Arthur Christmas starts very similar to another over-the-pond animated film from earlier in the year, Gnomeo & Juliet (coincidentally, James McAvoy voices the lead in both films). Heavy on exposition and even heavier on break-neck paced gags, both films hit a wall once the clever wordplay and funny visuals dry up.
The titular character is the dopey son of Santa Claus (a position that is apparently inherited through family – the same joke made in April’s Hop). Arthur has a heart bigger than his father’s belly, loving all things Christmas, although his brain seems to be the size of a chestnut roasting over an open fire. Clumsy and forgetful (and unintentionally shrill), the good-intentioned Arthur proves his worth by delivering an accidentally forgotten gift to a child in England all the way from the North Pole.
With his logistical and brawny brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) unwilling to help, seeing that one child out of two billion isn’t a bad percentage and with Santa (Jim Broadbent) asleep, Arthur goes on a rickety sleigh ride with Grand Claus (Bill Nighy brilliantly voicing the geriatric coot) to make sure no child is missed by Santa on Christmas.
Scripted by Peter Baynham (who has Bruno and Borat to his credit) and Sara Smith (who also directed the film), Arthur Christmas starts out with a Shrek-like promise, riffing on the classic Santa tales. “How do you deliver all of the presents with an increasing population growth?” is one of the questions asked that show bite, although the film’s incisive choppers slowly dulls, unlike the giant green Ogre’s non-stop cut downs.
Seeing Santa as a mere figurehead with the elves doing all of the legwork (or action hero work with some superb spoofy spy sequences), Arthur Christmas hits the right notes in the action arena. A bumpy sleigh ride dashing through the snow of Toronto, an African safari detour, and a bicycle race against the Christmas clock are individually unique and thrilling. Keeping enough momentum to plow through the 98 minute running time, although younger children may find their attention wandering during the less visually stimulating stretches.
Pointlessly made in 3D that’s only addition to the film is the $4 extra to the ticket price, Arthur Christmas is just too congenial. While there is a running gag about the lack of female roles in Christmas stories that will raise as many eyebrows as laughs, Arthur Christmas plays it too safe, proving that even niceness can end up being the equivalent entertainment value of a lump of coal. While not a photo-realistic CGI-style like the 3D animated features Puss in Boots and Happy Feet Two now playing in theaters, Arthur Christmas’ blocky-style of animation just feels more suited for straight-to-DVD than theatrical.
However, the satisfying amount of laughs and originality will surely make Arthur Christmas another holiday movie to add to the DVD collection … or at least a perennial ABC Family repeat. Providing enough escape and enjoyment (although the previously mentioned Shrek-spinoff and The Muppets offer more bang for the PG-rated fare buck), Arthur Christmas might be ho-ho-hum, but it will certainly get you into the Christmas spirit.
*WARNING: There is a 3D Justin Bieber music video to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that plays before the movie so plan your arrival time to the theater accordingly.
Review By Ryan Mazie
6 out of 10