Father Christmas & Sons.
Arthur Christmas introduces a little novelty to the mythic history of His Most Jolly that intrigues, if never quite endears. Like quite a few animated holiday flicks of the past decade—Prep & Landing and The Polar Express spring to mind—this Christmas Eve operation includes high-tech gadgetry and precise maneuvers by scores of elfin tactical squads. Though such details serve the film to a comic end, this device also builds a backdrop for the film’s central theme that, though times may change, the Christmas spirit endures. It’s in there, if buried a little deep in family drama.
Beyond the gimmicks, Arthur depicts quite simply a dysfunctional family in which the father happens to be Santa Claus. Having finished his seventieth mission, the man in red (Jim Broadbent) announces to the surprise of all his massive crew that he will not retire as expected, but intends to continue on in his post. The declaration comes as a crushing blow to eldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who has spearheaded the recent years’ tech-savvy redesign and had close watch on the mantle. Safe the successional drama, the clumsy and aloof younger son Arthur (James McAvoy) busies himself heading up the letters department and playing peace-maker to his headstrong father, brother and cranky ol’ Grand-Santa (Bill Nighy).
Trouble strikes the Pole, though, when an oversight leaves one little girl missing her Christmas gift. For all the squabbling, only Arthur deems it top priority, so he embarks on an ill-advised mission to deliver the present before sun-up.
Arthur’s zany action and enthusiastic performances will delight kids and bore adults, though the film’s central concerns are actually most unchildish. Old age, particularly the fear of one’s own feebleness and irrelevance, acts as a driving force behind both Santa’s bold decision to prolong his tenure and Grand-Santa’s madcap gambit to aid Arthur. Further the contrast of ambition toward– and passion for– betwixt Steve and Arthur reflects the filmmakers’ firm planting of Christmas within the heart, not the material world. It’s a common theme among holiday flicks, but played out well in these two disparate personifications.
Here and there the film reaches deeper. At one point, Steve hints at the resentment he harbors having had to share his father with all the children of the world. These heart-rending what-ifs are well worth a moment’s pause, but the filmmakers struggle to tackle these issues and also produce an accessible family comedy.
While Arthur may boast expansive landscapes from the Arctic to the Sahara and beyond, the action is small, little more than to fill an old sleigh. Alas, Arthur is a simple and engaging story unnaturally prolonged—such that it feels hollow. The narrative dedicates so much time to how far off-track the Clauses have gotten from the true spirit of Christmas, that the climax, albeit it quite affective, cannot buoy the whole.
It has very much to offer, but a cogent plot is not among its strong suits. Unfortunately, plot, not concept, drives a film, and Arthur Christmas remains a pleasant enough little holiday film with a sagging, sullen—and awfully contrived—middle act.