Arthur Christmas is a spirited, comically chaotic and adorably anarchic addition to the over-supply of holiday cartoons. It's very British, in other words — in its producers (Aardman, the Wallace and Gromit folks), its voice casting and the slang slung by assorted Santas in this 3-D computer-animated farce.
Santas in this version of North Pole Inc. serve for about 70 years and pass the job to their sons. The current Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is a bit dotty, long in the tooth, more of a figurehead in the intricate time-traveling incarnation of the family business that his red camouflage-suited son, Steve (Hugh Laurie, perfect), has turned it into. He has a huge stealth spaceship sleigh in which armies of technocrat elves and Fed Ex elves organize deliveries, made by armies of commando elves, with Santa showing up to provide that "official" touch on Christmas Eve. Steve is waiting for the old man to retire. He even has the Armani Santa suit custom-made, and a Christmas tree-shaped goatee.
But the old man won't go. Even a disastrous near "wake-up" alert (a child wakes up with Santa in her room) isn't enough to convince him. When the organization realizes that out of the billions and billions served, a little girl in Cornwall named Gwen didn't get her bike, even Steve dismisses that as a statistical anomaly, and Santa himself shrugs it off.
"Don't worry, children are stupid," one elf offers. She won't realize she didn't get a visit from Father Christmas.
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Arthur, Santa's klutzy younger son (winningly voiced by James McAvoy), is shocked. He won't hear of it. And neither will his ancient grandpa, Grandsanta (played with demonic glee by the great Bill Nighy). The old man wants to get his old sleigh out and make the delivery, with real reindeer.
"They said it's impossible," Arthur protests.
"They used to say it was impossible to teach women how to read," Grandsanta mutters back. "We'll be back home in the waddle of a reindeer's buttocks!"
That's when Arthur Christmas takes off. With outmoded technology and a 136-year-old Santa with false teeth, a bad temper and no sense of direction, Arthur is going to get little Gwen her bike. They encounter a gun nut in Idaho, a fierce chihuahua in Mexico and marauding lions in Africa, all to make sure no child is left behind on Christmas.
"It doesn't matter how Santa's gift gets there," Arthur declares, "as long as it does!"
Arthur Christmas, which opened Wednesday, has many a madcap moment, multitudes of them provided by super-efficient gift-wrapping elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen), who thinks invisible tape can solve any problem — including those lions.
The Aardman animators know a few things about sight gags and throw-away lines, which pile up quickly. Nighy's wicked glee is hilarious, but the sheer invention is what gets you.
The movie's energy flags at the one-hour mark, but we kind of need that break to catch our breath. The animated holiday film genre already is overflowing with the sentimental, so the silly Arthur Christmas is a most welcome treat.