At 97 minutes, Aardman Animation’s Arthur Christmas is a rollicking fun adventure, and is refreshingly shorter than most other tent pole animated features that run well over two hours. This CGI gem is as delightful as a children's book that one wants to read aloud over and over again. It isn't classic storytelling by any stretch, but it's the best one I've seen in quite a while.
Fulfilling the promise they showed in 2005's Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit, Aardman has made another hysterical visually striking feature. The film triumphs over most other Santa-centered comedies because it doesn't feel familiar. For the most part, Arthur Christmas provides a superb blend of thrills, characters and crackerjack humor that keeps both kids and their parents amused and engaged throughout. First time director Sarah Smith and the animators whip out a lush 3D look and a consistently fun story that boasts enough bombastic bravura effects to keep everyone entertained. What’s more, this is one of the best ensemble voice casts for such a movie - in addition to James McAvoy and Hugh Laurie, there are Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton for company.
Free of the schmaltz of The Polar Express, Arthur Christmas answers a most interesting question - how does Santa Claus deliver all those presents around the world in a single night? Santa (Broadbent) no longer relies on magic dust for a lone floating sleigh and reindeers; he helms a full scale military operation, complete with futuristic hovercrafts, cloaking equipment and an army of black ops style soldier elves. Santa is on the verge of retirement, and mission control chief Steve (Hugh Laurie) is set to take his place. All hell breaks loose when it is discovered that one present was left undelivered – to complete the mission Arthur Christmas (McAvoy), Steve’s brother joins forces with his 135-year-old granddad Grandsanta (Nighy) and Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an adventurous elf from the wrapping division.
In most animation movies the biggest hurdle for older kids is the imbalance between the ‘social message’ portions that champion values of kindness and the big money action thrills. It's a disparity that hurts all animation movies including the Pixar films, because the gap between their visually sophisticated fun and their conformist text is inevitable. Arthur Christmas mostly escapes unscathed, and commands terrific artwork and ingenious color scheme, with superb backgrounds and set pieces. It also offers awesomely grandiose views of the logistics of Santa Claus’ high tech operation, including commander elves who direct field agents in real time to dodge insomniac kids and nosey pets.
The second half suffers from an overwritten scenario, but it’s easy to ignore that thanks to the wryly English sense of humor – a charming blend of erudite sarcasm, goofy gags, and dollops of silly slapstick comedy. Grandsanta is an absolutely hilarious character, an irritable old man who constantly gives you examples of how things were different and better back in the days when he was Santa. Indeed, Arthur Christmas is pure fun from start to finish. Do watch.
(First published in Mid Day)