Arthur Christmas

25 Jan

Title: Arthur Christmas
Year: 2011
Director: Sarah Smith
Writers: Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith
Starring: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Will Sasso, Joan Cusack, Robbie Coltrane, Dominic West, Andy Serkis, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez
MPAA Rating: PG, some mild rude humor
Runtime: 97 min
IMDb Rating: 7.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Metacritic: 69


Yesterday morning the Oscar nominations were announced and the Best Animated Feature line-up was comprised of Rango (which was a strong A- for me), Puss in Boots (a B+), Kung Fu Panda 2 (a slightly higher B+) and two films I haven’t seen, Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris. After seeing Arthur Christmas today, all I can say is that this film should have seriously been nominated in that category. It’s a really clever film from Aardman Animations (their first under their deal with Sony) and in it you see the studio that gave us Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away broadening its sense of humor a bit, even though it’s still mostly more witty than plain funny, but what surprised me the most about this film is that the studio showed more heart than they have in the past, a perfect fit for a Christmas movie.

It’s a super busy film, that much is true, and that opening sequence in which we are introduced to how Santa and his army of elves work may feel a bit too frantic at times, especially if you see it in 3D which makes it all the more aggressive, but once the story is established and you get to see how upbeat this whole thing is you’ll start loving Arthur Christmas. This is, it must be noted, the first foray into 3D from the Aardman team, so you can expect some tricks to be used only to play with that added dimension as the film aims to explain how exactly it is that Santa gets to deliver all of those presents in one single night, going to the North Pole and examining how his non-stop, high-tech operation functions. But at the heart of the film, and what really made it work so damn well, is the fact that it’s your typical Christmastime movie, with a dysfunctional family, a member of which who will have to save the day, and a great deal of heart in it.

I remember when Flushed Away premiered a lot of Aardman fanboys, myself included, were a bit skeptical of what was to come out of it. What was going to happen when the studio dabbled in CGI and strayed away from their impeccable use of handmade clay animation, which in some of their shorts still has traces of the thumbprints of the animators and which gives them a homey sense of love that goes along great with their image of being a small English studio. But the classic British humor, full of well thought out wit and dry remarks, transitioned just as well in that 2006 film. And, like I said, the humor is kind of broadened here in Arthur Christmas, they were definitely trying to reach out to a wider audience, to get Americans to fall for their impeccable style and execution, and unless Americans are dumb, they should have succeeded.

As frantic and busy as the first ten minutes are, it is fun seeing how the North Pole operates in this film, with Santa Claus, voiced by Jim Broadbent, ready to retire and hand over the reigns (literally and figuratively) to his eldest son, Steve, who’s voiced by Hugh Laurie, who runs the yearly operation like a military commander, overseeing that every little thing is done the right way before they board the S-1, a huge sleigh-shaped spaceship from which a million elves descend to deliver the presents and collect the milk and cookies that the ship converts into biofuel. However, something has gone wrong this year and a single little girl in Cornwall didn’t get her present this year, something that Santa and Steve see as a regrettable loss but one from which they must move on.

Arthur is Santa’s other son, voiced really well by James McAvoy, and he’s the sentimental one, the one who really loves Christmas and cherishes it as the earnest tradition that it is and not as a military operation like his brother does. So he and his grandfather, a former Santa himself, who’s voiced really funnily by Bill Nighy, decide to get on a traditional wooden sleigh with a reindeer and deliver that little girl her present in time for Christmas. And of course there’s a lot of sentimentality in those parts of the movie, and it can get kind of sappy at times, because it is after all a holiday film in which our hero is in charge of saving the day and that states that everyone should get their presents and be happy. But for every ounce of niceties and typical good-natured rules it follows, there’s also an ounce of the dryness that defines this studio, of the rule-breaking naughtiness, provided by the Grandsanta and by some of the elves.

I really liked Arthur Christmas, I know I’m seeing it a full month after the actual holiday, but it was still a tremendously fun time, a film that has a seriously terrific cast of actors lending their voices to a great slew of characters that, even when they’re one-joke personalities, are just awfully charming because of how they’re animated and written. Aardman Animations is going kind of mainstream, you could say, abandoning the claymation glories for the 3D/CGI arena, but they’re keeping the dryness of its humor and the technical mastery of their animation, which is all that matters, and I’m already looking forward to The Pirates! In an Adventures with Scientists, their April release that promises to deliver just like this one did.

Grade: A-


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