For the sake of clarity, please note that the film Arthur Christmas has nothing to do with Arthur Bach, the cheerful but lovelorn multimillionaire alcoholic played by Dudley Moore (and more recently by Russell Brand), or Arthur Read, the anthropomorphic aardvark whose animated exploits were the basis of a long-running PBS cartoon series.
The titular character in Arthur Christmas is instead a well-meaning but profoundly clumsy young man who is trying to make good in the family business, which happens to be spreading joy and good will during the holiday season. Arthur Christmas is a seasonal offering from Aardman Animations, the British studio best known for bringing us the adventures of Wallace & Gromit, and while the film's digital animation boasts a good bit more gloss than Aardman's best-known work, it's also a clever, witty comedy that adds a welcome edge of sly humor to a story with no small amount of Yuletide sentimentality. In short, it's a smart, rollicking good time.
Arthur Christmas begins with a child composing a letter to Santa Claus that asks many of the questions that confound children when they start working out the logic of Father Christmas and his annual toy delivery: How old is Santa? How does he get into the house? How does he cover the entire world in one night? What happens to all those snacks left for Santa and his reindeer? And how is it he never misses a house? The film then presents a crash course in the complex nature of Santa's operations, as we watch him travel around the world in a high-tech airship while delivering the gifts with the help of an army of elves whose skills resemble a cross between ninjas and a SWAT team. These days, Santa is the commander and figurehead of the operation, and it's a job that's been handed down through the family -- the current Santa (voice of Jim Broadbent), who has been at the helm for 70 years, took over from his father, Grandsanta (voice of Bill Nighy). And as Santa loses interest in the work, the heir apparent is his son Steve (voice of Hugh Laurie), who has the physique of a bodybuilder and the business sense of a Fortune 500 CEO. Steve has a younger brother named Arthur (voice of James McAvoy), an overeager geek with a handful of phobias and a habit of being in the way, who's been relegated to a lowly task in the North Pole's mailroom. But while Steve is a genius when it comes to technology and organization, he's not all that interested in Christmas and doesn't like children.
Arthur, on the other hand, truly loves the holiday and understands the power of a child's faith. When an error in the delivery system results in one present not being delivered, Santa and Steve are willing to write off the mistake, but Arthur is horrified at the notion of a child being let down. After his dad and his brother try to wash their hands of the matter, Arthur teams up with Grandsanta to make the trip from the North Pole to a small town in the U.K.; they use the sleigh and reindeer that Steve abandoned as impractical years ago, and have some unexpected help from Bryony (voice of Ashley Jensen), a Scottish elf who's a genius at wrapping.
With the exception of Pixar, no animation studio working today delivers more consistently enjoyable films than the folks at Aardman, and while they cut their teeth with the plasticine adventures of Wallace & Gromit and the birds of Chicken Run, Aardman demonstrated they could embrace computer animation and not lose the distinctive feel and personality of their work with 2006's underappreciated Flushed Away. Arthur Christmas was produced in collaboration with Sony Pictures Animation, and they clearly brought plenty of technical expertise to the project, which looks marvelous (particularly in 3D). But this feels like an Aardman movie in every respect, from the playfully eccentric character designs and richly detailed backgrounds, to the very British slant of the humor and the wealth of in-jokes and references to films both familiar and obscure.
Sarah Smith, a top British comedy writer, makes her directorial debut with Arthur Christmas, and as one might expect, she has plenty of fun with the not-always-smooth familial relationships between Santa and his kin (and she draws excellent performances from the voice cast). But she also does a splendid job with the film's visuals, delivering some impressive action sequences and milking Grandsanta's chaotic voyage for all its worth. Smith and co-screenwriter Peter Baynham perform a delicate balancing act between the film's dry, sometimes prickly comedy and the genuine warmth of the more sentimental moments, and they pull it off with flying colors: This is a story with a heart that's warm but never sappy, and a comedy that's smart but never arrogant about it. In a season unexpectedly full of quality family films, Arthur Christmas may have to fight for the attention it deserves, but if there was ever an example of a film that's a crowd-pleaser without talking down to its audience, this is it.