14 November 2011


Christmas movies peak and trough like most other sub-genres, and Arthur Christmas proves to be the most instantly rewatchable festive family fare since Elf. After voyages to the uncanny valley with Robert Zemeckis, in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, this one comes from Aardman Animation, the geniuses behind Wallace & Gromit, and it probably arrives so early in cinemas in order to avoid the glut of markedly un-festive animated sequels and spin-offs next month.

Putting yet another spin on the question of how Santa Claus gets presents to all the houses around the world in just one night, we see the North Pole as the hub for a militarised gift-delivering operation on Christmas Eve. Santa has two sons who oversee the operation- heir apparent Steve, the lieutenant who runs Christmas from ground control, and Arthur, whose boundless enthusiasm for the festive season sees him relegated to answering chidren's letters. However, the high-tech operation suffers an infinitesimal margin of error when one child in Cornwall doesn't receive a present, and Arthur is determined to make things right.

The most impressive thing about Arthur Christmas is the way in which it gets going right away, with a dazzling opening sequence that sees Santa at work all over the world. In a massive camouflaged spaceship, elf commandos are deployed across cities, to deliver presents to sleeping children. Like the recent Tintin, all necessary exposition comes organically, but this one also proves that you don't need to make a huge pioneering advance in animation to pull off a well-designed action sequence, reminiscent of the elaborate inventions that Wallace and Gromit produce.

The major difference from Wallace & Gromit is, as with Flushed Away, that the film is rendered in CGI, rather than in the characteristic stop-motion animation. If that invites direct comparisons with Flushed Away, then Arthur Christmas is undoubtedly a less transatlantic production. Though not as Brit-centric as The Curse of the Wererabbit, all of the imagination and idiosyncracies of the studio remain present and correct, with intricate sight gags such as a can of "chimney lube" raising huge laughs for observant viewers.

The film also measures its Santa dynasty as an analogy of the royal family, whereby the only real antagonist is Steve, voiced by Hugh Laurie, who is practically ready to take on the big red suit, but not yet emotionally responsible. Arthur, as our protagonist, is more naive and bedazzled about Christmas, and yet too clumsy to do anything useful himself. Elsewhere, the current Santa, Malcolm, is voiced by Jim Broadbent, which automatically aligns itself with a more dopey and affable personality. And Grandsanta, clearly modelled on Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses and raucously voiced by Bill Nighy, is a retired Father Christmas- think of him as the film's Prince Phillip.

Aardman have covered Christmas before, with the Robbie the Reindeer TV specials, but while Arthur Christmas is more British, it's also got more of a timeless sense of humour. It's not only the cast and the production values that have been improved from those shorts, but also the script by Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham. It's not a better film than The Curse of the Wererabbit, nor is it a funnier film, but then I don't believe in looking at all of Aardman's work from the high watermark of Wallace & Gromit and marking down from there. And this studio certainly makes a better Christmas movie than many have.

Arthur Christmas has all of the charm and much of the humour that you expect from Aardman. Its bravura opening, which is akin to a kid jumping out of bed on Christmas morning to open their presents, is inevitably countered by what feels like an afternoon of eating and playing board games in the second act. But it's got more than enough imagination to muster a second wind and leave you with a smile on your face by the time the credits roll. It was good enough that I didn't mind seeing it in November at all, and I'll definitely revisit this enjoyable new spin on a much-pondered premise before the year is out.

Arthur Christmas is now showing, in 2D and 3D, at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Arthur Christmas, why not share your comments below? Also welcome- remembrances of those Robbie the Reindeer specials. Discounting the letdown of the third instalment, the first two are cracking Christmas specials.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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