Arthur Christmas (review)
Sufficiently Advanced Christmas Magic
Oh lovely movie! Oh lovable movie! Oh holiday movie that fills me with Christmas spirit even though it’s 60 degrees out and dear god can’t they just wait till December to start with the tinsel and the tunes just one year please!
I love Arthur Christmas like I haven’t been doing my best to ignore the red-and-green greeting cards in the shops since August.
What makes Arthur Christmas work in a way that does not make me wish it were January already please can it be over I’m so sick of it is that there is nothing saccharine here. Is there sweet? Absolutely. But it is cut with funny: sometimes wicked, sometimes manic, often hysterical, always clever funny. And a whole lotta poignant, too. Because it mixes modern ennui over the whole overhyped shebang with longing for days when it was all more honest and heartfelt (as if Christmas didn’t get commercialized and crazed 30 seconds after commercials were invented; Ebenezer Scrooge was fed up with it already in the 1840s). We are all Arthur, poor charming bumbling Arthur (the voice of James McAvoy: X-Men: First Class, Gnomeo & Juliet), who struggles to simply enjoy the giving and the joy and the fun amidst the rigidly mechanized and schedule-to-keep Christmas that grips even the North Pole.
Well, of course it grips even the North Pole! How else could Santa Claus possibly get prezzies to millions of children all over the planet in a single night except through the highly militarized operation his eldest son, Steve (the voice of Hugh Laurie: Hop, Monsters vs. Aliens), leads like General Schwarzkopf running Desert Storm? Arthur Christmas opens in the middle of this year’s Christmas run, during which armies of ninja commando elves drop from an invisi-shielded warp-speed “sleigh” that looks more like the starship Enterprise than something reindeer would want to get anywhere near. There’s little old-fashioned magic here — it’s all the ship’s computer (the voice of Laura Linney: Man of the Year, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) announcing “Converting milk and cookies to biofuel” and How does Santa get into your house? There’s an app for that!
It’s wonderfully insane, Christmas Eve gone action comedy, and for this opening sequence alone, we should praise Sarah Smith, making her feature debut as director and cowriter (with Peter Baynham: Arthur, Bruno), and the always fantastic Aardman animators. For even here, in the middle of the glorious chaos, Arthur Christmas is bursting with Christmas spirit. As in the blink-and-you-miss-it bit in which a soldier elf scans a sleeping child with his tricorder, is horrified to discover that the child registers as less than 50 percent Nice (that is: Naughty), and so scans himself so that his automated equipment will spit out some toys for the kid anyway. (The elf? He scans as 82 percent Nice; hmm, what sort of Naughty would an elf get up to?) It’s an exquisitely humanist moment. Or elvenist. Or something. I love it for its pleasing deviousness, as if to suggest that no one doesn’t deserve a present from Santa on Christmas morning, that no one could ever be that Naughty.
Which is what drives the rest of the story. For in the excitement during a moment of tension — Santa is about to be spotted by a child in the middle of one of his token appearances during the night! and the elves must extricate him! — a present is misplaced. Which means a child is overlooked. And when Arthur, dear kind geeky Arthur, learns of this, he is appalled. This must be rectified. No child should be without a present from Santa on Christmas morning. But there’s only two hours till sunrise! Steve insists it’s an impossible mission. Santa — aka Malcolm (the voice of Jim Broadbent: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Damned United) — is exhausted, not just from the evening’s work but from 70 years of this, and agrees: Steve may never have ever had any real Christmas spirit, but Malcolm has apparently forgotten it in his weariness with the whole business.
Fortunately, Arthur has it. Bryony, Wrapping Operative Grade Three (the voice of Ashley Jensen: Gnomeo & Juliet, How to Train Your Dragon), has it. Even Grandsanta (the voice of Bill Nighy: Chalet Girl, Rango), 136 years old and a most outrageously un-PC old coot, still has it. They will try like heck to get that one last gift under the right tree before dawn.
Arthur Christmas is crammed like all manner of clever visual details, big and small, like we expect from Aardman, from Steve’s red-and-green camo and Christmas tree-shaped goatee to the beautifully stylized faces and bodies of every character onscreen (including the enormous number of individualized elves). But it’s in how those details serve merely to deepen the story on every level — make it funnier and sweeter and wiser and weirder than it might be — that is so special. The family drama at the North Pole is hilarious because it is so recognizable (Imelda Staunton [The Awakening, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1] as the voice of the supremely efficient and patient Mrs. Santa is a quiet wonder). Bryony — hyper and punkish and scarily dedicated to her work — is instantly one of the great cartoon characters ever.
The whole magnificent package itself underlines its own splendid message: that technology is fun and fantastic and a hoot to use, but without a human touch, it’s pointless. It evinces a touching tetchiness both about technology and our own knee-jerk aversion to it as automatically dehumanizing. It harnesses its own exasperation with the derailing of a holiday to reclaim it by bringing the fantasy of it into the modern world, instead of insisting that they cannot coexist.