Film review: Arthur Christmas (U)

Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy ) and Grandpa Santa (voiced by Bill Nighy) in a scene from Arthur Christmas

Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy ) and Grandpa Santa (voiced by Bill Nighy) in a scene from Arthur Christmas

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‘HARDWARE doesn’t always triumph over tradition,” is one of the odder messages of Arthur Christmas, given that the company behind this 3D CGI animated spectacular is Aardman, which used to specialise in handcrafted plasticine features starring Morph and Wallace and Gromit, until 2006, when it entered the computer animation market with Flushed Away.

‘Hardware doesn’t always triumph over tradition,” is one of the odder messages of Arthur Christmas, given that the company behind this 3D CGI animated spectacular is Aardman, which used to specialise in handcrafted plasticine features starring Morph and Wallace and Gromit, until 2006, when it entered the computer animation market with Flushed Away.

Flushed Away was also the last of their collaborations with Dreamworks, which gave them money but also seemed to constrain their British partner’s gift for distinctive eccentricity. Now Sony is giving Aardman a whirl with a multi-film deals that kicks off with Arthur Christmas.

Reassuringly, there are some local quirky touches here; I would love to know how the rejoinder “I should cocoa” will go down in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, while the front of a well-known British supermarket is given deliberate prominence in one of the final sequences. On the other hand, the film centres on the widely practised event that is Christmas, and an observation which should strike a chord even with Christmas agnostics: namely, that families can be pretty annoying at times.

It turns out that Santa is not one man but a dynasty who pass the operation down the line. The current Father Christmas (Jim Broadbent) is nearly 70 and has been thrust reluctantly into the 21st century by his eldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who has modernised the business of present distribution into a hi-tech affair. In order to get a present to every child by Christmas morning, an enormous red stealth-cloaked spaceship now races across the sky on 24 December (“Converting milk and cookies to biofuel,” announces the ship’s computer) while elves scan sleeping children with “Naughty or Nice” electronic analysers.

All this technology, however, doesn’t stop one child’s bicycle getting left behind at North Pole Corp. When nerdy but nice Arthur Christmas (James McAvoy) discovers the error, he sets out to remedy this with his Grandsanta (an unrecognisable but very funny Bill Nighy) and a wrapping-obsessed elf (Ashley Jensen) using the original Christmas sleigh, drawn by descendants of Dasher, Dancer, John and Bambi. Rudolph is conspicuously absent, largely because he is someone else’s copyright.

Arthur Christmas is colourful, clever enough and action-packed, although since it’s filmed in 3D, it’s inevitable that sleigh scenes devolve into swooping rollercoaster rides. I enjoyed the film’s smaller, more playful bits of business more, such as Grandsanta’s political incorrectness, jokes at Canada’s expense and the brisk efficiency of Mrs Santa Claus (Imelda Staunton).

Maybe Arthur is a little bland as a hero, and a plot thread about Santa’s sleigh sending the world leaders into a panicky UFO alert feels loose and unnecessary, but these are Scroogish points to hold against the film. Perfectly positioned for generating pre-Christmas excitement, Arthur Christmas has charm and a breezy confidence that makes it the epitome of a simple pleasure. v

Rating: ****

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