Arthur Christmas

We’ll get to praising “Arthur Christmas” in a minute, but first we need to stipulate that it has a bad title. Either you think it’s a yuletide story about Dudley Moore’s (or Russell Brand’s) drunken Arthur character, or, if you know it’s a cartoon, you assume it has to do with that Arthur aardvark character on PBS. But “Arthur Christmas” is in fact a standalone property — and a clever and funny one — with no drunkards or aardvarks in sight. Any confusion could have been avoided simply by giving the main character a different first name, but it’s a little late for that.

The Arthur in question, voiced by James McAvoy, is an earnest young man who works in the mail room at the North Pole. He’s not an elf, though: he’s Santa’s son. His older brother, Steve (Hugh Laurie), a barrel-chested authoritarian with a Christmas-tree-shaped goatee, runs their father’s gift-delivering operation with military precision. Santa himself (voiced perfectly by Jim Broadbent), is mostly just a figurehead now, a kindly, doddering fellow who accompanies the army of elves on their Christmas Eve “missions” but doesn’t really do anything.

Santa is the twentieth person to hold the title of “Santa,” and he’s been on the job for 70 years. Everyone assumes he will soon retire and name Steve his successor. But when he and the elves return to mission control after an exhausting night of delivering presents, an alarming discovery is made: for the first time in decades, a child has been missed. Here’s her present all wrapped up and still sitting at the North Pole. In a few hours she’ll wake up and be devastated.

Steve is pragmatic. Yes, it’s unfortunate that this happened, but it would be wasteful to fire up the massive high-tech “sleigh” just to deliver one present. He prefers to focus on the millions of children who weren’t missed. Statistically speaking, one child left behind is a pretty good success rate! Santa is a little more personally saddened by the oversight, but he acquiesces to Steve’s recommendations.

That leaves Arthur, a true believer in the Santa Claus mystique who loves Christmas more than anything, to save the day. He’s assisted by another marginalized North Pole figure: his 136-year-old grandfather (Bill Nighy). Grandsanta, as he’s known, is a cantankerous coot full of stories about how things were different (i.e., better) when HE was Santa Claus. The elves helped, but he delivered the presents himself! And he actually rode a wooden sleigh pulled by magic-dust-enchanted reindeer! He scoffs at his son (“a postman with a spaceship”) and is glad for the chance to prove his usefulness by pulling the old sleigh out of storage, firing up the reindeer, and delivering that little girl’s present. Along for the ride is Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an eager elf from the wrapping division.

The film has a lot of fun with the logistics of the Santa Claus operation — both the modern, clockwork-like system that sends legions of elves rappelling down ropes into houses equipped with electronic scanners to determine naughty/nice levels; and the old-fashioned system, which relied on antiquated maps and temperamental reindeer. The frenetically funny opening sequence shows how it’s supposed to work, with headset-wearing elves at mission control guiding field officers through tricky scenarios like unsleeping children and inquisitive pets. Ingeniously detailed, this sequence serves as set-up for when Arthur and Grandsanta have to do things the old-fashioned way and find one complication after another. The ex-Santa’s anecdotes and recollections are uniformly hilarious, including his boast about the time he delivered presents despite being delirious with fever: “Every child that year got a sausage nailed to a piece of bark!”

That wry, English sense of humor is on display throughout the film, which was directed by Sarah Smith and written by Smith and Peter Baynham (who, confusingly enough, also wrote this year’s “Arthur” remake). Smith and Baynham come from daft grown-up British TV comedies like “The League of Gentlemen,” “The Armando Iannucci Shows,” and “I’m Alan Partridge,” while their producing partners are from Aardman Animations — i.e., the Wallace and Gromit people. “Arthur Christmas” is a merry mixture of sophisticated jokes, simple jokes, and plenty of silliness. If the story grows thin in the middle (how many times can Arthur and Grandsanta veer off-course?), it’s worth it for the laughs and the warm-and-fuzzy yuletide cheer.

B+ (1 hr., 37 min.; PG, mild rude humor.)

Reprinted from