Please excuse Judge Patrick Naugle as he hangs up his stockings with care.
Operation Santa Claus is coming to town.
Christmas movies are a dime a dozen. Most are anywhere from terrible (Fred Claus) to mediocre (Home Alone) to absolutely batnuts bizarre (Santa Claus Conquers the Martians). Only a few can be considered true classics: A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story. It's the rare holiday movie that touches both your funny bone and your heartstrings. Does Arthur Christmas measure up? Let's find out.
Facts of the Case
Whatever your antiquated theories are about Christmas, they're all wrong. Gone are the days of Santa visiting your home on a sled pulled by eight tiny reindeer and cozily coming down your chimney. Now it's all technologically updated spaceships and elves armed with skill sets that rival James Bond. Throughout the centuries, the role of Santa Claus has changed hands often; the current Santa (voiced Jim Broadbent, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) is thinking of throwing in the towel and handing over the business to his son Steve (Hugh Laurie, House, M.D.), one of the North Pole's top commanders.
But Santa's other son, the goofy Arthur (James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class), worships his father and what Christmas still means to him. When the current holiday season ends with one child missing out on her gift, Arthur takes matters into his own hands and jets off on a classic sled—along with GrandSanta (Bill Nighy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) and a stowaway elf—to make sure every tyke on the planet receives a perfect Christmas. So Arthur and his team risk life and limb to cross the globe and make the delivery before the sun comes up.
I was fascinated by the fact that Arthur Christmas was not based on an existing property or children's book. I truly thought this must have been from some hot kid franchise. The slightly confusing thing is that since Arthur is a Claus, why not call it Arthur Claus? Of course this is a question begging an answer for me and probably no one else.
Upon release, Arthur Christmas garnered strong reviews but mediocre box office. On a $100 Million dollar budget, the film only raked in $147 Million. How that is considered disappointing I'll never know. I'm happy when I make five bucks off an old Harry Potter DVD on eBay, but I digress. This is an entertaining enough holiday experience kids will eat up like chocolate covered candy canes. I'm sure there are plenty of adults who will enjoy it too, though I wasn't one of them. Well, "enjoy" may not be the right word. The movie itself isn't hard to sit through, but leaves little impression. Much of the whimsy and magic that makes Christmas movies feel special is conspicuously absent here. By pushing the idea of Christmas into corporate territory—where the North Pole is essentially one big conglomerate—the whole thing loses a bit of its Christmas cheer.
I have an aversion to movies that make Christmas out to be some sort of secret high-tech holiday filled with NASA-style computer rooms, brainiac elf technicians, and a "sled" that could pass for one of the spaceships that blew up the White House in Independence Day. I realize I'm showing my age here, but when a movie makes elves out to be Ethan Hunt style super soldiers, a little bit of me dies inside. Who wants a Santa that's more or less a worldwide version of Amazon.com?
The voice talent does a commendable job. I especially enjoyed Bill Nighy as the crotchety GrandSanta and Hugh Laurie as the full of himself Steve Claus (complete with Christmas Tree shaped goatee). Everyone gives it their all, and the vocal characterizations are truly one of the best things about the film. But when it comes to the animation, Arthur Christmas is surprisingly spotty. The backgrounds look great, but the characters lack spark. Santa, Arthur, and Steve's bulbous features reminded me more of Gary Larson's comic strip The Far Side, than traditionally cute Christmas characters. And nothing here can be considered visually striking. It's all just sort of basic ocean, city, and suburban settings.
I have the sneaking suspicion that kids will really like this movie. Arthur Christmas is basically a comedy adventure movie featuring a lot of high flying sleigh antics, huge space ships, and even a few explosions. I think there's a message here somewhere—like don't ever stop loving Christmas, find your real self, or something like that—but in the end it's a movie about trying to get a single Christmas gift to a single child on one specific Christmas night. Not a bad story, per say, but it doesn't make for an overtly original holiday experience.
Presented in 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen, the transfer is absolutely spotless. Regardless of your like or dislike for Arthur Christmas, you have to agree that the image quality is gorgeous. The colors are deeply rendered (lots of blues and reds) and the black levels solid. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track (in English and French dub) is also exceptional. There are plenty of moments where the surrounds kick in, especially during the exciting sled chase sequences. We do also get Dolby 5.1 Spanish language track, as well as English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Bonus features are uncharacteristically slim. We get a short featurette ("Un-Wrapping Arthur Christmas") with various cast and crew member talking heads, progression reels spotlighting the animation process, a one minute "Elf Recruitment Video," and some Sony previews. Of course, the combo pack includes a standard def DVD copy and and UltraViolet digital download.
Arthur Christmas is peppy and innocuous holiday fare that won't go down in history as a great Christmas movie, but also won't torment you on the same level as Ernest Saves Christmas. I predict high marks from kids and mediocre reviews from adults.
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