'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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.