With the voices of James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Hugh Laurie, Imelda Staunton; Written by Peter Baynham, Sarah Smith; Directed by Sarah Smith; Rated PG (for some mild rude humor). 97 minutes.
One of the hazards of being a film critic is sitting through a lot of bad movies. One of the hazards of being a film critic at this time of year is that you have to sit through a lot of bad Christmas movies. One could write a book about all the terrible movies in which Santa Claus is a featured character. Leave it to Aardman Entertainment, the folks behind the wonderfully off-beat “Wallace and Gromit” movies, to get it right with ARTHUR CHRISTMAS.
With the help of his family and hundreds of elves, Santa travels the world bringing presents to children. Every seventy years or so, Santa retires and the next generation assumes the role. This year, though, there’s a problem. Santa (voice of Jim Broadbent) shows no sign of retiring and his eldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who oversees the elves with military precision, is chomping at the bit to take the reins. It doesn’t help that Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) is not enjoying his retirement and thinks he did it a lot better in the old days.
Off to the side is Arthur (James McAvoy), Santa’s younger son. He’s a bit of klutz as well as disorganized, but he really believes in their mission. So when on Christmas Eve it’s learned that they forgot to deliver one present, Steve is the one who decides that one foul-up doesn’t really make a difference whereas Arthur declares that a disappointed child is a stain on the whole operation. Against all odds he, decides he will deliver the present before Christmas morning.
All sorts of things go wrong, of course, including the fact that there’s more than one town with the same name, and the reindeer seem to have minds of their own, but parents and savvy kids will already know where the story has to go. It’s not so much about the suspense as in enjoying how the filmmakers get to the inevitable happy ending where everyone gets what they deserve. Perhaps the most pleasant thing about the movie is that while characters are often working at cross-purposes there are no bad guys here. Everyone really is doing what they think is best but of course it’s up to Arthur to show them that what’s most important is that they do what is right.
The voice cast is a lovely sampling of mostly British actors, many of who are also veterans of the ‘Harry Potter’ series. Jim Broadbent’s voice may be the most recognizable as Santa, but there’s also Imelda Staunton as Mrs. Santa, always ready with common sense and an encouraging word. Nighy, Laurie and McAvoy are delightful as the various members of Santa’s family, with McAvoy’s Arthur managing to be awkward and endearing at the same time, not as easy it might appear. There are a number of other celebrities in the voice cast but lots of luck picking out Laura Linney, Michael Palin, Joan Cusack, Eva Longoria, and Robbie Coltrane.
“Arthur Christmas” is that rare holiday movie that’s actually entertaining, delivering its message with a lot more skill and deftness than Arthur does with the missing present. For households where Santa pays a visit, this is a delightful addition to the holiday season.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.