I’ve always been slightly perplexed when people ask “How does Santa deliver all his presents in a single night?” It’s as if the possibility of a fat and jolly gentleman who lives in a hostile climate and has consumer goods made by an army of elves is completely plausible, but there’s no getting around the physics of the delivery. And if that’s the hang-up, then why not simply answer back, “Magic,”? Aardman Animation’s Arthur Christmas has fun indulging the question of “How?” but knows that it can be funny and heartwarming if you let Christmas night be magical.
Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) has become a bit of a figurehead, and left his sharp and detail-oriented son Steve (Hugh Laurie) to the hi-tech mechanics of delivering all of the presents, while his sweet and clumsy son Arthur (James McAvoy) is tasked with answering the letters to Santa. Steve is the favorite to take over for Santa when Saint Nick retires, but after his “successful” worldwide military-like campaign, Steve has missed one child. Steve convinces Santa that one child doesn’t matter when you look at all of the kids who got presents. But Arthur’s deep love of Christmas and making sure children believe in it sends him on a mission with Grand Santa (Bill Nighy) and adorable wrapping elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) on the old magic sleigh to make sure the child gets her toy before sunrise. Along the way, Arthur has to conquer his fear of heights, high-speeds, and reindeers.
It’s easy to be cynical about Christmas because it’s a consumer driven holiday, and it’s tough for some (i.e. everyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas) to understand why songs like “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” create warm and fuzzy feelings.* Arthur Christmas washes away every ounce of cynicism you may feel towards Christmas and replaces it with Arthur’s energy and enthusiasm. Through Arthur’s wide eyes, Christmas becomes about giving and the belief that someone you’ve never met cares about you so much that they’ll travel the globe to bring you a gift.
The genius of Arthur Christmas is that it doesn’t simply give itself over to Arthur’s way of thinking. Instead, the movie finds a perfect counterbalance with its irreverent, goofy humor and dry wit. Arthur is unmistakably British in its comic sensibilities but not to the point where it would alienate non-British audiences (unless saying “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas” crushes your soul, in which case I recommend you ask Santa for a better soul). Arthur gets to run around with his delightfully weird, googly-eyed slippers and talk about the magic of Christmas, while Grand Santa is the off-color foil who wants to make Steve look stupid and has no problem threatening Bryony’s life.
Director and co-writer Sarah Smith not only creates wonderful characters with Arthur and Grand Santa, but she lets the world come alive with thoughtful and clever details that will give the film have a long life on Blu-ray. Smith and Aardman color the world with fun little decorations like the red-and-green Christmas trees that make up camouflage on Steve’s uniform, the Christmas tree-shaped goatee on Steve’s face, and even having his enlisted rank insignia be in the shape of a Christmas tree. If the Academy wasn’t so narrow-minded, Arthur Christmas would have a serious shot at Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction. This is a film you’ll want to own (and the 3D is nice, but the film will work find without it) so you can rewind and find all the little jokes placed throughout.
Even more impressive is that Arthur Christmas willingly puts itself into a hole** by having to prove that its opening scene is entertaining but not in the spirit of the holiday. Under Steve’s direction, the elves are no longer simple builders of toys, but a full-scale army operating under different departments such as the Navy SEAL-like infiltration brigade who leave the gifts, the Bryony’s aforementioned wrapping department, and the Apollo 13-inspired mission control center. Santa delivers the occasional gift, but really it’s the elves and Steve’s battle plan doing all of the work. The film gets big laughs out of this set-up, but then has to change gears and prove Arthur’s pure-hearted, lo-tech way is the one that matters.
But letting Arthur and Grand Santa carry the theme causes Steve and Santa to be underdeveloped. The film goes out of its way to let us know Steve isn’t a villain and he means well, but there is some selfishness at work and while there’s nothing explicitly unforgivable about his actions, there’s not much good in him either. And as for Santa, there’s not much at all. He doesn’t seem to truly appreciate either of his sons, and he’s a reactive character who never seems to have any opinions of his own. We’re left to wonder why Arthur admired him so much in the first place.
Thankfully, Arthur Christmas isn’t about how Santa got his groove back. It’s about showing the difference between a symbol and a mascot, and why one is more important than the other. The mascot is the guy in the red suit and if you see him only as an icon, then you can be distracted with the question of how this jolly fellow goes about his business. And it’s a fun distraction. But if you move past that and get to the idea of Santa Claus and why children love him (and if you can set aside your cynical reaction of “Because kids are greedy bastards, that’s why!”), then you’ll receive the more uplifting and enjoyable gift Arthur Christmas delivers.
*I also don’t understand the religious aspect since Christmas was originally a pagan holiday that was re-appropriated to celebrate the birth of Jesus even though we don’t know when Jesus was born and we certainly don’t know it to a particular date.
**Sony makes the problem far worse by adding a Justin Bieber music video before the feature. This is in no way the fault of the movie, but it will put everyone except 12-year-old girls in a bad mood, and have the audience groaning before Arthur Christmas even begins. If I worked at Aardman, I’d be livid at this addition.