Aardman Animations found success in the late 1990s with stop-motion clay animations Wallace & Gromit, created by Nick Park. In association with Dreamworks they released Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit before moving into computer animation with 2006s Flushed Away. 2011 saw the release of another computer animation film, alongside new partners Sony Pictures Animation, Arthur Christmas. In production since 2007, Arthur Christmas was co-written by the films director Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham, most famous for his work on TV comedies Brass Eye, I’m Alan Patridge and the film Arthur.
Arthur (James McAvoy) is the youngest son of the current Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent), a title handed down father-to-son. His oldest brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) has helped to revolutionize the night of Christmas with trillions of elves armed with the latest technology all travelling in a giant space-ship sleigh, the S1. During the execution of a Christmas night delivery a child is forgotten, Arthur, so overcome with sadness for the child leave the North Pole with former Santa Claus, Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and aboard the original sleigh, travel the world, along with stowaway elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) looking to save Christmas by delivering the final present.
At its core Arthur Christmas is a mad-capped road movie as the hapless trio travel the globe visiting Toronto, Cuba and encountering lions in Africa. Throughout the course of the film, they each tackle their short-comings in a bid to renew Christmas spirit to the children, the elves and even Steve and Santa, who have lost sight of their real goals. The film is not afraid to cast the Claus’ in a negative light, with Steve tired of receiving no recognition, the current Santa unable to let go and retire and Grandsanta desperate to prove that he is still useful. The characterisation is beautifully handled throughout, which is no small part to the excellent voice acting.
McAvoy is the perfect blend of naive Christmas-obsessed teenager and is the true beating heart of the film. His loveable, clumsy, goofy nature sets perfectly at odds with Laurie’s efficient and slightly pompous take on Steve Claus, the man who would be more at home on the deck of the USS Enterprise than on a sleigh. The real stars of the show though are Nighy‘s Grandsanta, the borderline madman desperate to prove the younger generation that his ‘down the chimney’ santa is not obselete. The revelation of his true motives is handled delicately and in a very moving way. There is even the slightest suggestion that female characters have been horribly overlooked in previous Christmas films and that things might not go so wrong is Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) and Bryony the elf had more power.
This is where Arthur Christmas is at its best. While the main plot and slapstick visual jokes are squarely aimed at children, the deep character development is for adults. There are characters that are obviously based in reality and everyone knows a brown-nosing sub-ordinate like Peter, or an arrogant middle-manager like Steve. These are firmly rooted in the real world and this allows Arthur Christmas to transcend a standard Christmas film and really becoming a thoroughly moving, future classic. There is a meaningless UFO plot and the middle portion drags a little, but by the end you will have been won over by the pure Christmas spirit of the whole thing.