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“Arthur Christmas” Review

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Knowing what you might about Sony/Aardman’s latest feature “Arthur Christmas” (from the title and promotional visuals alone you’ll pretty much be assured of a seasonal, family-friendly tale, aesthetically skewed toward younger audiences), it would be fairly easy to construct in your minds the last type of person on the planet who’d be receptive to it. Somebody jaded and wearied by saccharine, morality-driven children’s seasonal programming and cinema alike; Someone who has, in spite of themselves, retained from adolescence the impulse to sneer derisively at anything wholesome or fundamentally uplifting. At this point I’ve pretty much described myself – for, while I love the holidays, it’s predominantly from the perspective of abandoning all notions of social responsibility and replacing it with alcohol and turkey sandwiches. The whimsy and mystical merriment of the season has been pretty much shelved until I start my own family, which is why I think it’s important I review this film. See, kids will love it, parents will love that their kids love it and find plenty to be enamoured with themselves – but what of its only conceivable critics, the Scrooge McCurmudgeons that unmarried males in their late-twenties so epitomise?

Well, having weighed it all up over the last twenty-four odd hours…I have pretty much nothing negative to say about “Arthur Christmas”. In fact – and this does not behove my carefully contrived  aloof’n’dismissive persona – it’s kind of the perfect Christmas film. Well, for this generation at least.

Premiering locally last night as part of the “Wallace & Gromit Grand Appeal” in aid of Cots for Tots (which in itself already saw my cockles somewhat warmed), there was a fuzzy, seasonal vibe that rarely seems to rear its head this early in November, barely impeded by the presence of uncomfortably-besuited Sony henchmen eyeballing the crowd for recording paraphernalia. The expectant atmosphere was one of eager anticipation for the Christmas season to begin proper, and to that end the timing of the film’s release – out today in the UK and on the 23rd in the US – couldn’t be better.

The film in itself makes the arguably smart move of slipping in some quality gags right off the bat (any kids’ film that can crowbar in a line about exponential population growth in the first minute gets my vote). I say ‘arguably’ as setting such a precedent wouldn’t be so wise if it wasn’t so consistent throughout – thankfully this turns out not to be an issue. Seemingly taking its cues from the early-era “Simpsons” school of near-subliminal jokewriting, the script (by Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith, who previously collaborated on the underappreciated animated sitcom “I Am Not An Animal”) has been densely punched up with one-liners, offhandedly-dark asides and fleeting sight gags whose vaguely-adult connotations nicely zest up the main plot without overwhelming it. Said storyline deals with the titular Arthur (James McAvoy), son of Malcolm (current Santa Claus in residence, voiced by Jim Broadbent) and brother of Steve (Hugh Laurie, pretty much striking an exact balance between his grumpy Stateside persona and the earlier goofball roles he’s so beloved for on this side of the pond). While Steve’s über-efficient contemporising of the Christmas operation sees him essentially running the show with Santa acting more as figurehead, Arthur’s childlike insistence on romanticising the holiday, coupled with a litany of crippling phobias, sees him relegated to the sidelines.

The story begins properly when, having realised a child has been overlooked, he is coerced by his retired Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) to secretly take out the old sled and deliver her present the traditional way. Accompanied by a stowaway elf with a borderline-OCD compulsion for gift-wrapping (Ashley Jensen) they embark on a journey stymied by an industrialised world. It becomes quickly apparent that the traditional Christmas ways don’t sit well with modern society.

Beyond the adventure elements which successfully ensnared the kids’ attention, “Arthur Christmas” is a film about family, love, tradition and the importance of holding onto all three, while at the same time not being too quick to automatically eschew change and progress. It’s a film that acknowledges both the antiquated traditions of Christmas and the impersonal nature of modern technology, yet manages both without any real cynicism. All of which is accompanied by an ensemble cast riddled with vocal cameos (Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Dominic West and Michael Palin all pop up as elves) and a genuinely beautiful score by Harry Gregson-Williams that spares the adults any insufferable showtunes, save for the autotuned nonsense playing over the end credits as we shuffled out.

Naturally enough, a great deal of the cinematography and set design seems to have been informed by the 3D side of things. However it seems that after a few years this device is being used more sparingly and to greater effect than as the gimmicky constant it seemed to be at its initial reintroduction to cinemas a few years back (it also helps that, at this point, the glasses have been developed so as to no longer bring the brightness level of the screen to levels of murky, neuralgia-inducing dimness). As a consequence the thoughtfully constructed landscapes and interiors lend themselves to greater appreciation, with the obligatory showboating shots and reveals, by virtue of infrequency, actually demanding more legitimate awe than the numerous films up to now that haven’t been as disciplined at reigning it all in. Just as the story at its heart is predicated on marrying the traditional with the progressive, in technical terms it holds on to the conventions of traditional moviemaking and storytelling with enough energy and visual inventiveness to keep it contemporary.

In tone and visuals it’s also commendable for not screaming “Aardman” at you in such a way as “Chicken Run”, the forthcoming “Pirates!” and even the studio’s last CG offering “Flushed Away” has done. Which isn’t to say their signature aesthetic has ever lost its appeal (read: please don’t blacklist me, fellas) but it’s an encouraging sign that they have the same confidence in their feature films to stray from the stylistically familiar as they have with their recent television and commercial work.

So…the summation? You’ve probably gathered by now, but it won me over completely, pretty much within the first reel. As a film in its own right it’s witty, warmhearted and visually sophisticated, with enough sparkly magic to enchant the kids and sly grownup jokes to keep parents engaged. And, miracle of miracles, it’s instilled in a disenchanted grump like myself a soupçon of seasonal spirit. It probably won’t last beyond the first round of Christmas shopping, but I’ll savour it while it’s there.

Items mentioned in this article:

Arthur Christmas [DVD]

Arthur Christmas [DVD]

£4.59

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