Arthur Christmas breaks no new ground as an animated 3D film, but as a twist on the Santa Claus legend, it’s charming, clever, and often times quite funny – too funny, at times, for really young children. What new things can we possibly learn about Jolly ol’ St. Nick? For one thing, there has never been just one of him; the name Santa is, in fact, a title that’s passed down from generation to generation. We also learn that technology has evolved up in the North Pole just as it has with the rest of the world.
In the twenty-first century, Santa’s sleigh has been replaced with a gigantic spaceship, the underside of which has the ability to mimic the sky. In their cavernous North Pole headquarters, elves sit in front of computers while gigantic screens display flight information. Other elves walk around with PDAs.
On Christmas Eve, presents are delivered via a military operation so precisely organized, it puts Disney/Pixar’s Prep & Landing to shame. Thousands of elves descend from the ship on cables. They wear black ops uniforms and shout code names to one another. They have a wide variety of high tech gadgets; one can scan a person’s head and determine the percentage of naughtiness and niceness, while another can cleanly cut into a wrapped package, penetrate the toy’s box, and remove the batteries. If there’s an emergency, such as a Waker (a person that wakes up before Santa and/or the elves have a chance to leave the room), they resort to any necessary means of escape, such as faking the sound of a passing semi truck. These little guys know what they’re doing.
The current Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) has just completed his seventieth Christmas, and despite being constantly tired and increasingly disengaged from any particular situation, he says he’s looking forward to his seventy-first. This disappoints his efficient but arrogant son, Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie), who feels that the old man has had his day and that he should be the next in line. Meanwhile, Santa’s other son, the clumsy but high-spirited Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy), sits all day in the mail department answering letters to children all over the world. He’s particularly fond of one letter from a little girl named Gwen (voiced by Ramona Marquez), who lives in Cornwall, England. She believes in Santa, but she’s admittedly baffled by the logistics. How exactly can he deliver presents to billions of children all over the world in just one night?
A mix-up at North Pole Headquarters results in one present not getting delivered. Lo and behold, this would be Gwen’s: A bicycle. It seems Santa was a little too premature in putting up that “Mission Accomplished” banner (yes, you know exactly what I’m talking about). Steve, not wanting to cause an uproar, says nothing to the elves and thinks the matter should be dropped. After all, who cares about one insignificant little girl? Everyone else got their presents, didn’t they? This does not sit with Arthur, who believes every child should have a present to open on Christmas morning. No child left behind (and again, you know exactly what I’m talking about).
Arthur is encouraged by his cheeky 136-year-old Grandsanta (voiced by Bill Nighy) to deliver the present himself. However, it will be done the old fashioned way – with a vintage sleigh and the descendants of the eight original reindeer, who all conveniently have the same names (although Grandsanta can only remember three or four, and one of them he mistakenly calls Bambi). Grandsanta hates new technology. It was all better in his day. Arthur, despite being afraid of everything, decides he must save Gwen’s Christmas before sunrise. Tagging along is an elf named Bryony (voiced by Ashley Jensen), who can gift-wrap anything in a matter of seconds, with enough time left over to put on a bow. So begins a high-flying adventure, made possible by magic dust created out of the Northern Lights. Several drastic detours will be made, the sleigh will eventually be mistaken for a UFO, most of the reindeer will get lost, and Steve and Santa will inevitably catch wind of the situation, stirring up a bitter family feud.
Although the film is bright and cheery enough for children, it’s obvious to me that many of the jokes were written with their parents in mind. Consider one hilarious moment in which Arthur, Grandsanta, and Bryony find themselves zooming through the streets of Toronto; Grandsanta casually observes that absolutely no one lives there, making it ideal to quietly pass through on Christmas Eve. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; the parents deserve a laugh just as much as the children, especially if they pay extra for a 3D presentation. I certainly enjoyed the humor in Arthur Christmas, but I also enjoyed the animation, the renderings, and most of all, the plot. Call me sentimental, but I agree with Arthur – little Gwen deserves a present just as much as all the other children on earth.