Written by ECBC contributor Max, an accomplished journalist, who has written about the entertainment sector for several years.
Film watching at Christmas time can be a prickly dilemma. Not only do we have to face the endless debate over whether each film is a Christmas Movie or not (ie. Die Hard), we also must consider that quite a few of them…well, aren’t that great. Indeed, some simply endure as holiday mainstays because they provide that requisite jolt of nostalgia and festive cheer (looking at you, Santa Claus: The Movie).
That isn’t to say that there aren’t any great Christmas movies. Indeed, The Snowman and The Muppet Christmas Carol rank among the nation’s favourites, and even the most Bah-Humbug of Brits find it hard to resist watching such stellar pieces of entertainment. But one film that should be counted among this venerated group of movies is the criminally underrated Arthur Christmas.
Based on its name alone, Arthur Christmas might sound like a rather unremarkable romantic comedy set in the holiday season. However, this is an animated family film from Aardman (the studio behind Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit) that’s practically bursting with wit and innovation, when a lot of modern festive films can feel a tad forced and repetitive.
Arthur Christmas follows the young, titular character, who just so happens to be a member of the dysfunctional Santa Claus dynasty. Clumsy yet kind-hearted, Arthur is largely isolated from the Christmas preparations. But one Christmas Eve, Santa (Jim Broadbent) and his modern systems fail to deliver a little girl’s present. When Arthur is told that nothing can be done to fulfil her Christmas wish, he is forced to take drastic measures. Teaming up with his grandfather (Bill Nighy) and the present-obsessed elf Bryony Shelfley (Ashley Jensen) Arthur plots to steal the original sleigh and save Christmas for everyone.
From comedic elves, to the wonders of a sleigh ride across a snowy landscape, Arthur Christmas contains many of the hallmarks that you’d expect to find in a Father Christmas movie. But director Sarah Smith reinterprets these tried and tested touchstones in a fresh and quirky way. Santa’s modern sleigh isn’t just big enough to hold a large stack of toys – here, it’s re-envisioned as a gargantuan spaceship that resembles the USS Enterprise. Moreover, Arthur Christmas depicts Santa’s distribution of presents as a WWII inspired military operation. These are eccentric choices to be sure, but they truly work in the context of the film’s story.
Certainly, even if Aardman has toned down their idiosyncratic brand of British humour for worldwide audiences, their zany outlook is still evident within Arthur Christmas. From the characters’ fondness for hot beverages, to the fact that Imelda Staunton’s Margaret Claus resembles the Queen, the film is filled with little details that make the fictional world not only charming, but identifiable. My family still find amusement in the way in which Arthur’s overbearing brother has shaped his facial hair for the occasion.
Speaking of which, the film is also bolstered by its excellent British voice cast, including Hugh Laurie and Sir Michael Palin. But Nighy’s Grandsanta, who serves as the quintessentially grumpy relative, is the clear standout. Perpetually complaining about technology and “the youths of today,” his off-colour remarks and antics are so ridiculous that he almost steals the show.
Whilst Grandsanta, Arthur and Bryony globetrot from the North Pole to Toronto via Cornwall and Cuba, their adventures are peppered with the silly slapstick and witty wordplay that sets both children and adults chuckling. But gags and frantic quests aren’t the only areas that Arthur Christmas is concerned with, since the movie also tackles an array of meatier themes.
As it is with It’s a Wonderful Life – and the many adaptations of A Christmas Carol – Arthur Christmas tell a story of seasonal self-reflection. Indeed, Arthur Christmas doesn’t only explore this through the Claus’ intergenerational conflict; the film also questions the nature of tradition. What should we continue repeating as time marches on? And what tired practices should be consigned to the history books? I won’t spoil how the film answers these conundrums, but there is one subplot that I find particularly lovely. Certainly, at the heart of it all, Arthur Christmas is a rather lovely tribute to kindness, and just how transformative it can be for anyone.
That isn’t to say that everything about the film is perfect, however. The film’s balance between ideas and easy thrills does begin to slide as the finale looms. Moreover, the movie admittedly feels a tad frenetic at times, and it could have benefitted from a slower pace so that Laurie’s Steve Claus could be developed a little bit more than he is. Still, all of Arthur Christmas’ emotional beats land, and the movie is an earnest, very British, and quietly subversive take on the Father Christmas mythos. As such, it is a funny and poignant addition to any festive playlist.
What films are you watching over the holiday period?