Arthur Christmas Review: Lack Of Presents

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (U): On General Release Friday 11th NovemberAardman Animations have only got themselves to blame.  Their past films have scooped more awards and acclaim than you can shake an animated stick at, so they’ve got a high bar to aim for. While they’re the undisputed masters of claymation (Wallace and Gromit, Creature Comforts), their foray into CGI entertainment has been less successful (Flushed Away) – somehow there’s an inherent charm that’s lost in the medium.Such is the case with Arthur Christmas, an entertaining but ultimately disappointing Christmas outing.In this world, Santa is revealed to be nothing more than a figurehead, the hereditary heir to the title in a long line of Clauses which stretches back for over a hundred years.  The latest incumbent (Jim Broadbent) is close to retirement with his successor likely to be his supremely efficient, if cold, son Steve (Hugh Laurie).  But when a child’s present goes undelivered, the only one who seems to care is Santa’s hapless other son Arthur (James McAvoy).

The whole business of Christmas is treated like a gigantic corporation.  Steve delivers presents in a gigantic mile-wide spaceship and the delivery of presents is like something out of Mission Impossible – whole battalions of elves descending on towns and dropping off presents like Christmas Ninjas.  With such a massive operation, they’ve forgotten the heart and so Arthur, aged curmudgeon Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), an unshakeably keen wrapping elf (Ashley Jensen) and the world’s oldest reindeer set out on a mission to make sure than no child gets left out.

It’s a welcome update to the Christmas myth and a knowing nod that modern kids are working out the truth about Santa much earlier than they have in the past (a letter disbelieving in Santa because the speed at which he’d have to travel would cause him to burn up due to air resistance is a perfect example of a child’s persistent need for answers).

Unfortunately it takes quite a bit of time to warm to its protagonist.  Arthur is an uncoordinated mass of flailing limbs and terrible novelty slippers and while he’s played as a well-meaning fool, his disruption of his brother’s plans is actually incredibly annoying.  If you’d spent ages meticulously crafting a sandcastle only to have it kicked down by a bungling twerp, you’d be pretty justified in being annoyed.

Grandsanta on the other hand is likable immediately.   A perpetual complainer and crafty schemer, he spouts borderline offensive socially unacceptable one-liners and is constantly amusing.  It’s a shame that the rest of Arthur Christmas is so uneven.  For an Aardman production, you’d expect there to be more charm and more knowing intelligence but its storytelling wobbles perilously in the middle where the Claus’s lose their way (and even goes so far as to recycle a joke which wasn’t that funny to start with).

This being a Christmas movie, it’s keenly aware of all the saccharine festive tropes that accompany the season but does very little to subvert them.  Consequently, a lot of the humour feels stale and familiar.

It’s visually impressive but that’s something to be expected from a joint Aardman/Sony collaboration.  Everything is bright, colourful (much more so in the 2D version), festively decorated and will keep younger viewers amused but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the character designs or their characterisations.  It features a long list of celebrity cameos but as none of them are attached to any memorable characters, it’s almost impossible to pick them out.

There are many nitpicks but overall Arthur Christmas is a fun festive movie suitable for all the family.  Criticism seems harsh but that’s only because you’d expect something special from the studio that gave us Wallace And Gromit.  Aardman complained of studio meddling when they worked with DreamWorks on Flushed Away.  There’s similar evidence that Sony have been muddying the creative waters here too.

Can’t get enough Aardman? Check out some of their greatest hits.

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