Monday, December 5, 2011

Reindeer Games: ARTHUR CHRISTMAS


Arthur Christmas is a bright, colorful, nonthreatening CGI kiddie film about Santa Claus and his family and his elves up at the North Pole. It’s adequate, passable entertainment in that it’s not actively terrible or aggressively annoying, but it’s also bland and with only faint glimmers of personality. It feels homogenized. That’s a shame. It comes from Aardman, the British animation company that brought us the droll, delightful stop-motion Wallace & Gromit films and Chicken Run. I expected more from them.

Still, it’s a perfectly acceptable film that’s in no ways insulting. It tells a sweet story about Arthur (James McAvoy), Santa’s youngest son who’s a bumbling guy always messing up the plans of his older brother (Hugh Laurie), a strict manager who makes sure Santa (Jim Broadbent) and the sleigh run on schedule. In this film the sleigh is a giant spaceship-like construction that hovers invisibly over a town, deposits thousands of black-ops elves to deliver the presents, then, mere seconds later, moves on to the next town.

The system’s perfect. Of course, any movie about a perfect system must throw a wrench in, so this Christmas Eve one present is left behind. That’s within the acceptable margin of error to the older brother and to Santa, so Arthur recruits his grandfather (Bill Nighy), a retired Santa, to help him deliver the present. They borrow some of the old reindeer and sprinkle some magic dust and away they go. Hijinks ensue, as does familial healing and a reinforcement of a deeper, warmer meaning of Christmas.

So, it’s not that bad. The set-up is fun and the follow through is more or less what you’d expect. In fact, in patches, like a fun opening sequence that follows the covert ops as a bunch of elves deliver the presents, the film runs quite smoothly and charmingly. I was expecting something with just a smidge more wit, just a smidge livelier. It’s good enough, but that just didn’t feel like enough.

After some time, I started pondering the ways of the North Pole as presented here. Santa is an honorific passed down the family line from father to son. At one point in the film he’s called a ceremonial figurehead. (Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) seems to be a nickname for whoever happens to be married to Santa). The elves are a vast army of what exactly? Feudal serfs? Indentured servants? Residents of a company town? Clearly this was not what director Sarah Smith and her co-writer Peter Baynham wanted me to be thinking about, but under the low-level antics and red, white, and green Christmas palate I often found little else to distract me.

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