'Arthur Christmas' Is Madcap and Heartfelt

Thank goodness that even the Santas have a mom to help them sort out their turmoils.

Arthur Christmas

Director: Sarah Smith
Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Ramona Marquez, Michael Palin
Rated: PG
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-11-23 (General release)
UK date: 2011-11-11 (General release)

"Are you real?" writes six-year-old Gwen (voiced by Ramona Marquez) to Santa at the start of Arthur Christmas. She's worried, you see, because she's put some thought into how he might possibly be able to deliver presents to millions of children all over the world in a single night. As implausible as this annual event seems, she's decided to take her own leap of faith, sort of. "I think you're real," she closes her note, "But how do you do it?"

The movie reveals nearly immediately that the mechanics are both more and less magical than Gwen might be bale to imagine. Her letter, posted, of course, to the North Pole, is read not by Santa (Jim Broadbent), but by his nerdly son Arthur (James McAvoy). He's assigned to keep track of all children's letters to his father, their gift requests as well as their youthful queries, and he writes Gwen back to assure her that indeed, Santa is real, and he can do what he does because he's a very good man.

Unfortunately, Arthur is soon faced with a dilemma on this very question. This arises when his father and older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) actually make a mistake on Christmas Eve, and do not deliver the pink twinkle bike Gwen has asked for. Steve, who aspires to become Santa when their dad retires (supposedly, this 70th mission is his last), insists that the error is miniscule compared to all the presents delivered each Christmas Eve by Santa and his team. In this version of the mythology -- courtesy of Aardman Animations, purveyors of Wallace & Gromit -- this team consists of Steve and a squad of stealthy ninja-like elves, all aboard a superfast red spaceship called the S-1 sleigh. Their remarkable record is amplified by the fact they've never been seen by humans, or at least, never documented. (A cute bit at the beginning, when a little boy wakes up while Santa's in his bedroom -- the boy is called a "waker" by the ninja-elves who scramble to keep Santa hidden from his look -- lays out the high tech expertise with which the myth is perpetuated.)

The movie points out as well how many team members are involved, how much labor goes into the big night, for weeks and months all through the year. W whle other army of elves keeps track of deliveries and destinations on a huge computer display, with hundreds of elves at consoles, ensuring that the millions of toys produced by Santa's great factory go where they're supposed to go. Steve's utter anxiety when it's discovered that "We've missed a child!" is acute. But still, he takes an executive decision -- to let it go.

But Arthur can't forget his promise to Gwen, and so he and 136-year-old Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), along with a single independent-thinking elf, Byrony (Ashley Jensen), sneak out of the factory at the North Pole in Grandsanta's ancient sleigh, powered not by turbo engines but by the inexperienced descendants of the first reindeer and a bit of magic dust. A quick dose of this makes them fly, or, more accurately and wonderfully, galumph through the air.

They have just a couple of hours to get the present to Gwen's house in England: they're bickering amongst themselves, they get lost repeatedly, and their sleigh is awfully slow compared to the S-1. Not to mention the consternation their illicit adventure causes Steve, who worries they might be spotted by someone, and so mess up the operation he's worked so hard to perfect.

But even as Steve tries to stop them, the renegades persist, determined to do the right thing by Gwen, and by extension, all the children who believe in Santa. Their adventures include a zany flight over downtown Toronto, which occasions one of the film's headier gags, as Grandsanta jokes about Canada's easy-to-navigate emptiness and his disdain for avoiding difficult areas (he remembers a disagreement with Santa back in the '70s, which he describes in a single, eerily resonant phrase that both reduces and underlines his son's concern (as dads tend to do), that "you-can't-cut-through-Saigon-there's-a-war business." They also take a couple of detours, like a wrong landing in the Serengeti desert (where Arthur lulls lions to sleep by singing "Silent Night," before they make a madcap escape, batting fierce lions off their sleigh as it takes off).

Such diversions don't take long, as the movie keeps up a zippy pace, as much by droll verbal exchanges as by big physical escapades. Unsurprisingly, the three generations of Santas also come to terms with some character issues, in particular what it means to be a team, or, more precisely, a family. The four male Clauses -- guided by the resilient and optimistic Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) -- realize that they all really share the same ideals, even if they sometimes turn competitive or frustrated. Thank goodness that even the Santas have a mom to help them sort out their turmoils.






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