Holiday Magic: Sweet without being fake, Arthur Christmas will charm the bah humbugs away.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Oh lovely movie! Oh lovable movie! Oh holiday movie that fills me with Christmas spirit even though it’s 60 degrees out and dear God can’t they just wait till December to start with the tinsel and the tunes please!
What makes Arthur Christmas work in a way that does not make me wish it were January already is that there is nothing saccharine here. Is there sweet? Absolutely. But it is cut with funny: sometimes wicked, sometimes manic, often hysterical, always clever funny. And poignant, too. Because it mixes modern ennui with longing for days when it was all more honest and heartfelt (as if Christmas didn’t get commercialized and crazed 30 seconds after commercials were invented). We are all poor charming bumbling Arthur (the voice of James McAvoy), who struggles to simply enjoy the giving and the joy and the fun amidst the rigidly mechanized and schedule-to-keep Christmas that grips even the North Pole.
Arthur opens in the middle of this year’s Christmas run, during which armies of ninja commando elves drop from an invisi-shielded warp-speed “sleigh” that looks more like the starship Enterprise than something reindeer would want to get anywhere near. There’s little old-fashioned magic here – it’s all the ship’s computer (the voice of Laura Linney) announcing, “Converting milk and cookies to biofuel.”
It’s wonderfully insane, Christmas Eve gone action comedy, and for this we should praise Sarah Smith, making her feature debut as director and cowriter (with Peter Baynham), and the always fantastic Aardman animators. For even here, in the middle of the glorious chaos, Arthur Christmas is bursting with spirit. As in the blink-and-you-miss-it bit in which a soldier elf scans a sleeping child with his tricorder, is horrified to discover that the child registers as less than 50-percent Nice (that is: Naughty), and then scans himself (82-percent Nice) so his automated equipment will spit out some toys for the kid anyway.
In the excitement during a moment of tension – Santa is about to be spotted by a child, and the elves must extricate him – a present is misplaced. Which means a child is overlooked. And when dear, kind, geeky Arthur learns of this, he is appalled. This must be rectified.
Arthur Christmas is crammed with all manner of clever visual details, like we expect from Aardman. But it’s how those details serve to deepen the story on every level – making it funnier and sweeter and wiser and weirder than it might be – that makes it so special. The family drama at the North Pole is hilarious because it is so recognizable.
The whole magnificent package underlines its message: that technology is fun and fantastic, but without a human touch, it’s pointless. It evinces a touching tetchiness both about technology and our knee-jerk aversion to it as automatically dehumanizing. It harnesses its own exasperation with the derailing of a holiday to reclaim it by bringing the fantasy of it into the modern world, instead of insisting they cannot coexist.
AUTHER CHRISTMAS (3) • Directed by Sarah Smith • Starring James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy • Rated PG •97 min •At Maya Cinemas