A little girl writes to Santa and asks some age old Christmas questions, including the one about time management — how does Santa get to all the world’s children in one night? She follows up with one that has a funny, post-Palin ring to it: If you live at the North Pole, why can’t I see your house on Google Earth? Arthur Christmas, the new animated film from Aardman Studios (the creators of Wallace & Gromit), is about the frantic rush to deliver a mislaid present to this skeptical girl from Wales (named Gwen, not Virginia) lest she stop believing in old Santa Claus.
The movie itself is in a rush as well, at least initially, as it presents a Mission: Impossible style explanation for how packages get delivered to 600 million children in one graveyard shift. It’s all very inventive and busy, eye candy that makes the Monsters, Inc. factory look small and quaint, but at the same time, owes much to that Pixar classic. Conveyer belts laden with gifts whizz around command central while a space craft that resembles Star Trek’s Enterprise (except mega-sized and bright red) hovers over the world’s great cities. Elves in Ninja-style clothing rappel out of it to deliver packages. Hand-held devices slurp up the milk that’s been left out for Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) and take bites out of the cookies; no detail has been overlooked.
The whole enterprise is captained by Santa’s supercilious older son Steve (Hugh Laurie) whose goatee cut in the shape of a Christmas tree stands testament to his dedication. His ambitions are so naked he’s got a Versace Santa suit hanging in the closet, waiting for the day when his “non-executive figurehead” father finally steps down. Steve assumes he’ll inherit Santa’s title – his younger brother, Arthur (James McAvoy) is too clumsy, easily distracted and sentimental to run this kind of operation – and soon, because his father has had the job for 70 years. But Santa is reluctant to leave behind the glamour and the glory, having heard an earful from his cranky father, GrandSanta (Bill Nighy) about the tedium of retirement.
If you love Wallace & Gromit, the brilliant series of shorts that established Aardman as the wittiest people to ever play with clay, then Arthur Christmas, directed and co-written by Sarah Smith, may seem a disconcertingly different animal. The clunky look of Wallace and Chicken Run is part of their joy; their almost-ugly primitivism is both kid-friendly and pleasingly out of sync with the sophistication of its humor. But Arthur Christmas, like Aardman’s Flushed Away, is both more refined and less distinctive; it looks like every other classy animated film for kids. It could just as easily be a Pixar or Dreamworks product. That’s not an insult; when Gwen’s wished-for bike falls off the conveyer belt, mischievous GrandSanta convinces Arthur to come with him on a race against the clock to deliver it by dawn on the equivalent of the family’s old Model-T, a sleigh that travels 45,000 mph. In 3D, the sleigh slicing through the Northern Lights is dazzling; I heard an genuinely awed “awesome” from a young audience member as it swooped low enough to fly through a maze of icebergs.
At that second, as my stomach underwent the kind of roller coaster flip the filmmakers intended, I couldn’t disagree. But the movie is less great than good. Arthur is an old familiar, the amiable guy who nobody expects much from. He even looks like Linguini from Ratatouille, except clad an awful Christmas sweater. GrandSanta is a more classically Aardman character, wickedly irreverent or perhaps just oblivious to decent standards. I laughed at almost everything he said and expect I missed half his rapid fire, heavily-British accented jokes. “At least have the decency to finish us off with a rock,” he bellows at Arthur as his grandson walks away from him after a crash landing. Both Nighy and Broadbent do wonderful, richly funny voice work.
The bigger issue is mostly a matter of taste. While reveling in its cleverness, I found the relentless imposition of modernity on the Santa myth a mite depressing. As GrandSanta’s sleigh gets into trouble in various corners of the world, much of the action is filtered through the lens of talking heads and news crawls. Everyone is equipped with iPad or iPhone-like devices. In crisis, Steve yells “Get me I.T.” (One for the parents.) There is this oppressive feeling of the information age bearing down on Christmas legend, leaving no room for old fashioned escapism.
Arthur Christmas is not ultimately a cynical movie – it comes together sweetly and rather movingly at the end – but it springs forth from a place of cynicism. Santa is a figurehead and an egotist at that, who is fine with heading off to bed with little Gwen still awaiting her gift. His work ethic suggests a fat and rather lazy cat — he might even be a 1 percenter. Think of the questions the modern day Virginia might have after seeing Arthur Christmas, with its persuasive take on how things really work. In wedging the legend of Santa so neatly into the parameters of modern culture, Arthur Christmas squeezes some of the joy out of it. The time of believing in a Santa-produced Christmas miracle is so very brief as it is, it’s a little sad to foster a vision of it as a Federal Express operation staffed by elves with Tom Cruise moves.
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