Movie Review: Arthur Christmas
The Charlotte Observer
Watching “Arthur Christmas” is like doing your holiday shopping on Dec. 23: fun and frantic, exciting and maddening. You come away feeling warm-hearted and exhausted, wondering if more forethought might have led to a smoother, more satisfying experience.
Aardman Animation has jettisoned the gentle, dryly reflective humor that won multiple Oscars for the “Wallace and Gromit” series and made “Chicken Run” one of the best animated films of the last 15 years. Claymation has been replaced by constant motion. Founding father Nick Park has gone his ways, and director Sarah Smith makes her feature debut instead. (She wrote the script with Peter Baynham.)
Smith comes to this film from television, where payoffs come quickly and regularly and the sin of boredom has no equal. She knows the youthful audience for films like “Arthur Christmas” will fret if the pace stops for more than 90 seconds, so she meets their need for constant stimulation: Reindeer run amok, one of many Santas gets blasted from the sky by a warplane (and lands unhurt, hundreds of feet below, in a garbage can), elves run about as madly as if cappuccino coursed through their veins.
This makes sense during the dazzling opening, a kind of “Mission: Impossible” parody where super-efficient teams of elves aboard Santa’s fleet of gift-bearing ships (which cloak themselves like “Star Trek” vehicles) deliver billions of gifts in one night. But 90 minutes later, after the last stumble and crunch and crash, anyone over 10 may feel in need of a nap.
The movie has a sentimental story; what Christmas fable does not? Santas work for 70 missions and give way to a replacement. The current Santa (Jim Broadbent) has become a foolish figurehead, while son Steve (Hugh Laurie) does the logistical planning and retired Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) longs for the happy days of a wooden sleigh and flying reindeer.
Bumbling son Arthur (James McAvoy) realizes a little girl in Cornwall didn’t get a bicycle, due to a clerical error. No one else cares, but Arthur – who has the job of answering children’s letters to his dad – can’t make merry when even one child will awaken on Dec. 25 with no present. So he sets out to deliver a bike at any cost.
The point, of course, is that he deserves to be the next Santa, rather than his bureaucratic brother. But why? He has never asked for the job, isn’t up to it – unless Steve does all the prep work – and almost wrecks the family’s reputation delivering a bike. He has no more depth or dimension than anybody here.
Smith and Baynham, who’s best known for the snarky jokes of “Borat” and “Bruno,” give only passing thought to adults, whom they try to interest with insult humor. “Reindeer? They’re just dappled cretins with twigs on their heads!” grumbles Grandsanta. Nighy makes the most of such lines, as do all the actors. (Ashley Jensen is especially appealing as elf Bryony, with her pierced eyebrow and Scottish accent.)
The cast includes a host of fine actors who pass unrecognizably before our ears: Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Michael Palin, Laura Linney, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis, Dominic West. Confining them in such brief, nondescript roles is like inviting great chefs into a kitchen to select one lettuce leaf each for a Caesar salad.