Pixar dominates the animation industry so much that’s it’s actual quite easy to forget that there is at least one other animation studio with a near-perfect record of films. Aardman Animation, largely known for the Wallace and Gromit films, have established a distinctive charm, driven by dry British wit, clay, and a visible love for storytelling. Due to its meager success, their last CG venture Flushed Away isn’t as well remembered as it ought to be, the film clear proof that Aardman’s charms go beyond the clay. That is the case as well for Arthur Christmas, a thoroughly lovely present from the storytellers over at Aardman.
Things have changed a bit over in the North Pole. Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) now employs state of the art technology and an army of elves to help him deliver all the gifts to children on Christmas night. His son Steve (Hugh Laurie) has been in charge of modernizing the operation, and is eagerly anticipating taking over for his father. But one Christmas night, the system misses one child. While Steve sees it as an acceptable margin of error, Santa’s other son, the preternaturally clumsy Arthur (James McAvoy), can’t stand the thought of one child without a present on Christmas morning. His grandfather (Bill Nighy), eager to prove that the old ways are still best, dusts off the old sleigh and promises to help Arthur deliver the present before sunrise.
The film gets really inventive as it fleshes out the world of the Clauses. The film opens by posing the question “how does Santa get all those gifts delivered in one night,” and it delights in answering the question as thoroughly as possible. There’s a delightful array of Christmas themed technology on hand, from a giant camouflaged aircraft called the S-1 right down to one gift-wrapping elf’s laser guided scissors. The film also offers hints at the long history of Christmas, slyly mentioning bits of real world events that were affected by Santa’s big operation. It’s all very imaginative and well thought-out, and the film’s world is quite a delight.
The plot itself is a little too loose and a little too driven by wacky antics. The film is best when it slows down and goes back to what it’s all about: the understanding that every kid matters on Christmas, and how even the people most dedicated to Christmas can forget that. The characters reveal surprising depth in these moments, their humanity shining through the broadness of their outward traits. Even through the cartooniness, the film portrays a recognizable family dynamic, full of tension and fear and genuine emotion.
Strong animation gives the film plenty of personality, as does the film’s lively score. The voice performances are excellent. In too many of these pictures, the voice actors seem content to simply speak in their own voice. Arthur Christmas differs in that the actors give the extra effort to give some cartoon personality to their performances. James McAvoy hits the perfect notes of goofy and good-hearted in Arthur. Jim Broadbent is thoroughly fatherly as Santa, with just the right amount of obliviousness. Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Laurie and Ashley Jensen offer up lovely performances as well.
I fear that Arthur Christmas isn’t getting the attention it deserves. I was nearly alone in the cinema when I saw it, the film apparently an unknown quantity to most people. It would be a shame if the film exited theaters early, because it’s quite a good picture. This is the rare Christmas movie that deftly combines heart and wit, balancing the sentimentality that comes with the season with inventiveness and sharp humor. It is still a little manic for my tastes, but it’s a thoroughly delightful film anyway, bursting with holiday cheer.