For those out there who are still mystified as to how Santa manages that seemingly superhuman feat of single-handedly delivering presents to every child on earth the night before Christmas, this new Aardman/Sony Pictures co-production offers a feasible explanation.
In a position passed down through generations of Clauses, the close-to-retirement Santa (Jim Broadbent, in a role he was born to voice) has relinquished almost full control to eldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie), a Patton-like figure who runs proceedings like a tight military operation He oversees the hundreds of elves manning control desks and providing support to a huge sledge-shaped aircraft which is filled with their co-workers, who perform incredibly orchestrated present drops to homes all around the world.
In the middle of all this, Santa’s other son Arthur, a caring and well-meaning chap (if a little ineffectual), sits in the shadow of his older brother. He loves Christmastime so much he has a 365-day advent calendar in the study where he spends hour upon hour personally replying to children from around the globe who have written in with present requests and other general festive queries.
An opportunity for Arthur to break away from the frustrating role of Christmas Eve bit player presents itself when an undelivered toy is found after the last successful mission has been completed and the elf crew have returned back to the North Pole. Steve is willing to let this mistake slide (he argues that only one child in the entire world will face disappointment that morning) but Arthur has other plans, and enlists the help of his 137 year-old Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and a cluster of clapped-out reindeer to ensure the present reaches its destination, no matter what.
After a painfully prolonged and sometimes problematic collaboration with DreamWorks (the forgettable Flushed Away was one of the fruits of their labour), there’s a great deal riding on this co-production with Sony Pictures for Aardman. Fortunately, its good news as Arthur Christmas more than succeeds in marrying the vision of both studios together. It’s a winning combination of that Aardman charm and inventiveness, coupled with a Hollywood awe and spectacle sensibility.
This symbiosis is particularly apparent towards the beginning of the film during the aforementioned action set-piece, which see’s the elves resorting to increasingly ingenious ways to create the illusion of a rustic, traditional Santa home visit. It’s a film which bristles with creativity, and framing the narrative within a real-time setting (the on-screen digital countdown is a fun nod to 24) the pace never wavers. Director Sarah Smith (formerly a collaborator with he likes of Armando Iannucci and The League of Gentlemen crew) brings the skills she’s honed in live-action comedy to her first feature-length film, and character interaction and the staging of many scenes often feel pretty life-like, drawing you further into the action and completely engaging you in the world of these characters.
A handsomely-animated tale, the attention to detail here (from Steve’s Christmas tree-shaped goatee to the hundreds of uniquely-styled elves in mission control) is truly stunning. The cast give it their all too and Nighy, in particular, as the wonderfully salty Santa Sr. (who visually, is reminiscent of a thin, slightly deranged Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses) is fantastic fun, providing much of the film’s adult-tinged humour.
It may hit many of the same emotional beats associated with films from this season (what it means to celebrate that time of year, family togetherness, etc) but the joy of storytelling and dazzling momentum found in Arthur Christmas more than eradicates any feelings of the familiar. This is a rousing, cynicism-free festive treat for all ages.