Monday, December 5, 2011

Arthur Christmas: Plenty of Christmas spirit

Arthur Christmas (2011) • View trailer for Arthur Christmas
Five stars. Rating: PG, and quite pointlessly, for very mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang

My list of favorite holiday movies just got amended.

Arthur Christmas is a treasure: a heartfelt, joyous romp with plenty of action, hilariously snarky dialogue, dollops of poignance and oodles of yuletide spirit. Not to mention plenty of Christmas magic, all lovingly gift-wrapped and topped with the most perfect bow.
Arthur (right), terrified of heights, isn't wild about Grandsanta's risky plan to
use his old sleigh for a Christmas Eve "rescue mission" designed to bring an
overlooked present to a little girl who otherwise won't find a gift from Santa
beneath her Christmas tree. But Arthur also realizes that he has no other
options ... and, after all, he's the one who insists that every child should
waken to a share of holiday magic.

Indeed, yes: As Bryony — an Elf Wrapping Operative, Grade Three — repeatedly insists, there’s always time for a bow.

Director/co-writer Sarah Smith and fellow scribe Peter Baynham deserve the largest possible round of applause. Working from a question every child has asked for centuries — how does Santa deliver all those presents in one night? — Smith and Baynham have crafted a clever Christmas fantasy that explores every facet of Santa’s ingenious North Pole operation.

The story involves five well-crafted characters, not to mention a massive cast of supporting elves, flying reindeer and Gwen, a trusting little girl who lives at 23 Mimosa Lane in Trelew, Cornwall, England, whose Christmas morning is about to be ruined.

Like countless other children around the world, Gwen has sent a letter to Santa Claus: a missive laced with the usual impressionable curiosity and hope, along with a request for a pink bicycle. Her note — complete with crayoned illustration — is routed to a staff member in Santa’s massive Letters Department: the gangly, accident-prone, overly enthusiastic Arthur.

In the noble Kris Kringle lineage, poor Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is little more than a subordinate clause. Christmas has become an ultra-efficient, high-tech delivery operation, and Santa’s younger son has been designated a spare part. The boy is allergic to snow, and suffers from a fear of heights, reindeer and high-speed travel.

But he loves, loves, loves Christmas — every enchanting aspect of it — and his tiny office is a chaotic mess of snow globes, pictures of Santa, and Arthur’s favorite letters from children. Indeed, Arthur reads every single letter that comes to the North Pole, and answers each with an astute precision that preserves the child’s most crucial trait: belief.

Arthur is the ultimate Christmas fanboy, although his giddy enthusiasm prompts tolerant smiles from the hundreds of elves who certainly like the boy, but nonetheless make mildly condescending remarks behind his back.

Arthur’s older brother, Steve (Hugh Laurie), the hereditary heir to the Claus reign, has made the annual Christmas Eve operation a masterpiece of military precision. The centerpiece of this high-tech procedure is the S-1: a mile-wide sleighship with stealth cloaking technology and a veritable army of elves who descend in precision teams of three, taking no more than a carefully calculated 18.14 seconds per home.

One house in each village is selected for a visit by Santa himself (Jim Broadbent), who need do no more than place one gift beneath the appropriate tree.

Poor Santa fails to realize that he has become little more than a token player in an operation that has become routine to him. Santa hasn’t actually lost the Christmas spirit — merely misplaced it — and he’s cheerfully willing to let Steve handle all the pesky little details.

Steve, relishing the degree to which he has modernized this holiday, naturally expects to take over once his father steps down ... which, the elder son impatiently hopes, should be any moment now. After all, Steve deserves the position. Trouble is, his state-of-the-art concept of Christmas seems to have overlooked the holiday’s all-essential softer, fluffier elements.

Which leads to the crisis. Thanks to a series of minor hiccups — Arthur being in the middle of them, of course — one gift gets left behind this year: a gaily wrapped bicycle. When the S-1 returns to the North Pole after the busy evening, the inventory board reads not a solid string of zeroes, as it should, but a string of zeroes followed by a single “1.”

Steve, ever the bean-counter, views this as an acceptable percentage of success.

Arthur is horrified.

No oversight is acceptable in his view, and every child deserves to find a package from Santa beneath the tree. But Arthur can’t sway either his brother or father; with no other options, the younger Claus turns to frail, doddering Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), who mutters that things were better in his day, constantly spews his false teeth and sulks crankily with only one equally ancient reindeer for company.

Ah, but Grandsanta has a secret: Eve, the gleaming, all-wood red sleigh that once served him perfectly well, thank you. And he also has overseen the breeding of talented reindeer from the original iconic line of eight.

Arthur and Grandsanta’s rogue mission includes one more participant: Bryony (Ashley Jensen), a resolutely loyal if somewhat manic elf footsoldier who’s as obsessed with her job as Arthur is with Christmas, and who can list every one of the 118 types of ribbon bow.

And so this unlikely crew flies off to save Christmas for little Gwen in Trelew ... despite Arthur’s aforementioned shortcomings, and Grandsanta’s lamentably dwindling skills at sleigh navigation. After all, he’s 136 years old!

Smith orchestrates the resulting chaos with a precision that Steve Claus would admire. The film opens with a typical Christmas Eve “drop operation” over one town: a masterpiece of slick editing — John Carnochan and James Cooper, take a bow — mirthful sight gags and hair’s-breadth escapes. Santa must never be seen, and of course that goes double for all these assistant elves.

The detail work is staggering; one would need to watch this sequence half a dozen times to fully appreciate all the clever touches and the many gadgets employed by these gift-toting elf commandos. Mind you, I’ve no doubt folks will watch this prologue — and, indeed, the whole film — many times over, both on the big screen and when it becomes available on home video.

As the credits finished unspooling at the end, I wanted to remain seated and watch it all over again. Immediately.

Smith pulls back the reins a bit, after the turbulent prologue; we get to know Arthur, Steve, Santa, Grandsanta, Bryony and also Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton), the resourceful “First Lady” who, thanks to decades of reading, studying and Internet classes, can handle anything from global navigation to flying a microlight aircraft. If pressed to do so.

These characters are the film’s true genius, and they’re perfectly voiced by the respective actors. McAvoy is unbridled eagerness as the passionate Arthur: a kid fully aware of the disappointment in his father’s eyes, who leaps at this chance to prove himself by saving the family honor.

Laurie is a stitch as the overly pompous Steve, a control freak who neither abides nor understands sentiment. The animators perfectly match Steve’s expressions to Laurie’s caustic delivery, while Smith and Baynham are careful not to make him an actual villain. A caring heart beats somewhere within Steve’s pretentious frame; it simply needs to be found.

Jensen, whose voice will be well remembered by fans of television’s Ugly Betty and Extras, is an absolute stitch as Bryony, a misfit with her own rebellious side, characterized by an eyebrow ring and a blond streak in her otherwise dark hair.

Listen closely to some of the minor characters, and you’ll recognize “guest voices” by Michael Palin, Joan Cusack, Robbie Coltrane, Jane Horrocks and several other cameo players.

Henry Gregson-Williams delivers a rousing score, replete with orchestral fanfares during exciting action scenes, and solemn themes to augment more serious moments.

The story evolves through a series of frantic action scenes, countless setbacks and droll detours. As always, each sequence is packed with amusing, character-developing and sometimes referential details. The story’s scale of imaginative minutia is simply amazing, whether in small stuff such as Arthur’s fuzzy slippers, a “Santaland” board game or the sat-nav readout that continually charts the rogue mission’s (lack of) progress, or in larger running gags such as Grandsanta’s distressing tendency to lose reindeer along the way.

You’ll also go blind trying to spot the numerous “blink and you’ll miss them details,” many of which are hilariously tabulated in the film’s rich press notes, which really should be passed out to viewers prior to each screening. Remember that this film is an Aardman production, so be on the lookout for an appearance by Shaun the Sheep, the beloved supporting player in the Wallace and Gromit shorts.

The most important element, though — the essential detail Smith never loses sight of — is the story’s heart. She builds her film to a suspenseful, breathtaking and richly poignant climax, and concludes with a throat-gulping, tear-jerking finale every bit as powerful as when Andy hands his beloved toys to Bonnie at the end of Toy Story 3.

Smith, Baynham and all involved with this fabulous production clearly understand the true meaning of Christmas, and Santa’s part in the ongoing miracle. And Arthur Christmas has just become an equally crucial slice of the seasonal magic: an honored position I expect it to maintain for a long, long time.

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