2011 wasn’t the best year in terms of mainstream animated pictures. Cars 2 was Pixar’s worst film to date, Disney’s Winnie the Pooh barely registered with audiences (and hardly deserved to either), while the likes of Rio, Kung Fu Panda 2, Happy Feet 2, Gnomeo and Juliet and Puss in Boots all occupied varying levels of average. Thankfully though, the year was bookended by two much better examples of the medium in Nickelodeon’s Rango and Sony/Aardman’s Arthur Christmas.
The latter’s coming out on DVD in time for this year’s festive season, and it’s surely due a reappraisal because it didn’t get half the recognition it deserved upon release (picking up a BAFTA nod but nothing from Oscar). In fact, of Aardman’s two efforts in the last twelve months it was The Pirates! that drew more plaudits, possibly getting more of a pass due to its critic-friendly stop-motion animation which obviously helped mask its story deficiencies. Watch closely and Arthur Christmas has just as much packed into every lovingly constructed frame (look out for the Chimney Lube in Grand-Santas workshop, for example), yet benefits from a compelling story that’s got a lot more real emotion running through it.
Arthur (James McAvoy) is the current Santa’s youngest son. Yes, that’s the current Santa, because Sarah Smith’s film establishes a family based at the North Pole who exist very much like the Royal Family, where the position of Santa is handed down from generation to generation. Eldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie) is eager to take over from the current iteration of Santa (Jim Broadbent), who himself took over from Grand-Santa (a superlative Bill Nighy) seventy years ago. Delivering Christmas presents has become a highly complex, military-like operation aided by millions of commando elves and hi-tech equipment including an enormous spaceship-esque sleigh replacement.
Arthur’s a bit of a goofball, but his passion and enthusiasm for the magic of Christmas is unparalleled, so when he discovers that one present has been missed he makes it his mission to deliver it before daybreak. But he can’t do it alone, so luckily Grand-Santa offers to take him out on his classic reindeer-pulled sleigh. It’s obvious when Grand-Santa beckons said reindeer (“Dasher! Dancer! Prancer! Erm, what are the others called, I can never ruddy remember. Bambi? John? You there with the white ear! And you!”), that this is going to be a hugely fun adventure. Instead of keeping their funniest, scene-stealing character in a supporting role like in so many other films are often tempted to do; here he’s never far from the action.
But what makes Arthur Christmas really special is the family dynamic at its heart. The relationships between the four men of the family are explored gradually explored throughout the duration of the film, but eventually reward with an incredibly heart-warming finale. This deserves to become a staple when it comes to Christmas movie viewing, so grab it on Blu-ray in time for this Christmas. Be warned though, the special features contain dangerous levels of Justin Bieber.