While not quite up to the same calibre as Pixar, British-based animation studio Aardman has built a pretty impressive reputation for delivering expertly crafted and intelligently scripted work that plays to audiences of all ages. In large part this is due to the impeccable claymation in the Wallace and Gromit films, although Chicken Run comes pretty close and their upcoming The Pirates! is looking very promising. Aardman has also tried its hand at digital animation for 2006’s Flushed Away, with respectable, but less impressive results. Not to be discouraged, the studio is giving their pixel work another shot with Arthur Christmas, a seasonal adventure, packed with celebrity voice talent and humour aimed at a wide demographic.
Opening with a string of youthful questions about the logistics of being Santa Claus and visiting every child in the world over a single night, Arthur Christmas has its work cut out – as many parents will testify – to produce a satisfactory answer. The result is one of the film’s strongest moments as we witness an army of elves lay siege to each city in turn, descending from the huge S1 sleigh ship and distributing presents with military precision. Things soon devolve into the familiar story of Santa’s imminent retirement and his reluctance to install a seemingly unsuitable heir – in this case the naive and hapless younger son, Arthur. Of course over the course of the film, he will show his true colours, come through in a snap and cathartically win over the respect of his family.
While the scenario may seem tired, the film is at its best when exploring the lineage of the honourary position of “Santa” and introducing three generations of St. Nick – plucky pensioner Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), the incumbent Yuletide patriarch (Jim Broadbent) and clinically efficient Steve (Hugh Laurie), whose cold, detachment threatens to devolve the entire holiday into merely a logisitical exercise in mass materialism. When he discovers a child has been missed, Arthur vows to deliver her present before sunrise, and while the film really has no villain, the dramatic tension arises from this race against time and Steve’s insistence that this oversight represents an acceptable margin of error in an otherwise glitch-free operation.
Arthur Christmas works less well when trying to be ironic and irreverent, and a number of pop culture and self-referential gags fall flat – an uncharacteristic weakness for an Aardman production. Sadly, James McAvoy’s voicework as Arthur fails to ingratiate the character with the audience, and is often more irritating than endearing. Elsewhere, the performances are strong, with Nighy, Broadbent and Laurie all putting in great turns, although it must be conceded that their characters are infinitely more amusing and interesting than our hero. Arthur Christmas does end on a beautiful moment of family reconciliation and mutual appreciation that will leave you feeling suitably warm and fuzzy inside for the festive season, but the journey that got us there sadly failed to jingle all the way.