One thing I learned while writing my holiday film guide “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas” is that there are two kinds of plots in this sub-genre with a tendency to stink on ice: movies about Santa, and anything where somebody has to save Christmas. (“Miracle on 34th Street,” “Elf” and “Ernest Saves Christmas” among the exceptions, obviously.)
The fact that “Arthur Christmas” delights, despite being both a Santa story and a somebody-saves-Christmas adventure, would be reason enough for celebration, but that’s putting too fine a point on it.
The funny, exciting, moving, intelligent “Arthur Christmas” will, if there’s any justice, become one of those annual classics that people return to each December and that becomes a part of the family holiday tradition.
And if the competition from “The Muppets” and “Hugo,” coupled with a horrendous marketing campaign (and a pun title that doesn’t really work outside of the United Kingdom), clobbers “Arthur Christmas” at the box office — well, hey, “It’s a Wonderful Life” didn’t do so hot in theaters, either.
The film takes place over the course of one tumultuous Christmas Eve, with the reigning Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) overseeing the global distribution of toys, although at this point he’s pretty just along for the ride, delivering one or two presents himself to stay in the game.
The real mastermind behind the operation is Santa’s son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who has brought the operation into the 21st century with hi-tech gadgetry (the sleigh is now a huge spaceship) and an organizational style that would leave Six Sigma types panting in his wake.
But if Santa is the (figure)head at the North Pole, and Steve the brains, the heart would have to be Santa’s other son, Arthur (James McAvoy). He reads all the letters from children, answers their questions about how Santa can do everything he does in one night, and thinks of each individual kid by name and not by the code number Steve has assigned them all.
That’s why it’s Arthur who gets upset when one gift — a bike for a young girl named Gwen (Ramona Marquez), who continues to believe in Santa when all her friends have stopped — fails to be delivered.
Steve sees one failure among billions of successes as acceptable within the margin of error, and besides, he’s bitter that Santa has decided to stay on rather than pass the reins along to his eldest as promised. Santa, meanwhile, just wants to go to bed.
So it’s up to Arthur and his crotchety “Grandsanta” (Bill Nighy) to deliver Gwen’s bike, with the help of exceedingly resourceful gift-wrapping elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen), who can do wonders with colored paper and a few pieces of tape.
Over the course of the trio’s globe-trotting adventures in Grandsanta’s old sleigh, we come to find that while the somewhat clumsy and dotty Arthur has generally been ignored by his father and older brother, he’s the one with the deepest Christmas spirit. Almost everyone else in his family has some personal agenda of self-aggrandizement, but for Arthur, it’s all about the kids and the magic of Santa.
That kind of thing can be disastrous in the wrong hands. Other movies of this ilk either go the super-gooey route — or they paint themselves into theological corners by castigating people who have stopped believing in Santa Claus — but “Arthur Christmas” maintains a sharp wit that perfectly counterbalances its lovely (and, by the end, fully earned) holiday sentimentality.
Blitzen only knows why this movie isn’t being sold in the U.S. as “From the people who gave you Wallace & Grommit,” but fans of the Aardman style of sly humor will have a ball with “Arthur Christmas.” This is that rare family movie where the jokes that will make mom and dad laugh aren’t smutty or reference-driven; they’re just clever, in the good sense of the word.
The voice cast is terrific, from Broadbent’s doddering bore of a Father Christmas to McAvoy’s wide-eyed enthusiasm to Nighy’s crusty lust for adventure. Jensen (“Extras,” “Ugly Betty”) makes Bryony the most captivating elf since Hermie the Dentist, and the supporting cast is peppered with pros like Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Jane Horrocks, and Andy Serkis.
You can probably skip the extra charge for 3-D, since the movie doesn’t make much use of the technology, but even flat, “Arthur Christmas” is a visual treat throughout — even with Steve’s sleek, ultra-modern gadgetry, it still finds room for snowdrifts and twinkle lights.
Truly great holiday movies for the entire family are a rare gift indeed. Go unwrap this one.