unmatched in their ingenuousness. They really have a plan for noisy toys and their battery removal when a child is stirring and could blow the entire mission. The contrast of the modern military like operation and the magic-infused way of the past doesn't seem more obvious then when you find out what Grandsanta used as primitive stealth mode in his time.
With a perfect voice cast, this animated adventure comes to life with characters we love and relate to. To its great credit, there is no bad guy here. There are only three men who have lost sight of the meaning of the season and need to start seeing it through the haze-free eyes of Arthur. As an unsentimental, and yet joyous, celebration of Christmas, this smile-inducing comedy has the ability to become a perennial must-see for the holiday season.