The more one thinks about Santa, the less sense it makes that children would buy into the legend of a benevolent home invader capable of delivering presents to 600 million kids in one night. They accept because they want to believe. “Arthur Christmas” embraces this unconditional faith and rewards it with creative explanations and a brisk computer-animated adventure clever enough to become essential yuletide viewing. But it will have to do so with little help from an unclear marketing campaign, relying on affection for Aardman — trading stop-motion for equally eccentric-looking CG — to attract fans amid a dauntingly crowded family-film season.
Opening with a letter written in the same spirit of skepticism as the New York Sun’s famous “Yes, Virginia … ” column, “Arthur Christmas” counters such questions as, “If you really live at the North Pole, how come I can’t see your house when I look on Google Earth?” with an explanation that, while not exactly plausible, significantly upgrades the iconography of the season. That famous sleigh Santa uses to criss-cross the world on Christmas Eve? Here, it’s really more of a super-sonic UFO, equipped with advanced camouflage technology and engines that run on milk and cookies. These days, the fat guy doesn’t go anywhere near chimneys, since he has an elite platoon of trained elves to do his delivery work.
This inventive overhaul of the logistics of Christmas, dreamt up by British comedy scribes Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith (who honed their craft writing for the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci), serves as an amusing prologue to a story that has less in common with traditional Santa-oriented holiday pics than it does with that other perennial holiday staple, the dysfunctional-family comedy, where characters who can barely abide one another must find a way to be civil around the dinner table.
Played by a delightfully British voice cast, the Christmas clan is overseen by Mr. and Mrs. Santa (Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton), who’ve been at the helm for the past 70 years. Wide-eyed Arthur (James McAvoy) sits in awe of his father’s work, the very picture of Aardmanian awkwardness with his gangly physique and misty love for everything about the season, right down to unspeakably tacky knit holiday sweaters. Then there’s the slightly senile Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), taking wicked pleasure in undermining his son’s streamlined new system with tales of the good old days, when reindeer, rather than GPS, steered his sleigh. But the real tension comes from Arthur’s big brother, Steve (Hugh Laurie), who’s impatient to inherit the job.
Between his tree-shaped goatee and military uniform, Steve takes Christmas a little too seriously, running things like he would a military operation, which calls to mind the mismatched Zevo brothers of Barry Levinson’s “Toys” (a holiday turkey perhaps only the folks at Aardman are generous enough to love). Back at the North Pole, the family’s celebrations grind to a halt when the cleanup crew discovers a present left undelivered — a present addressed to none other than Gwen, the same letter-writing lass heard from in the opening scene.
Santa can’t be bothered, while Steve chalks it up as an acceptable margin of error, vowing to messenger the present so that it arrives within “the window of Christmas.” Only Arthur sees the urgency in delivering Gwen’s gift that night, enlisting Grandsanta and an overeager elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) to take the old sleigh for a spin.
Baynham and Smith’s script is ruthlessly efficient in the telling, so dense as to ensure that even the sharpest auds will pick up only a fraction of its many jokes the first time around (a situation compounded somewhat by all those British accents). But dense can be delightful, so long as it resists the frenzied attention-deficit style found in so much contemporary animation for kids, and Smith, who also directs, takes care to let the emotional bits register, even as she hustles the story forward at a rapid clip, goosed along by Harry Gregson-Williams’ zippy score.
As endearing as Aardman’s stop-motion efforts have been before, only computer animation could do the scope of this pic justice, with Sony Pictures Animation supplying the pipeline to create this globe-trotting lark. True to the Aardman aesthetic, the hilariously ill-proportioned character designs are neither cute not entirely polished, though the team’s perfectionism shows in the attention paid to Arthur’s pimples and other minute flaws. Never have such ugly people been more beautifully lit, demonstrating how far Sony’s technique has evolved since its work on Warner Bros.’ “The Polar Express.”
The inclusion of a 3D musicvideo for Justin Bieber’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” might draw a few more young American eyes to this endangered release, which will depend heavily on overseas auds to make up for any shortfall in the States. Luckily, “Arthur Christmas” feels less insularly British than previous Aardman releases; there’s plenty here for all ages and nationalities, including the sly but entirely welcome suggestion that female characters have been under-credited in previous yuletide tales. Just imagine the fun Smith might have had with a daughter in line to succeed Santa. There’s always room for a sequel.