Child neglect, both long- and short-term, appears to be the theme that runs throughout Arthur Christmas, the latest, more-entertaining-than-you-think flick from Britain-based Aardman Animations (aka the house that Wallace and Gromit built).
On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus and his elves realize they've forgotten to leave one little girl the bike she wanted. Since it was a very successful year for Claus and the crew, flying around the world in a hovercraft (dubbed the "S-1"), descending into homes like ninjas and dropping off gifts under the cloak of darkness, they chalk this up as a minor fumble. This doesn't sit well with the title character (voiced by James McAvoy), Santa's immensely perky son whose job is to answer all the letters children send to the North Pole and assure them that the big guy won't pass up their homes.
Along with his crotchety grandfather, a former Santa (Bill Nighy), and a gift-wrapping elf (Ashley Jensen), Arthur goes old-school and hops on a sleigh—complete with a team of flying reindeer, of course—to deliver the present to that little girl so she won't wake up the next day and discover that Santa has forgotten her.
While it doesn't sound this way on paper, Arthur Christmas does dispense some crowd-pleasing cleverness in its narrative. Santa Claus' operation is depicted as a family business, Ol' St. Nick being a position that's passed down from generation to generation. It's a business that's left the family quite dysfunctional; the current Father Christmas (Jim Broadbent) is more of an absentminded absentee dad to Arthur and big bro Steve (Hugh Laurie), who's angling to be the next Kris Kringle, and the bitter grandfather is hellbent on proving he can still ho-ho-ho with the best of them.
While the computer-generated, 3-D-accentuated visuals are more competently impressive than ass-out awe-inspiring, co-writer and director Sarah Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham (who worked together on the BBC animated sitcom I Am Not an Animal) do manage to put a fresh, thoughtful spin on the story of Santa, as well as keep this production from slipping into cringe-worthy sappiness. I'm truly surprised that Baynham, who has collaborated with such subversive, British-comedy hell-raisers as Sacha Baron Cohen, Steve Coogan and media prankster Chris Morris, would have anything to do with a Christmas kids' movie. I'm assuming he came up with many of the unbelievable-for-a-family-flick things that come out of the grandfather's mouth, like the line regarding how women were treated in the olden days that had me giggling even as I walked all the way back to my car afterward. (This Arthur certainly makes up for the botched remake of the Dudley Moore Arthur Baynham scripted earlier this year.)
Considering that Thanksgiving weekend will be cluttered with films that are geared for kids, I hope Arthur Christmas doesn't get lost in the shuffle. It may look like a holiday trifle, but it's still a sleigh ride worth taking.