For years now, Christmas movies about Santa have veered in a different, more corporate direction. They’ve viewed the holiday as a combination of mysticism and technical know-how, with a Santa and elves that run the North Pole like an industry.
Elves used to dutifully craft wooden horses from basic tools, Santa never used a computer, and his relationship with the elves didn’t have the feel of a general giving orders to his staff. Will a child born in the past decade imagine Santa’s workshop as a colorful place where elves assembled toys, or as a high-tech command center?
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“Arthur Christmas” takes the newer look at Santa’s operation but cleverly incorporates what we used to see in books and movies about St. Nick. The titular Arthur (James McAvoy) is Santa’s son, the youngest in a long line of descendants of the original St. Nick. His father, Santa (Jim Broadbent), carries the official title, while his older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie), an efficient taskmaster, waits impatiently for his turn as the main man in red. Neither seems to care much for the actual children they bring presents to, but then again, when you see their responsibilities, how could they?
Santa has foregone a sleigh for a giant space cruiser complete with cloaking device. The ship goes, if memory serves, 150,000 miles per hour. Hearing this warmed my heart, because even though Santa and family all appear to be English, they’re wise enough to use the imperial system instead of the metric.
Presents are distributed by a literal army of elves that descend from the ship and distribute the presents to the children of the world, and the penalty for being discovered delivering the gift by a child is apparently severe, though we’re not told what it is. Ever notice movies that take Santa Claus seriously always seem to hedge their bets when it comes to the details?
When an error results in a solitary one of the entire world’s children not receiving her gift, Arthur is dismayed to see his father and brother dismiss the issue. What do they exist for if not the joy of every child, he reasons, and soon he’s out with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), his grandfather, in an old-fashioned sleigh powered by reindeer. This thing’s such an antique that it only travels at 40,000 miles per hour.
"Arthur Christmas" is often more clever than it needs to be, with an amusing secular take on Santa Claus, a good dash of heart, and even some genuinely funny humor during its bloated running time. It really exists for children who won't mind the lack of depth to its themes of secular Christmas joy, but it also works as broad entertainment. I virtually never see children’s films unless they’re assigned to me for review, though I’m
not sorry that I drew this one.