Reviewing an animated family Christmas film is rather like looking at a small child’s enthusiastic doodle – you try really hard to say something positive and glowing about it but feel wicked if negative thoughts pop into your head. It’s probably the toughest thing to do in this job, and sadly, does depend on your view of the silly season. You can take extra confidence in knowing that Arthur Christmas comes from very British and respected stock, Aardman– with a little Sony influence. So it’s not a bad result at all.
Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is the youngest son of the Christmas family who run the festive season each year from the North Pole in a military-style, super-high-tech fashion, thanks to older brother Steve’s (Hugh Laurie) technological advances that have superseded the old-fashioned sleigh and reindeer or yesteryear. But when the system fails, and one small child in Cornwall doesn’t get the bike she’s asked Santa (Jim Broadbent) for this Christmas before the sun rises on Christmas Day, Arthur, along with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), Bryony the packing elf (Ashley Jensen) and an assortment of retired reindeer, make it their mission to make sure she does.
In one respect, the story bears all the signs of other past, overcooked turkeys: something goes horribly wrong with the smooth functioning of Christmas, and someone has to bail everybody out. It’s all designed to provoke festive team spirit and save the annual ritual. Thankfully, because Arthur Christmas has been laced with Aardman’s dry wit, it doesn’t go down the Disney/Pixar sentimental, moralistic route that’s as nauseating and sickly sweet as eating too much Christmas pud. In fact, its contemporary writing style is evident within the first scene’s monologue that will have a few adults nodding and smiling (knowingly) in agreement: How DOES Santa get the job done on time?
In another respect, the ugliness of corporate progression/greed assisted by technology has also been visited before, from the likes of Miracle on 34th Street to Fred Claus. Writer-director Sarah Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham cannot ignore this sentiment though, especially as people’s growing redundancy is very topical at present, in times of austerity when money is tight. All that Arthur Christmas does is take these anxieties and look at them within the context of inter-family relationships in a family business context, with Arthur being the old-school nostalgic we all secretly crave to remain like, while Steve is the corporate climber we all fear, but cannot ignore. It’s a great portrayal of family differences being emphasised at the time of year when we’re all expected to get along.
But much as the same ingredients are present and some bloating happens around the middle, there is a distinct and endearing whiff of determined Blighty to this film – even Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton) looks and acts like Her Majesty, the Queen, with the hilariously un-PC Grandsanta like Only Fools’ Uncle Albert who steals all the scenes with his risky actions and even riskier views. It’s just pure Nighy, upping the ante and lending his voice to another lovable Christmas rogue, after Love Actually’s colourful Billy Mack character.
Fans of Aardman’s animation style will still see traces of their Plasticine predecessors in the physicalities of the characters (pertruding ears, manic toothy smiles etc), but not the stop-motion lumps and bumps of the
Wallace & Gromit masterpieces. This is smoother and slicker – as one might expect with Sony in tow, but easier on the eye than, say, the frenetic actions of The Incredibles. It is bathed in colour and detail though (we watched the 2D version), and there are hours of fun to be had taking in all the background elf jokes in the North Pole scenes. It even gets to venture to the African Serengeti with some wonderful flying wild animal scenes and set-pieces. And for the sci-fi kids out there, the space-aged, futuristic references will absolutely thrill.
Arthur Christmas is a guaranteed festive tickler with the magic Aardman touch, complete with some very real characters and issues. Totally clued and plugged into to gadget generation, it’s sure to be a massive Christmas hit for years to come.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie