Film Review: Arthur Christmas

A charming and inventive exploration of the mysterious workings of Santa, his sons and his elves. This animated tale is sure to be popular for Christmases to come.

How does Santa get around the world in one night? It’s a question that parents, movies and storybooks have tried to answer for children many times before. Arthur Christmas’ explanation tops them all. With the help of the S-1, a giant red craft that brings to mind Independence Day, thousands of elves parachute or glide down a rope from the ship, depositing presents in every child’s home. To escape undetected, they employ the exacting techniques of spies, but they also have compassion. When a meter registers a boy who has been 57% naughty, the elf turns the device on himself to obtain a “nice” reading that will trigger the apparatus to stuff the boy’s stocking. Santa is more like a commanding officer or CEO, occasionally entering a house himself, but more for ceremonial purposes.

The goofy, loveable misfit in this honed system is Arthur. Steered away from the main operation because of his klutziness, he spends his time earnestly answering children’s letters to Santa. His brother, Steve, commands mission control. His cool, rational demeanor is the antithesis of Arthur’s. Their father, Santa, is on his 70th mission and is expected to pass on the reins to his successor. So sure is Steve that he will be chosen, he’s already printed balloons with “Congrats, Steve” set to drop after Santa has made his “Mission accomplished” speech.

The problem is that once everyone has gone to bed, the elves discover one toy left undelivered. Will heart win out over efficiency? Steve convinces Santa that the task at hand is impossible, but the compassionate Arthur won’t accept that his father would overlook a child. Along with the retired hundred-something Grandsanta, he uncovers the mothballed Christmas sleigh, hitches up the reindeer, and vows to deliver the present the old-fashioned way. It doesn’t go according to plan.

The depiction of the architecture of the North Pole and Santa’s operation has never been so clever, charming and roundly imagined. Between the S-1 and the brass buttons of the sleigh, Arthur Christmas manages to showcase both old and new technology. Of course Santa’s present-delivery method would change with the pace of technology. For kids growing up with generations of smart-phones and iPads, this kind of thinking must be second nature. What’s especially clever about Arthur’s journey is seeing new equipment interact with old. Turns out Grandsanta’s old maps haven’t kept pace with the growth of cities, but GPS saves the day—until it doesn’t. A common GPS user error figures heavily into the plot, much to the delight of anyone who’s ever been frustrated by the equipment’s quirks. The unpredictability of technology adds a sense of realism to the Christmas goings-on, not to mention comic relief.

While the movie occasionally resorts to talky passages to spin the plot in a new direction, there are also well-thought-out touches that punctuate important moments. A metal Santa playing piece provides a physical representation of the transfer of power. Sight gags appear throughout: Steve’s beard is shaved in the shape of a pine tree. The sleigh has some truly hilarious disguises. Even a lock would not be suitable for the North Pole if it weren’t in the shape of a Christmas tree. The CGI creation of crowds of elves lends a sense of scale to the operation. Bryony, a stowaway elf with an eyebrow ring who helps Arthur, deploys her one skill—wrapping presents—in a slew of situations, always ready to save the day.

The English voice cast, which includes Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, James McAvoy and Bill Nighy, isn’t overly recognizable, a haven from the usual guess-the-celebrity feel of most animated movies. Arthur Christmas is just as polished as the S-1’s Christmas Eve mission. Adults and children alike will enjoy watching and re-watching this addition to the Christmas movie oeuvre.