It’s curious how Christmas mythology has evolved in cinema.
With “Miracle on 34th Street” the concept of letters to Santa being answered was tackled head-on, reassuring youngsters everywhere that Santa DOES exist, and not just in spirit.
With “The Santa Clause” came the introduction of the idea that, like the Dread Pirate Roberts in “The Princess Bride,” Santa isn’t just one guy who lives forever. It’s a succession of guys.
With “Fred Claus” came the notion that Santa had a brother and that there was a sibling rivalry.
With “Elf” filmmakers tried to explain how Santa could make all those impossible deliveries on Christmas Eve by positing a sleigh that was powered by “belief.” The more people believed, the more that sleigh zipped along.
In “Arthur Christmas” all of those ideas come together, but with an added twist: It turns out that Santa being able to deliver presents to more than seven billion people in a single night has nothing to do with Christmas spirit or belief—it’s made possible because the whole operation is a combination of NASA launch (with command central) and a massive elf commando-style operation. The sleigh itself is a gigantic spacecraft that—as it hovers over a section of Earth and thousands of long ropes drop with uniformed elves lowering themselves quick as a S.W.A.T. team—to an Earthling who happened to notice would seem like an alien invasion.
This holiday film from Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman Animations will charm the Christmas stockings off of many viewers because of its ambitious animation, eye-candy details, and irreverent, smart-aleck humor that’s mostly tossed off by Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), who retired long ago. But there’s something just a little unsettling about taking a holiday that’s always been a benign blend of the secular and religious—a Christmas spirit gift-giving day that’s linked to “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men”—and turning it into a tense, aggressive military operation, with Santa sporting the physique and uniform of a British commando, tilted red beret and all. And the sibling rivalry we saw in “Fred Claus” in this film becomes a saga about an entire family in dysfunction. And when there’s a child-awake alert and in the ensuing mayhem one present gets overlooked—meaning, one child gets nothing for Christmas—a more famimliar plot kicks in.
That’s when, as my teenage son put it, “It got kinda stupid.”
While he’s not the boss of me and I form my own opinions, if a family film causes both him and my pre-teen daughter to lose interest, it’s worth mentioning. I didn’t think it was as bad as they did, because the animation and backgrounds and detail are so astounding, and I couldn’t wait to hear what that old codger Grandsanta would come up with next. For me, those things saved the film, even as yet another saving Christmas story felt overly familiar and no doubt opened the door for my kids’ reaction.
Santa is played by the ubiquitous Jim Broadbent, and this Christmas Eve is supposed to be the big guy’s last, his 70th “mission.” His son, Steve (Hugh Laurie)—a big guy who’s built like a bully—runs mission control and is poised to take over the operation as the red-suited pilot of the S-1. His younger brother, Arthur (James McAvoy), is the slightly built nerd of the family, the runt of the litter who is kept busy by receiving and responding to all of the letters to Santa Claus. And when the undelivered present is discovered and Steve shrugs it off as falling within the “acceptable margin of error,” Arthur becomes possessed and, with the help of Grandsanta, sets out to make amends.
Mrs. Santa (Imelda Staunton) has even less to do in this film than she usually does, because the focus is on the three Santas and a theme that pits the new technology (including a talking computer voiced by Laura Linney) against the old, retired “magic”—which itself has a pretty high-tech aspect.
The picture looks gorgeous in 3D Blu-ray and Blu-ray, with eye-popping detail and color and fluid animation that benefits from the scrutiny high-def invites. But don’t look for too many things to break the plane of the TV on the 3D version. Mostly the 3D is evident in busy scenes crowded on all three planes of the picture: background, middle distance, and foreground. Yet, if you pop in the standard Blu-ray you see nearly the same level of depth. There’s often the promise that something will hurtle toward you, but it never really happens. So if I had to break it down, I’d say that the standard Blu-ray merits a 10, while the 3D effects are average at best. “Arthur Christmas” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with the 3D transfer accomplished by an MVC/MPEG-4 transfer that looks impeccable. The standard Blu-ray transfer is also flawless.
The audio has all kinds of pop and presence, with the English DTS-HD MA main audio offering a robust level of bass that provides heft during the spaceship scenes and enough distribution of sound across the effects speakers to create a realistic sound field that makes sense of what could have been cacophonous chaos. An English audio descriptive track is also included, along with French DTS-HD MA 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio options and subtitles in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Aside from the DVD and UltraViolet copy, there’s surprisingly little in the way of bonus features, however. An “Unwrapping of Arthur Christmas” (13 min.) is a standard mix of talking heads and clips that skims the surface of the animation stages and really teases more than it satisfies. And while “Progression reels” give you a sense of how the animators worked digitally in layers to create the look of “Arthur Christmas,” including some discussion of the hows and whys, but I wanted a bit more about this historic first collaboration between Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman Animations. Rounding out the bonus features is a fake commercial for elf recruitment and previews of other Sony titles.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy “Arthur Christmas” will come down to how you react to the military aspect, and whether you think the razzle-dazzle animation is enough to compensate for a plot that can feel a little too familiar, and with a high-tech element that sometimes overpowers the warmth that this holiday film tries to generate. Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a 91 percent “fresh” rating, but in my household it was somewhere between a diamond and a lump of coal. I’d give it a 7 if my kids wanted to watch it again, but without that “repeat” factor it merits a 6.