Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2011

Arthur Christmas

Christmas with the Clauses

At last, a Christmas comedy that's actually funny

Arthur Christmas
Columbia Pictures
Director: Sarah Smith
Screenplay: Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham
Starring: The voices of James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Ashley Jensen, Laura Linney and Michael Palin
Rated PG / 1 hour, 37 minutes
(out of four)

Arthur Christmas is one of the great surprises of the year - one of those rare animated films that refuses to dumb itself down to make sure it reaches its intended demographic. A nicer way to say this (and I hope a more accurate one) is that it trusts its audience, both children and adults, to be sophisticated enough to keep up.

This is not to say the movie is convoluted in its plotting, purpose or message - it isn't. But it is quite relentless in its comedy, its small ironies constantly rushing past in the midst of an onrush of elaborate setpieces. I'm sure I've mentioned this at length in past reviews, but I'm always impressed when I see a children's film with this much comic invention and that doesn't waste time explaining all its jokes. Rango was another (and even better) example from earlier this year.

Then again, this movie comes from Aardman Studios, which has been churning out high-quality work for years (both shorts and features), so I suppose I should have expected as much.

In any case, the movie is our official introduction to director/co-writer Sarah Smith, who in her feature-film debut proves to have an uncanny sense of wit and some genuine filmmaking panache. I've since discovered that she's been a collaborator with the great Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, In the Loop). This endears her to me forever.

But I digress. We were talking about Arthur Christmas, right? OK then. Arthur Christmas is like a condensed, 97-minute episode of 24, only with story's target being the dawn of Christmas morning rather than a pending terrorist attack in a major metropolitan city. Though, from the idealistically naïve perspective of the title character, failure in his mission would be nearly akin to an apocalyptic event.

Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is the bumbling youngest son of Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent), a position we discover is passed down from generation to generation like royalty. Each Santa usually lasts about 70 years, then retires and hands it down to his son, and so on. Next in line is Arthur's older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie), a pompous, all-business CEO type whose ruthless, meticulous, high-tech approach to the North Pole's holiday workload has vaulted the Santa business into the 21st Century. We're talking cloaked spaceships, tracking numbers, advanced surveillance, the works.

But all that progress has come at the expense of the human element, an area embodied to an extreme degree by Arthur, who lives and breathes Christmas cheer. Steve may be the heir apparent to Santa's throne, but he has no concept of what such a title represents. He makes this unequivocally clear when, on Christmas Eve, one single, solitary gift goes undelivered, and Steve brushes it off as a minor inconvenience - much to the chagrin of not only Arthur, but all the elves in the workshop (which at this point looks more like Mission Control) as well.

Despite his brother's instructions to the contrary, Arthur takes it upon himself - along with Grandsanta, a hilarious combination of bitterness and senility (voiced by Bill Nighy, natch) - to deliver the gift, and the rest of the film centers entirely around that task. For the bulk of a movie to revolve around a single situation and successfully maintain enough momentum to carry it all the way through is impressive on its own; but Arthur Christmas goes further, piling on complications and conflicting character motivations and using it all to build a rapid succession of comedic payoffs. The ultimate resolution is only what we expect, but the journey there is what makes it work. The movie earns its schmaltzy ending.

While we're here, I have to bring attention to the film's voice work. A voice cast full of recognizable names is not always a good thing, but the roles here (populated by many of the UK's finest) are perfectly cast. Surely certain characters would be distinctly different with another voice performer. I particularly enjoyed Broadbent as the charmingly oblivious Santa, a grandfatherly figure more than happy to rest on his laurels, leave the real work to Steve and the elves, do the ho-ho-ho thing once a year, and then fall into a long winter's nap. He's like a jolly, fat version of the king from The Princess Bride.

These days, the best movies released around the holidays aren't directly about the holidays at all. In fact, most of the specifically Christmas-themed movies of recent years have either fallen completely flat (see: Fred Claus, Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express, Four Christmases, Deck the Halls, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Christmas With the Kranks, the Santa Clause sequels) or taken a decidedly darker approach to the holiday spirit (Bad Santa, The Ice Harvest). Elf is a notable exception - and now we can add Arthur Christmas to that (short) list as well. This one gives Christmas movies a good name again.

*WORD OF WARNING: Arthur Christmas is preceded by a full-length music video of Justin Bieber's terrible cover version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," with Bieber wearing what looks like the hipster version of a TGI Friday's uniform, along with what can only be described as the Freddy Krueger version of Nintendo's Power Glove. I really had no idea how to react to this, but it makes for the most unpleasant five minutes you'll spend in a theatre this year. I feel this needed to be mentioned.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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