We live in an age where six-year-olds have iPhones most of our possessions live in a "cloud" and even the refrigerator connects to the Internet. Like it or not technology has infused itself into every aspect of our lives—so it seems appropriate (and terrifying) that even Santa Claus' gift delivery operation would upgrade to the 2.0 world. Arthur Christmas the latest film from Aardman Animation (the Wallace & Gromit films Chicken Run) introduces us to the newfangled operation. These days Santa (Jim Broadbent) is just a figurehead for a full-scale war game run by the militant Steve (Hugh Laurie) and his band of black ops elves who cruise the December skies in their souped up spaceship sleigh. Business is conducted in the most controlled manner with each elf equipped with dog food launchers and back-up tape dispensers in case of any on-ground mishaps. On the sidelines is Arthur (James McAvoy) a bumbling black sheep who outweighs the entire force in Christmas spirit but can barely stand on two feet.
The opening deliver sequence is expertly directed by Sarah Smith whose action is reminiscent of the highly energized Ratatouille injected with the quirky British humor one would expect from Aardman. But the dazzling setup doesn't turn Arthur Christmas into a bombastic holiday riff instead using its lead to dig underneath the 2.0 landscape to find true magic. When one present goes undelivered Arthur stands up against his complacent family members to right the holiday wrongs. The anxiety-ridden younger son teams up with his Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and an eager wrapper elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) hitching up the classic sleigh and venturing into the great unknown all in the name of a young girl who might wake up gift-less.
The trio's adventure takes them around the globe from the busy streets of Toronto to a colorful Mexican town to the planes of an African wildlife preserve. With each wrong turn and each obstacle to overcome (outrunning a pack of lions while wearing reindeer slippers is no easy feat) Arthur's belief in the greatness of Santa and the wonders of the Christmas are tested. For kids it might be a familiar existential crisis but the warmth that accompanies Arthur's triumphant spirit should resonate with those young and old. That's an achievement in a Christmas movie but Smith's delicate balance of sentimentality and over-the-top humor blend and keep the movie moving at lightning speed.
The movie's 3D animation and stereoscopic display are top-notch but the real extra dimension comes from the cast. Aardman has a knack for realizing characters supporting or leads who feel fully developed—and Arthur Christmas is no exception. Smith and writer Peter Baynham (Borat Arthur) know when you trap the Claus family in the result will be brilliance: Steve commanding the floor Grandsanta telling "when I was young" stories Santa falling asleep Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) keeping the peace and Arthur reminding everyone that it's Christmas. That's as real as actual Christmas dinner gets. The elves of the North Pole are equally eclectic and odd—even with hundreds of workers scurrying around the ship each one gets their time to land a joke. Overlaid on the rousing tale his a whimsical score by Harry Gregson-Williams that much like his work on Narnia feels simultaneously fantastical and exhilarating (as any good sleigh ride should).
There are so many Christmas movies in the pantheon of the season that it's almost unimaginable that another could slip in without relying on a gimmick or cynical spin but Arthur Christmas is as warm fuzzy and hilarious as they come. Crafted with authentic joy performed by lively voice actors and subtly imbued with jokes for all ages (no frame goes by without at least one sight or pun gag) those who catch it this year may find themselves returning every season. It's just that nice.
Yes Tim Burton has covered this milieu before in animated ‘toons like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride but there’s a certain hip-factor to this amusing flick set in the world of creepy science labs as an homage to the Frankenstein and Dracula films of the ‘30s. The film’s central character Igor (of course) is a frustrated assistant who is dying to become a scientist in his own right and knows he has the smarts for it. Finally when his very mean mad scientist dies just before the annual Evil Science Fair the humpbacked little guy gets his big moment--with the help of sidekicks Brain (in a jar--and not too brainy at that) and Scamper a bunny with a death wish after Igor saves him from the brink of becoming permanent road kill but makes him immortal. Igor unveils his piece de resistance a creation that unfortunately turns out to be less monster and more uh like Annie. She’s a gigantic aspiring actress named Eva who would rather belt out show tunes than do the things lab-created monsters are supposed to do. But there’s a lot more in store for this crazy quilt group of misfits as they uncover an evil plot that threatens the world of Malaria--unless they can use all their ingenuity to save the day. Blessed with a superior vocal cast Igor works in large part due to appealing characterizations. John Cusack brings fun and recognizable human frustration to the title role while his sidekicks are hilarious including Steve Buscemi’s nifty vocal calisthenics as the cynical rabbit and Sean Hayes as the sweet but dumb Brain relegated to life in a jar mislabeled “Brian ” the butt of a few too many jokes. The mad scientists are played to the hilt by a couple of perfectly cast English vets: John Cleese as Dr. Glickenstein and especially silly work from Eddie Izzard as Dr. Schadenfreude. Christian Slater is along for the ride as the latter’s own Igor while SNL vet Molly Shannon seems to be having a great time bringing the Broadway-bound Eva to life perfectly awful as she sings ditties like “Tomorrow” while dwarfing everyone else with her plus PLUS-sized frame. Listen also for former late night talk show rivals Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall in bit roles. Relative newcomer Tony Leondis has directed with an eye toward over-the-top humor and atmospheric surroundings making this animation entry always a pleasure to watch. He brings Chris McKenna’s smart sassy script to life in ways that won’t just appeal to kids but also their parents who may even find themselves laughing out loud a couple of times. In fact much of the dialogue is so referenced with pop culture tidbits that a lot of it will probably sail right over the young tykes heads. McKenna who cut his teeth as writer and producer of the sophisticated FOX series American Dad brings the wit with Igor. Even though iconic animation wizards like Tim Burton and Pixar (with Monsters Inc.) have been down this road before Igor feels fresh and original and that’s certainly no easy task.