A Merry 'Arthur Christmas'
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
The morning started off grim: It was Sunday, and much too early, with heavy frost icing everything up, including my car. The theater was jam-packed with mommies and daddies and tykes, all of whom apparently lacked bladder control. Then the screen darkened, and a music video unreeled, starring prepubescent elf Justin Bieber, happily bopping around St. Nick's workshop, warbling "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Just kill me now, I groaned.
But "Arthur Christmas" put all my kvetching to rest. This bright, shiny yuletide gift from Aardman Animation ("Wallace & Gromit") is a joy for the eye, mind and heart -- not to mention funny bone. Opening with a breathtaking sky ride through rolling, snow-covered hills in Cornwall to zero in on the little village of Trelew -- Mimosa Lane, to be precise -- "AC" grabs you up and never lets go. Its 3-D visuals are often dizzying and genuinely magical; you never feel as though you're being beaten about the head with "special" effects that insist on being registered and admired. Everything you see in "Arthur Christmas" is fashioned in the service of telling a story ... brilliantly.
Here's a sly-boots tale that's all about "finding the true meaning of Christmas" while rollicking its tongue-in-cheek way through a dynastic power struggle (three generations of Santa Clauses), the clash between old-school tradition and 21st-century technology, and a clutzy naif's coming of age. So dense is "AC" with fascinating stuff to look at and jokes to laugh at, you won't catch all of it the first time around. (Scripters Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith, who also directs, have written smart and funny for the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen and Steve Coogan.) But who's complaining? Too many movies, animated or not, are so poverty-stricken, visually and every other way, you've got time to look at your watch -- or for the nearest exit.
A little girl named Gwen lives in the aforementioned Mimosa Lane, and she's written a letter to Santa, containing the message that sets "Arthur Christmas" in motion. No goopy sentimentality here: Gwen's a smart kid who's got some tough questions for Father Christmas, like: How come I can't Google Earth your home in the North Pole? How can you deliver presents to everyone in the world in one night? But Gwen's got faith, too: She believes Santa will bring her that much-wished-for sparkly pink bike for Christmas.
And who can doubt it, given that Santa's Mission: Impossible has been automated, computerized, bureaucratized, even militarized to a fare-thee-well by Steve (Hugh Laurie), the roly-poly guy's eldest son, jonesin' to take over the reins from Dad. Decked out in Christmas-y camo, this jut-jawed, swollen-chested go-getter's a cross between G.I. Joe and Stephen Lang's super-buff general in "Avatar."
Trouble is, Steve's turned into an unfeeling technocrat, Santa Sr.'s a do-nothing figurehead, and the only true believer in the spirit of Christmas is Arthur (James McAvoy), a silly noodle of a boy swallowed up in cheesy Christmas sweaters who can't take a step without creating chaos. His superhero sibling looms over Mission Control, a vast sea of white computer-stations, while sweet Arthur answers Santa's mail in a cozy cubbyhole full of Christmas lights and knickknacks. Oh, yes, there's Grampa Claus (Bill Nighy), a 136-year-old jackanapes who'd like nothing better than to dust off his old sleigh and hitch up a new generation of reindeer, just to show his high-tech grandson a thing or two.
Ever the enemy of old-timey inefficiency, Steve has retired Grandsanta's beloved sleigh in favor of a bright-red knockoff of the Star Trek Enterprise (milk and cookies for biofuel), from which waves of ninja-like elves deliver gifts with precision timing. When, against all odds, one child fails to receive her Christmas gift -- it would be Gwen -- Steve and his weary dad (Jim Broadbent, paradigm of blithering British paterfamilias) write it off as an acceptable glitch in a monstrously successful program.
A world, literally, of wonderful and terrible adventures ensue when the North Pole Expendables -- Arthur, Gramps, his grufty old reindeer missing one antler and wearing a veterinary "cone," a gift-wrapping elf ("Ugly Betty"'s Ashley Jensen) sporting a bleached streak and an eyebrow piercing -- take to the air to deliver Gwen's gift. Animated by irascible egotism, chortling over his bag of old-style skills and tricks, Bill Nighy's ancient Claus is a flat-out hoot. The mad old geezer almost steals the show from callow Arthur, who must bumble and sputter and pratfall his way into full Claus-hood.
Animations can spin like whirligigs with no particular place to go, perpetual motion machines built just to babysit ADD kids. In happy contrast, "Arthur Christmas" delivers small- and large-scale action that's consistently purposeful and focused, graced -- like every element in this heartwarming Christmas fable -- by the gift of intelligent imagination.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.