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It's hard to make a good and original Christmas movie, but damn near impossible to put a fresh spin on Santa, his elves or the North Pole. We live in a world in which Vince Vaughn played Santa's slacker brother and there were two sequels to The Santa Clause; you'd think everything hip or new to be said about Santa was already out there. But then, from the same magicians at Aardman Animation who made Wallace and Gromit beloved cultural icons, there comes Arthur Christmas, a joyful and tremendously funny spin on Santa as a story of family dysfunction.
Yes, in this version of the story Santa's sleigh is now a high-tech UFO called the S1, and elves are trained as rigorously as Navy SEALs to deliver presents within seconds, all while led by a central control station at the North Pole that's crammed with even more technology. But Arthur Christmas isn't cynical or hip in the way you might fear, eschewing pop culture references for good old-fashioned silliness and leaning on the rigorously tight screenplay by Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith (who also directed) to build a movie that's about its characters above all. The film opens with a thrilling, Bourne Identity-esque sequence in which we see the complex operation of delivering all the presents, and then we get the chance to meet the Clauses who make it happen-- Steve (Hugh Laurie), Santa's firstborn son who oversees operations; Santa himself (Jim Broadbent); and then Arthur (James McAvoy), the skinny and gawky youngest son who answers children's letters in a tinsel-bedecked office and, despite his overwhelming love for all things Christmas, is generally kept off to the sidelines.
Broadbent's Santa has the belly like a bowl full of jelly and the hearty laugh, but in a brilliant twist he's also worn out and more than a little apathetic, letting Steve essentially run things and unable to care even when Arthur discovers, to his horror, that one gift didn't get delivered to the child in question. Soon Arthur has no choice but to take it upon himself to deliver the gift, aided by his cranky and possibly insane Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), an old-fashioned sleigh powered by reindeer who may or may not be named "John", "You Over There" and "The Other One," and a stowaway elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), who can do some truly amazing things with gift wrap.
Their quest to deliver the gift in southern England takes them on a haywire overnight journey through the streets of Toronto, a rural Idaho gas station, an African nature preserve and much more, all the while Steve and the Santa family remain at home, convinced Arthur can't succeed. The story ends as it must, with family order restored and Christmas saved, but the getting there is terrific fun, with action sequences and moments of true emotion all hitting perfectly. McAvoy's endlessly optimistic Arthur and Nighy's cuckoo Grandsanta (with words of wisdom like "They used to say it was impossible to teach women to read!") make for an excellent odd couple, while the rule-adhering Bryony keeps things running but also slips in a little character development of her own.
The only character who really misses out on this very warm and inclusive film is Imelda Staunton's Mrs. Santa, who early in the film hints at becoming a paratrooping badass just like her elves, but eventually recedes to the background so her squabbling sons and husband can settle their differences. It's odd to a see a movie so sure-footed slip in such an evident way, but it's not nearly enough to derail this delight. It just gets me looking forward to the sequel.