Arthur Christmas (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Arthur Christmas (2011)

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Arthur Christmas is nearly a  year old, and not a film I have been looking forward to seeing.  Despite its pedigree through Aardman Animations (they of Wallace and Gromit and this year's Pirates!) I was let down by their last effort, the surprisingly lackluster Flushed Away.  Then there was the matter of that advertising making every inch of the film look like prepackaged bland cheer.  There's not anything wrong with a bit of cheer, but after so many "We have to save Christmas!" expressions in a three minutes span it's hard not to feel a bit wary.

This is one of those moments I'm happy to be wrong, and for exactly the reasons I should have anticipated.  All of Aardman Animations films, even the ones that have left me a bit cold, are firm believers in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle principle of animated entertainment.  You have to hook the kids with the flashy animation, and then keep the adults happy with humor that will look silly to the kids but sly to the adults.

I'm happy to report Arthur Christmas accomplishes this in spades and is probably the darkest movie about Santa Claus ever made.  It's not "Santa is surprisingly racist and literally fighting the devil" dark, but the reality isn't that far off.  The world of Arthur Christmas has kamikaze elves and a Grand-Santa (a superb Bill Nighy) who I suspect was not a fan of the suffragette movement.   It's a strange Christmas film.

Even with the huge set-pieces on display the film keeps things tight and personal. This works great for the zippy scenes through present delivery or the more low-key comedy around the dinner table.

Arthur (James McAvoy, very sweet) is devoted to the idea of Santa Claus as a force of hope in the world and spends all year personally writing back any children who write to him.  He's the unfortunate one of the family and less likely to step into his father's (Jim Broadbent) increasingly complacent shoes.  The execution of Santa Claus has grown to fit the world, what was once a man and his magic sleigh has become a ten-thousand elf mission utilizing the latest in magical technology.  But all the magic and precise wizardry in the world doesn't keep them from making a mistake and when a little girl looks to be left without a bike for Christmas Arthur's tech-savvy brother Steve (the always great Hugh Laurie) would ratter settle for what they've done than fulfill the dreams of one girl.

Cue stirring music, roll up the plot, and you've got a pretty straightforward film.

But the devil is in the details, especially where this film is concerned.  Not all of them are grand, for example the movie is a bit of a boys club despite the welcome talents of Imelda Staunton as Margaret Claus.  Then there is the matter of the character design, and despite my love of Arthur's goofy smile the seas of nearly identical elves and similar shapes between the Claus' was a bit dull to sit through.

Considering the fates of a few of the elves and reindeer, seeing a character die during this confrontation with the cats would not have surprised me. What is surprising is still how funny they make the bleak humor.

But where the film lacks in design it more than makes up for it in execution.  The sleigh of the future is a thing to behold and looks to be more of a relic of an ancient alien invasion instead of Christmas joy.  Director Sarah Smith does an exquisite job keeping the action flowing well from the chaotic interior of the elf command center to the rickety openness of Grand-Santa's old sleigh apparatus.  The environments are a lot of fun as well and the animation team keeps the travels to the slums of Poland completely different from the cheerfully chilly North Pole.  I might not have always enjoyed looking at the characters, but the world they inhabited was great to behold and had a great knack for some subtle facial expressions and animal behaviors.

The real treat of Arthur Christmas is in the well placed zingers and dark material placed throughout the story.  Being Santa Claus is apparently fraught with peril with disease (sleigh-fever, when one Santa contracted the ailment all children got sausage nailed to a piece of bark,) danger (a situation involving a missile and a sleigh actually taken to the logical conclusion,) and the ever changing nature of politics (Grandpa-Santa on the impossible, "They used to say it was impossible to teach women to read.")  All of the characters are sketched with the greatest crazy detail, and while I loved Grandpa-Santa's advice on how to deal with children (another great line: "Double whiskey on the lips - they went down nice,") I also loved the kamikaze elves who are willing to die for their duty and happily predict the odds of doing so.

Arthur Christmas still manages to tack on a nice sappy end to everything, but it feels a lot more earned and less saccharine than some of the TV specials of olden time.  Even the final triumph is caked in a nice layer of deceptive irony, and when the final storybook plays out the bite goes out just enough to leave everyone with a smile.

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Arthur Christmas (2011)

Directed by Sarah Smith.
Screenplay written by Smith and Peter Baynham.
Starring James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, and Jim Broadbent.

Posted by Andrew

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