November 24, 2011

Arthur Christmas

Gullible's Travels

Grade: B +
Director: Sarah Smith
Starring the voices of: James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Hugh Laurie
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

A winterscape of wit and winsomeness, Aardman Animations' Arthur Christmas careens into the well-populated yuletide movie genre but manages to cordon off its own corner of the Santa mythos. The most brilliant stroke of Peter Baynham (Borat) and director Sarah Smith’s screenplay is reimagining the title of Santa Claus as a royal lineage, an ancestral birthright passed from father to son over generations.

The current Kris Kringle (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is a detached old elf on the verge passing the crown to Steve (Hugh Laurie), his eldest heir and already the de facto Santa. Steve, sporting a Christmas-tree groomed goatee and Versace camouflaged tights, has modernized the gift assembly and distribution process with military-type precision, including elves who rappel commando-style into kid’s homes and parking the wood sleigh and reindeer in lieu of a mammoth hovercraft named the “S-1.”

When mechanization fails to deliver a new bike to Gwen in the tiny hamlet of Trelaw, England (not Mexico, as several characters will discover), Steve chalks up the mishap as an acceptable margin of error. This does not sit well with Arthur (James McAvoy), Santa’s goofy, diffident son, whose throwaway job of corresponding with “Dear Santa” letter writers coincides nicely with his idealistic notions of Christmas.

So, Arthur and his crotchety Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) dust off the old, lead paint-covered sleigh and embark on a trip to Cornwall deliver Gwen’s gift before sun-up and the child’s disappointment. The journey routes them through Canada – “Nobody lives there,” explains the eldest Claus – and as many unintentional detours as their faulty GPS suggests. While a seemingly impossible task, Grandsanta reminds Arthur “They used to say it was impossible to teach women to read!”

Indeed, the presence of the pure-hearted yet daft and out-of-date Grandsanta alludes to the male-centricity of the Santa lore and the traditional holiday stories that have sprung around it. The lesson of Arthur Christmas is not progress is bad, but that progress that forsakes one’s core values isn’t progressive.

The celebrity voice-work is terrific throughout, particularly McAvoy, Broadbent and Nighy, who all adapt splendidly to the animated medium. The story speeds along at an over-caffeinated pace, which nearly makes for sensory overload when coupled with the 3-D visuals. But, it also knows when to slow down and balance the silliness with sentimentality. Clever enough to support repeat viewings, Arthur Christmas is a cinematic gift that keeps on giving.

Neil Morris

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