Santa Claus has been pop-culture fair game pretty much since there was pop culture; what was A Visit from St. Nicholas but an early 19th-century attempt to cash in on the youth market? Over the years so much has been thrown at this myth that it’s pretty rare to see anything new done with the basic formula. But, surprisingly enough, that’s exactly what writers Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith — who also directs — have managed with Arthur Christmas. What could have been more dreadful kidsploitation turns out to be a surprisingly charming, funny, and sweet story that manages to make up for the fact that its lead-in is the music video for the insipid, pitch-quantized Justin Bieber cover of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.
Kids are more on top of modern technology than ever, which makes the whole idea of Santa Claus that much harder to sell. The movie puts these qualms right up front in a little girl’s letter to Santa, and then quickly answers them: while previous generations of Clauses may have used a magic sled and flying cervids, the current methods involve a vaguely sleigh-shaped flying saucer the size of a small city — equipped with a cloaking device — and an enormous, high-tech, paramilitary operation executed by elves on the ground and coordinated from a nerve center back at the North Pole. The current Santa himself (Jim Broadbent) is mostly a figurehead, and his suit has been crossed with a World War Two or Korean War-era British officer’s uniform. The operational details are headed up by his son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), back at mission control, who hopes to step up to take over his father’s position after this year.
But all this newfangled technology doesn’t sit well with “Grandsanta” (Bill Nighy), the current Santa’s retired father, who looks pretty much as you’d expect for a guy whose heyday was in World War One. And a tightly-organized structure doesn’t offer much place for Steve’s brother Arthur (James McAvoy), a gawky bumbler who seems to be the only one involved who still finds wide-eyed wonder in the spirit of Christmas. Still, he’s found a convenient niche in answering kids’ letters to Santa and assuring them that not only is he real, but he’s the greatest man ever.
So all is well and good until, during a tense moment delivering a noisy gift to Germany, a little girl’s bicycle is accidentally jostled off of a conveyor belt and forgotten until after the rest of the night’s deliveries are finished. Arthur is horrified that a child has been missed, and distraught over what she might think if she wakes up to find no present. Steve, however, cites the astronomically small margin of error that one slip-up out of two billion children presents, and Santa is content to go along and take the easy road, as he’s become accustomed to.
Grandsanta, however, reveals to Arthur that he’s still got his old sleigh and some pet reindeer around. And so they set off, accompanied by an enthusiastic wrapping elf (Ashley Jensen), to the inevitable hijinks.
And as the story unspools — along with miles of paper, ribbon, and tape — it does a wonderful job of exploring how Arthur, Steve, Santa, and Grandsanta all relate to each other, and to the holiday their family has been bound up with for generations. The one catch is that in order to get into story and character, the movie has to draw out a lull in the fast-paced action and bright colors, which didn’t seem to sit well with the overstimulated young audience I found myself surrounded by. I also got the sense that much of the dry wit went as far over their heads as the reindeer.
Maybe British kids — and this is definitely a British version of Father Christmas — are better prepared than Americans. But I fear that Arthur Christmas‘ stumbling block will be that by the time kids are old enough to appreciate the movie they’re old think Santa stories are somewhere between passé and mortifying, and it’ll be another ten years before they can stop taking themselves so seriously and learn to enjoy it. Maybe the Bieber song will draw them in.
Worth It: yes
Bechdel Test: fail.