REVIEW: Arthur Christmas Overrides Ugly Digital Animation with Charm, Wit and Verve

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To dispatch with the pleasantries and get straight to the but: Arthur Christmas favors the late-century style of computer animation that turns characters into smooth, plasticky dirigibles, adding a Made-in-China cello-skin to faces and scenery alike and vacuum-sealing the works for maximum digital freshness. I've never cared for the look -- if cartoons could be embalmed, that's how I imagine they'd be -- and in sharing a release weekend with a Muppets revival, the limits of Arthur's CGI puppeteering seem even more stark. That is of course, until you consider almost everything outside of my but -- which may well not be yours -- which is to say the near-total mitigation of aesthetic bummers with an avalanche of charm, wit, and enlivening, highly oxygenated performances.

A collaboration between Sony animation and Britain's Aardman productions (of Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away fame), Arthur Christmas is a Grinch-style story of rekindled Christmas spirit told from inside Santa's compound at the North Pole. At one end of the investment spectrum are Santa's ebullient but highly errant progeny Arthur (James McAvoy) and a million or so obsessive elves, and at the other are Santa himself (Jim Broadbent), a glory hound who's been phoning it in for years, and Santa's number one son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), a technocrat who has "festivized" the entire world and broken toy delivery down into a joyless martial art. In the middle is Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton), the stealthy home executive who just wants everybody to get along, and out back in the polar pasture rocks 136-year-old patriarch Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), perpetually cheesed about his own irrelevance and sure it all meant more back when Santas traveled by sleigh and not a candy-apple Millennium Falcon.

That's right, it's a family business, and there is little question about which brother will inherit the ermine-trimmed suit once the current Santa is finally coaxed out of it. But when a mishap causes the wished-for present of a Cornwall girl to go astray, Arthur and the elves are scandalized while Santa and Steve shrug it off, and the question of whether one child matters expands to pit tech innovation against personal consistency, and ego against selflessness. Arthur and Grandsanta commandeer a retired sleigh and some old-fashioned magic to get the little girl her pink bicycle before the night is over, with an eager elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen of Extras and Ugly Betty) along to literally wrap up problems with festive paper and industrial-strength glitter tape.

First-time director Sarah Smith co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Sasha Baron Cohen and Steve Coogan collaborator Peter Baynham, and the writing is brisk and snappy, warm and engaging, and unabashedly littered with Britishisms. It's a balanced efficiency of tone established in service of the core characters and reinforced by their precision casting and committed performances (McAvoy and Jensen especially blast verve and personality into their roles), so that halfway through a Christmas Eve picaresque we are fully involved in not just a witty lark but a resonant family drama.

Which is not to say there isn't plenty of mischief to grease the way, including cheap shots at Canada (everybody's favorite), the unlikely triumph of Arthur's neuroses, and darker riffs involving elves so tightly programmed they go kamikaze at the first (false) sign of abandonment and the sacrifice of "charming relics" to the future. The velocity of the visuals matches the almost vaudevillian pace of the script -- no detail is unturned or punchline passed by -- and the 3D offers mild, if somewhat superfluous, enhancement to an already engrossing trip. There's a tepid lesson embedded into the haggling over the true meaning of Christmas and the real Santa Claus: Arthur's insistence that the means of gift delivery don't matter (only the spirit of giving and gratitude does) is gentle preparation for that ultimate, beard-yanking disillusionment. I'd be satisfied if Arthur Christmas primed kids for nothing more than expecting nothing less from holiday entertainment than this fleet, sweet-natured film.

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