From the studio behind Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep, Arthur Christmas is an under appreciated stocking stuffer that sits next to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation thanks to its mix of holiday atmosphere, fast comedy, emotional heart, and unrelenting reality of a dysfunctional family. When current Santa, Malcolm (Jim Broadbent) isn’t delivering billions of gifts, he’s having an identity crisis before retirement. By family tradition, every Santa passes the torch at the end of their seventieth mission, and he doesn’t know who he’ll be without the title. His successor son, Steve (Hugh Laurie) juggles a military operation, his own warring patience, and a techno-phobic Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), with little appreciation for reinventing the system. And behind the knowledgeable yet underappreciated Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) is the forgotten family klutz and mediator, Arthur (James McAvoy), who wants to see an undelivered present beneath the tree of one Gwen Hines before Christmas daybreak can shatter her spirit.
Sounds cynical enough to poison a bowl of eggnog, but ultimately there’s a lot of emotional depth behind the drama. And it all stems from the family, which everyone can relate to around this time of year, young, old, or stuck in the middle. Generational differences play out like World War II around the dinner table as each Santa bickers about who should be in charge, how Christmas should be handled, and who gets the blame when something goes wrong. Meanwhile, Arthur struggles with his clumsy reputation and his belief in Santa, particularly his father, when he’s forced out of his comfort zone to deliver a present with Grandsanta. Unbeknownst to Arthur, the hilarious curmudgeon has his own motivations for tagging along. The journey itself has many detours thanks to Grandsanta refusing to keep up technology, but the diverse locations provide crazy scenarios involving escape, espionage, and a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Despite their selfish intentions (Yes, even Arthur), every character has a sympathetic desire that should be witnessed rather than discussed. That’s not even mentioning the rapid fire humor approach when the elves start delivering presents. After all, Aardman has their own traditions to keep up on. A million jokes go by in one second in both the foreground and background. Like the holidays, the most memorable moments are the simple actions that seem to go unnoticed.
This is aided by the British voice cast who completely nail their roles with the likes of Imelda Staunton, Jim Broadbent, James McAvoy, and most prominently, Bill Nighy as Grandsanta. When they need to be exaugurated, they go all out in their vocals. But when they need to be down to earth, they play it with sincerity and candor. If only Steve was more sympathetic as the underappreciated hardworking son rather than the quasi-villain. Hugh Laurie gives it everything he’s got, but the writing leaves something to be desired when trying to empathize with his older sibling position. Perhaps a secret bond with Arthur, his polar opposite (pun intended given that they’re in the north pole). It does come about near the end, but it’s too little too late compared to everyone else. That being said, this balances both the stressful pressure and the relaxing atmosphere of the holiday to put a new spin on Christmas. And though it’s oversaturated with current technology, the message remains timeless for all ages.
Naturally, Aardman took a risk alienating their stop-motion roots by utilizing computer animation. In spite of the different medium, the end result pay-off. The character designs match their exaggerated personalities, embodying different shapes and sizes with family history. Subtle character movement also conveys hidden emotions that don’t need words to describe the situation. The animation is also able to conjure what wouldn’t be possible with stop-motion such as water, snow, magic dust, and clouds. However, the years of working with figurines adds many details to the clothes, hair, and animal fur in this open sleigh world tour. Finally, the lighting captures the various moods as Arthur and Grandsanta travel to different locations. The north pole is glossy, the different countries cast various shadows, and the ending has the warm holiday glow when everything comes together for a perfect send off. The animation style might be different, but it keeps the Aardman quality and spirit to transport viewers to another world.
Arthur Christmas was overshadowed by singing puppets and teen wolves upon release, but it is enjoying a resurgence with every Christmas season by those who witnessed its theatrical run. It’s not a television special that copied It’s a Wonderful Life; it’s a unique experience that tries something different since Jon Favrau’s Elf. The family is relatable on all levels, the animation showcases that Aardman polish, the story is layered with humor and wit that only the British can give to us Americans, and the ending encompasses an emotional pay off after dealing with all the holiday stress. If you haven’t seen this yet, there’s still time to appreciate the little Aardman present that could. If you have seen it, make it a traditional viewing every December when family and friends come together to bring out the best in everyone. Because with every viewing, there is always something new that will put a smile on your face this holiday season.