It's worth celebrating when Hollywood produces a Christmas movie that's actually worth watching. There's a reason why the most popular holiday movies are from yesteryear: it's hard, apparently, to make a movie that sincerely captures the Christmas spirit. Over the last decade, Tim Allen and Vince Vaughn have combined to almost singlehandedly destroyed the genre, giving us such disasters as Santa Claus 3, Christmas with the Kranks, Fred Claus and Four Christmases. There hasn't been a good holiday-themed movie since 2003's Elf.
Arthur Christmas, the new animated comedy from Sony Pictures Animation, is a funny, lighthearted blast of Christmas energy, a movie that wholeheartedly embraces what Christmas is all about while giving audiences young and old a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
In the movie, written by director Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham, who coincidentally wrote the unrelated 2011 comedy Arthur, an aging and slightly senile Santa Claus has let his son Steve turn Christmas into an efficient, elf-driven production. Unfortunately, with every efficient system there is a small margin of error. Despite an overwhelmingly successful campaign, one girl in England is left without a present, causing Santa's bumbling other son Arthur to come to the rescue.
Presented in 3D, Arthur Christmas is a beautifully animated, expertly directed and superbly written film. The opening scene sets the stage as Smith shows the operation that is Christmas, with thousands of elves descending upon a city to deliver gifts. The scene is entertaining and creative, indicating that no detail will be left unexploited if it serves to humor the audience.
Smith does a great job of taking the smallest things and turning them into gold. Throughout the movie she and the animators sneak these little moments into every corner of the film, providing extra laughs where none were needed. Animated movies thrive on these extra tidbits, and Arthur Christmas is full of them.
Even without them, Arthur Christmas has a witty and engaging screenplay. As energetic and fast-paced as the movie is, a little scene where the entire family bickers over a board game is a great example of how Smith and Baynham are able to maintain tone and humor even when the story isn't plugging ahead full force. The banter between Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and the gift-wrapping elf (Ashley Jensen) is priceless.
Most importantly, every scene oozes with Christmas spirit. Energized by an exuberant James McAvoy, who voices the title character, the movie lives and breathes Christmas, not only showing us on screen everything that makes the holiday season special but embracing the childhood giddiness that lingers within people of all ages. Children will find a blast while parents will have just as much fun.
The movie has a few minor flaws, which are hardly worth mentioning. The picture temporarily loses its footing at the beginning of the third act when Arthur, Grandsanta and the elf are inexplicably thrown out of the sled and find themselves stranded on a Cuban beach. The scene is oddly abrupt and appears implanted just to give Arthur some unnecessary internal conflict. The film recovers, but not for several minutes. The side story about an impending "alien invasion" also was unnecessary.
Arthur Christmas is a fun, entertaining and fast-paced comedy the entire family will enjoy. Only time will tell, but it's the first movie in a long time that has the potential to become a perennial Christmas staple. Such movies are rare, and families should take full advantage.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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