I wondered about Arthur Christmas, whether the story which by the trailers looked obvious, would be able to work for me. However, the performances and story worked so well and moved so quickly (with perhaps one or two stumbles) that by the end I was charmed by Arthur Christmas and found that it will be yet another delightful holiday film all can enjoy.
For centuries, the ability of Santa Clause to travel the world in one night, dropping off gifts to all the good boys and girls has vexed the world. How is it possible? Well, Arthur Christmas begins with exactly how that's done now: with the latest technology. Our current Santa (Jim Broadbent), who to be honest is a bit dotty, is now the nominal head of operations. The true brains behind things is his eldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), who runs Christmas with military precision, aided by a group of highly trained elves who serve as paratroopers (para-elves?), ensuring that as much territory is covered in as brief a time as possible. Everything runs like clockwork.
While Steve sees Christmas as a military-type exercise and is more interested that everything go right than whether kids actually enjoy the holiday, this isn't the philosophy of his younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy). He LOVES Christmas with all the lights and glitter and happy children opening their gifts. However, Arthur is not seen as the heir apparent to the long legacy of Santas (we learn that the title of Santa is passed on from father to son in a line stretching all the way to St. Nicholas). As it stands, Santa doesn't see Steve as his heir either, at least not for next year's Christmas. Steve is displeased, and there is tension in the Christmas home: Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) is dismissive of Steve's more automated serviee, while Steve is irritated both by Grandsanta's antiquated view and Santa not relinquishing his title.
(There is something almost Shakespearean about this, isn't there?)
Only Arthur, while aware of the tensions, is still filled with holiday joy.
After the celebration of yet another successful Christmas, one of the elves, Bryony (Ashley Jensen) discovers that...horror of HORRORS!...ONE gift was left undelivered. Steve is not interested in rectifying this: his plan worked save for this one glitch w/this particular child whom he knows as a number. Arthur, however, is horrified that this little girl will be left without a gift. Steve won't give him the S-1 (a spaceship-type sleigh that was used) but Grandsanta managed to hold on to the old sleigh. From that, Arthur Christmas spends the rest of its brief 95 minute running time between Arthur and Grandsanta (with the former attempting to overcome his various fears: flight, reindeer, etc.) and Steve attempting to fix the problems they are causing.
What makes Arthur Christmas work is the attention to detail in almost all aspects of the story. The personalities of the characters, in particular the Christmas brothers, comes in their choice of wardrobe. Steve favors a military-style uniform with the traditional Christmas colors intertwined in them, while his younger brother has the loud Christmas sweaters and slippers with glowing eyes. The stiffness of Steve versus the kitsch of Arthur tells us so much about them.
In terms of performances, it's rare when I dislike something McAvoy does, and Arthur Christmas is no exception. McAvoy makes Arthur a sweet, loving individual, not perhaps bright but not an imbecile either. Laurie equally exudes Steve's self-confidence and remarkably uncaring attitude towards children (as in the scene when he goes to 'apologize' for not leaving a present, his formal manner is comic enough). It's a credit that of all the voices, only Broadbent decided to keep his own (when I heard Santa, I instantly recognized it was Jim Broadbent), but in his slightly tottering manner Santa is also delightful.
I would be remiss to leave out Nighy, who is fast becoming one of my personal favorites. His antagonistic Grandsanta gives Arthur Christmas some of its funniest moments in his ego and barely lucid moments. When Arthur tells Grandsanta that something was impossible, Grandsanta responds, "They used to say it was impossible to teach women to read." Make what you will of such funny lines. Another time, Grandsanta tells Arthur that he likes travelling through Canada because, "there's no one in Canada. It's so peaceful and quiet".
If I were to criticize anything in Arthur Christmas, it is that perhaps the story was stretched out a bit (a sequence in Africa in particular feels almost tacked on to make this short film a bit longer). While the film is already short, I thought at times (particularly in Africa) the story was padded.
That, however, is a minor flaw. Arthur Christmas and Arthur Christmas only want to please with their eagerness and general sweetness, and both do so splendidly. The elves were funny (comparable to the Minions in Despicable Me, only with more personality) and Arthur Christmas has an intelligence and cleverness that works so well.
While it's too soon so say Arthur Christmas will become a Christmas classic, Arthur will always be welcome at every home he visits.