A co-production with legendary Aardman Animations, the film is a welcome addition to the Christmas-movie oeuvre and will likely become a seasonal favourite, destined to rerun every December alongside old chestnuts like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
The story, which is clever and imaginative and spirited, centers on the secrets of the North Pole – specifically, how Santa manages to get himself around the entire world in one night, delivering presents to billions of children. Turns out, it’s a pretty sophisticated operation. While Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) traverses the globe in what looks like an alien spaceship, his beefy eldest son, Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie), holds down the epic-sized, super-high-tech mission-control fort. Steve is all about efficiency and computers and calculations to optimize performance, and poor Santa – who’s kind of become an absent-minded figurehead – just smiles and tries to pretend he knows what’s happening.
Meanwhile, brimming over with joy and Christmas spirit, Santa’s younger son, Arthur (voiced by James MacAvoy), toils aways in his tiny, well-decorated office in the mail department. There, he personally answers as many letters from children as he can, and his dedication to his work is rivaled only by his supreme love of December 25th.
But a tiny oversight on Christmas Eve leaves one child’s gift undelivered. Steve thinks it’s no big deal and points to his success-rate percentage; Santa is too pooped to saddle up for a last-minute run; but Arthur – and millions of elves – consider the error positively apocalyptic.
Aided by his crusty old Grandsanta (voiced by Bill Nighy), who clings to his own glory days as Santa and longs for one last gift-giving hurrah, and a feisty wrapping elf named Bryony (voiced by Ashley Jensen), Arthur decides to take matters into his own hands: he’s going to step out of the mail room to deliver that forgotten present himself.
Misadventures and mishaps ensue in what is a super-entertaining story that boasts laughs elicited from really clever writing instead of potty humor or pop-culture jokes. In fact, unlike so many animated offerings of late, Arthur Christmas is (I’m thrilled to report) entirely devoid of cheap pop-culture mentions and asides. A talented voice cast (which also includes Imelda Staunton, Laura Linney, Michael Palin and Joan Cusack) helps create an array of colorful characters, and the 3D aspect of the film actually didn’t bother me.
Most importantly, woven through the story is a subtle but undeniable reverence for the holiday and its traditions – in this movie, liking Christmas a whole lot is not only cool, but endearing. Arthur is so filled with good intentions and an eagerness to carry on Christmas traditions, you can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy as you watch him do his thing.