Of all the animation studios that have had major critical acclaim, but hasn’t been talked about often is Aardman Animations; best known for its stop-motion clay animation, various short films, and its very British nature. Their most famous works consist of Chicken Run (2000), the mockumentary franchise, Creature Comforts (1989-2011), Shaun the Sheep (2007-present) and its parent series, Wallace and Gromit (1989-present). So with this famous stop-motion studio, naturally we are looking at the computer animated film: Arthur Christmas (2011), a joint production with Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman’s 4th feature length film. Does this film have the same quality as the studio’s claymation works?
Arthur (James McAvoy), our title character, is the younger son of the current Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent). The position of Santa Claus is passed down each generation and has been going for centuries. Gone are the days of going down the chimney, now the job is a high tech operation with the elves becoming a militaristic present giving force and the sleigh being a giant spaceship with cloaking technology. This high-tech Christmas force leaves the current Santa as a figurehead with most of the work done by his elder son, the tech-savvy, work oriented Steve (Hugh Laurie). However, due to a distracted elf, they missed one kid. While Steve writes it off as an acceptable error, Arthur is not able to live with this choice. Lucky for Arthur, his grandfather, former Santa Claus Grand-Santa (Bill Nighy), saved the old sleigh from his day with some reindeer to fly it. With this, Arthur along with Grand-Santa and an elf (Ashley Jensen) from the gift wrapping division, go out to deliver the present before the sun rises and the child wakes up.
One element about Santa Claus portrayals that can be quite fun is what unique spin can be taken with the character. Sometimes we have a Santa who gets his job through manslaughter, other times he is a very Russian member of a child fantasy character avengers group, or adopts Will Ferrel as an elf, and even that one time he nearly ran over some grandma. The interpretation we get in this film is easily one of the most creative and interesting takes of this mythos we have gotten. Just the elf paramilitary group alone would make for an interesting story, but the core of the film lies in the Claus family itself.
With a dynasty of about twenty Santas and counting, the question of who Santa Claus is becomes a generational conflict. Steve is fully steeped in the more modern tech and disregards older elements. Meanwhile, Grand-Santa is the polar opposite, clinging on to older traditions even when it is detrimental. The current Santa is stuck in the middle of the two, accepting the new tech, but not really understanding it, which hinders his ability to do anything of value. This is the film’s take on the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ idea, and manages to do the concept well.
The animation and art style, notably in its environments, objects and characters look pretty good and have weight. Despite coming out in 2011, the film still looks good today. The voice acting is good, with strong performances by James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, Hugh Laurie, and Ashley Jenson. They all give amazing performances while sounding mostly unique to the film, unlike many other films with star-studded casts that just sound like themselves (Tom Hanks in Toy Story). The writing has both wit and heart, and while the comedy is pretty good with well-timed jokes, not every joke hits. However, when they do, they hit home.
The character writing greatly helps the film. Arthur is both likeable and fun to watch. Grand-Santa is a strange combination of a major dramatic player and comic relief. He spends the most time with Arthur allowing him to have emotional scenes and development. He also is the vessel for many gags. Steve is pretty much positioned as the antagonist, but the film manages to make him a jerk while not making him too loathsome. The rest of the cast is solid, with the gift wrapping elf, Bryony, being fun, and the current Santa is sympathetic and mostly ineffective in solving anything really. Mrs. Claus adds a lot of humanity to her husband and is able to be the most competent character in the film. Overall, the characters help carry the film’s quality.
2011’s Arthur Christmas is a good film. It has good writing, characters, animation, and voice acting. The humor is on point and like all the best films about Christmas, or any holiday film, the emotional core is strong.