It’s weird to walk in for a Christmas movie when even the malls are taking down their tacky decorations. Oh, well, we’re still boiling milk and goading bulls, so why not celebrate the festive cheer, right? Maybe it was that the sight of 3D glasses makes me groan these days – the conversion is usually lazy, sloppy and unnecessary – or that the last animated film I watched was Alvin and the Chipmunks 3, but I had very little hope for Arthur Christmas when it started out.
However, as if they’re as tired of fat men sliding down chimneys to emerge spotless in their scarlet suits as you are, the filmmakers assault you with a Commando operation carried out by the First Field Elf Battalion (“Average height – 26 inches, Max load: 4.6 play stations”, they declare). It’s a dark beginning – no pun intended – as a camouflaged spaceship-like module descends upon Europe, scaring birds and even ridding a few of feathers.
Skirting around red alerts for ‘Wakers’, and silencing bothersome parrots, the elves dash across the world with a sleepy, superannuated Santa (Jim Broadbent), as his son Steve (Hugh Laurie) monitors their progress from HQ in the North Pole. The second son Arthur (James McAvoy), who looks a lot less like Johnny Bravo and is scared of everything from big animals to buttons, tries to be merry and ends up getting shown out of the control room by his super-efficient, gadget-toting big brother.
One feels for Steve. Santa isn’t particularly good at his job, but likes it too much to retire at 70, much to the contemptuous amusement of his father Grandsanta, a surly old man brought to life by Bill Nighy. Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton) isn’t great at keeping the peace in her home – she tries to sort out dinner table disagreements with Satanic chants. And as Steve is trying to get tradition to accommodate technology, there’s his sentimental, skinny kid brother, who posts hand-written replies to children, wears musical fluffy slippers, is afraid of lifts, and gets thrills from looking at sleighs and reindeer.
A turn of events sends Grandsanta and Arthur hurtling through the ether on a secret mission, along with Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an elf from the highlands who has an unhealthy obsession with gift-wrapping and bow-tying. To the movie’s credit, the corny Arthur is mocked so much and dismissed so often that one begins to find his goodness less irritating.
Having been a magical Faun, a doctor in Uganda, a rape accused and a paraplegic mutant among other things, James McAvoy has got rather good at playing the disillusioned idealist, and this serves him well here. Hugh Laurie comes into himself as the preening Steve who cares more about his toys than the children’s, and Bill Nighy is a riot as a centenarian ex-Santa trying to get his head around skyscrapers.
Naturally, there’s a Big Speech about how every Santa was “keen as cranberry” to do his duty in his youth. But the maudlin is kept to a minimum, and punctuated by comic timing on cue. From asides about how Santa used to be the only one who could fly a vehicle, to the contents of a long-unused horn, to cheeky wordplay, to self-spoofing complete with dramatic music, the comic elements are nicely crafted.
Ideally, leave your kids behind and go watch this for yourself. And if you’re not a parent, the kids in this movie are far less annoying than non-animated ones.