If I'm being honest, I'm not really the most "Christmassy" person around. Oh, I do love the day and the get together with family and the eating and the drinking and the merriment and the food hangovers and the hangover hangovers and all of that. I'm just not big into the constant Christmas songs in every store you walk into; the forced Christmas jolliness with the blatant and cynical cash-ins like Christmas albums and... yes, Christmas movies.
However. Arthur Christmas is from Aardman animation, the delightfully English company behind the quietly brilliant Wallace & Gromit shorts (and feature film) and I had heard good things about Arthur Christmas. Opting for eye normalising 2D, I dared this Christmas film to entertain me. And, dammit. It did.
In Arthur Christmas the role of Santa is one passed down from father to son for generations and Arthur (James McAvoy) is the clumsy and well-meaning youngest son of the current Santa (Jim Broadbent). His older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) is the man in charge - he oversees Christmas night with military efficiency, ensconced in a high-tech war-room/mission control at the North Pole. However when one little girl is missed from the Christmas Eve delivery, Arthur is the only one who cares. So with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and enthusiastic wrapping elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) in tow, he sets out to make it right.
The strength of Arthur Christmas is, perhaps unsurprisingly, in its lead character of Arthur. In a family of Santas, he's the only one who still has a spark of Christmas joy and spirit about him. He enthusiastically answers every letter to Santa and absolutely believes in the magic of Santa and Christmas and James McAvoy successfully conveys his bumbling warmth. His brother Steve only sees Christmas eve as a job, a gargantuan task that he has perfected with technological precision. He's bucking for the top job and sees the passing of the red hat to him as a foregone conclusion. While his father, the current Santa, should really be retired. He's happy to take the glory but uninterested in the actual workings or any problems that crop up - such as a missed child. If it wasn't for Broadbent's warm voice-work, this Santa could have come across as too cold and uncaring instead of lightly pompous. In fact, excepting Arthur, the Santas are the least "Christmassy" folk around. They're too busy (like most families, as various Christmas films tell us) caught up in their own arguments and jibes at one another.
For the most part, the film is a delightfully English affair, with well placed English voice actors and moments of silly English humour that Aardman does so well. It is gentle and eccentric, with a couple of laugh-out-loud scenes but certainly nothing worth busting a gut over. Also, in my somewhat cracked estimation, the film would have benefited from a few well placed puns. The weakest link in the rambling, rollicking story comes with an ill-fitting "Santa's sleigh mistaken for an alien spacecraft" subplot. Even stranger as it's Santa's original sleigh, rather than the exceedingly high-tech UFO-like S1 used in the opening scenes. It's an all but unnecessary sidetrack and adds very little to the overall film. The scenes are far too brief and feel too hurried to really add anything except a forced obstacle. You can't help but feel it was included to help sell the film to an American audience.
Despite being Aardman's second computer animated film (as opposed to their usual claymation), the look and feel of the characters is identifiable as the work of Aardman animation. You don't need to see the thumbprints in the clay to feel the care put into Arthur Christmas.