Review: ‘Arthur Christmas’ offers up slight but silly family fun

One thing that makes the long tradition of movies about Santa Claus so interesting is that there is no one accepted story that defines Claus around the world.  Different countries can’t even agree on what the tradition is, so there’s certainly no consensus on who Santa is or what he means.  This means that anyone who wants to can play mix-and-match with various Santa stories from different cultures, or they can just ignore them all and create their own, which makes Santa a particularly fertile icon in terms of storytelling.

”Arthur Christmas” is the newest film from the Aardman studios, and as such it comes with lofty expectations attached.  After all, these are the people who created Wallace and Gromit, two of the most durable characters in modern UK cinema, animated or live-action.  To me, this is a group of artists that I respect as much as Pixar, and when I see something new from them, I hope it’s going to be something that adds to their reputation.  They’ve had a rougher time in features than they did in shorts, but overall, they’ve still got a great track record.

I’ve seen little bits and pieces of both this and their new ”Pirates” project, and it looks to me like funny stuff, technically well done, and all of it depends on context. The basic premise of Santa Claus having children is something that’s been done before. It’s been done many times, and it’s been done both serious and comic, so finding some new riff to play on this material seems like the hardest task here.  I’ll give them credit for this much:  they keep things moving, they keep things funny, and the film moves so fast that any issues I might have with story really don’t matter.  This is a joke machine with just enough heart to make it matter, and that seems to have been exactly what Aardman set out to make.

The film deals with the technical details of how Santa Claus is able to deliver gifts to every child in the world in one night, and the short answer is “He isn’t.”  Instead, it’s become a huge military-style organization involving thousands of elves and a city-sized rocket sled, all orchestrated from the North Pole by Steve (Hugh Laurie), Santa’s oldest son.  He’s the one who had modernized everything, moving from magic to large-scale mobilization, and in many ways, he’s the boss at this point.  Santa (Jim Broadbent) is celebrating his 70th year on the job, something which is passed down from fathers to sons, and he’s happy to just be a jolly figurehead who delivers one ceremonial gift in each city, along for the ride, pleased just to wear the suit.  Steve’s eager to take over completely, and he’s expecting it to happen soon.  Meanwhile, Santa’s youngest son Arthur (James McAvoy) may be the purest believer in Christmas in the family, but he’s such a goofball that there’s little chance he’ll ever be the man in charge.  Instead, he answers letters and he just roots for everyone else from the sidelines, and that’s enough for him.

When Santa returns to the North Pole after his long night out and it becomes clear that one present went undelivered, Steve and Santa both seem happy to let that be an acceptable margin of error.  For Arthur, though, that’s unthinkable.  He can’t imagine that one poor little girl waking up with no present from Santa, and he refuses to simply go to bed and write her off.  WIth the help of his long-retired Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), he gets the old-fashioned magic sleigh and reindeer out of drydock and heads out into the world for his very first adventure, along with Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an elf from the wrapping department who is determined to make sure that present shows up in perfect condition, complete with a bow.

Like most Aardman projects, the sense of humor here is slightly goofy, very verbal and fast-paced, and dry in a way that many American films for kids aren’t.  Even the film’s broadest moments play with a gentle and genteel sensibility that really sets “Arthur Christmas” apart.  It is often very funny, and if there’s really nothing else on its mind, that’s okay.  I don’t think Aardman films are heavy on subtext, and there’s no rule that says they have to be.  They are instead interested more in set-ups and pay-offs, in the way you build a sequence to keep the gags building, and in staging that packs the jokes into the foreground and the background both.

The performances here are strong, and I think Broadbent proves to be just as charming as an animated voice as he is in live-action.  McAvoy’s Arthur is probably the least interesting character overall, which is a bit of a problem.  It’s just the way the character was conceived, though.  Arthur’s a good-natured and amiable guy, and he loves Christmas, and there’s not much more to him.  Laurie’s got a lot more to dig into as Steve, the brother who is ready to step up and run the show, and Bill Nighy absolutely kills it as Grandsanta, irritated by modernization and eager to prove that there’s some fire left in his belly.

Technically, it’s a sharp production, with a real sense of scale, but I miss the hand-crafted quality of the early stop-motion Aardman films.  Sarah Smith, the film’s director, comes from a live-action background in British comedy, and she does a nice job staging the physical mayhem and the character work, and her co-writer Peter Baynham couldn’t have a better resume, having written for both “Bruno” and “Borat” as well as various Alan Partridge projects and “Brass Eye” and “Big Train” and “Jam.”  Despite their edgy backgrounds, Smith and Baynham did not try to make this too adult and they didn’t smuggle in a ton of material that might make parents uncomfortable.  This is aimed squarely at families, and it plays more sweet than edgy.

I think it’s an interesting month for family films, and “Arthur Christmas” is ultimately somewhat slight.  I would say “The Muppets” is more joyous and “Hugo” is more thoughtful and even “Happy Feet Two” is more ambitious, but if you want holiday-minded fare that delivers on the simple promise of entertainment, “Arthur Christmas” is enjoyable enough.  If nothing else, I hope it’s a hit so Aardman can continue to hone their voice in feature films, because I have to believe they’ve got more greatness in them in the future.  And even if they don’t, “pretty good” is nothing to be ashamed of.

“Arthur Christmas” opens everywhere this Wednesday.