So I Just Watched: “Arthur Christmas”

Third in a series of disorganized thoughts I am left with immediately after watching something.

Okay, so I didn’t just watch it… it was a few days ago, when I was at my parents’ for a holiday break.  I was vaguely aware of the movie when it came out, but had no interest whatsoever in seeing it.  It was a confluence of multiple vectors of disinterest!  First, Sony Animation has not done us well, historically.  “Open Season“?  “Surf’s Up“?  “The Smurfs“?

Second, holiday-themed animation is always a mixed bag.  Zemeckis’s “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol” are itchy, uncomfortable affairs.  I had no interest in “Hop” based on the previews, and a cursory look at the critical and audience reception shows I was right to be skeptical.  Plus, I’ve never really been a fan of those Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials.  It’s like the ugliest crap at the flea market came to life to teach you trite moral lessons.

Speaking of stop-motion, I suppose you could say the honeymoon phase with Aardman Animations had ended.  “Wallace & Gromit” will probably remain the pinnacle of the studio’s output, as all the short subjects as well as the feature stand the test of time thanks to their impeccable timing, mechanical inventiveness, escalating absurdity and the classic vaudevillian comedy dynamic shared by the titular characters.  “Chicken Run” was good fun, though I had no particular interest in “Flushed Away” or the studio’s various subsequent TV series.  “The Pirates!“, though based on a supremely silly series of books I have enjoyed a few of… well, I missed it in the theater and the home media release has been so damn pricey that I haven’t worked up the carefeels to see it.

I suppose that with their move away from traditional stop-motion into CG animation, I felt they’d abandoned a significant chunk of their DNA.  A sense of disillusionment, causing me to write off their catalog?  I am a fickle creature sometimes, alas.

Couple all that with a disillusionment with Christmas and you have a winning (losing) combination.  Disillusionment with Christmas!?  Am I even the person I’m talking about?  Christmas morning was the one day throughout childhood and well into early adulthood that I always woke up earlier than I had to for.  Not just the joy of getting, the feeling of family and sharing and seeing peoples’ reactions to what I  got them was a special treat.  The act of exchanging gifts, when done right, is a concrete manifestation of a deeper individual understanding.  “I got you this, because I knew you would like it.  I knew what you would like, because I know you.”

When did that start falling away from me?  Middle school, high school, college?  No, I am sad to say, it was probably when my first (and so far only) major romantic relationship ended.  Hey, don’t get me wrong, I love my family.  But they’re content to sleep in a bit now, and absent somebody I really want to newly share the magic of the morning with, I’m not jumping exactly out of bed to sit around for a few chilly hours.  Deep sadness!  Pity me!  Nah, don’t.  Kick me for being a morose wad, that’s what.

So, “Arthur Christmas” is a big, fun holiday movie with a good balance of invention, tradition, jokes and sentimentality, broad slapstick and dry shady wit.  It posits the whole Santa Claus operation as a dynasty, presently (pun difficulty level: beginner) modernized and operating with military efficiency.  Presents are delivered from a massive mobile command station/processing center, a hovering city with cloaking technology, a gift-sorting mechanism to shame the future-y-est delivery companies, and an army of elves who covertly deliver gifts to an entire city in under a minute.

Under the guidance of the current Santa’s eldest son, Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie), Santa himself has grown detached from the proceedings, only ceremonially delivering a few presents himself.  With the spirit of Christmas gone from the proceedings, there is only the machinations of its execution guiding the endeavor.  Thus, when one present goes undelivered due to a distracted elf, Steve balks at the notion of making a late course correction.  It was only 1 present out of hundreds of millions, an infinitesimally small margin of error.

However, eponymous Arthur Claus and the younger son of the family, who personally responded to the letter asking for the gift (a bike, let it be known), believes it is of utmost importance that it be delivered.  No child deserves to be the one who doesn’t matter.  He finds an ally in this mission in the now-retired previous Santa, Grandfather Claus (Bill Nighy!), who breaks out the old sled and sets off with Arthur to deliver the gift the old-fashioned way.

They are joined by the elf who discovered the wayward gift, a wrapping specialist named Bryony.  She’s a fun character, speaking with a Scottish accent (care of Ashley Jensen, who’s doing well for herself in the world of feature voice acting) priding herself on her wrapping skills and, wearing a bleached mohawk and an eyebrow piercing, she sets herself apart from the other elves visually as well.

Kudos to the filmmakers for ever-further divorcing Christ from Christmas, amping up the secularism of the holiday which one particular religion just can’t seem to let go of!  What’s with those guys, anyway?  They Frankenstein’d it together from a bunch of other disparate olde wyrlde festivals to begin with.  Set it free.  Maybe in my lifetime it’ll get a new name.  Santa Day?

This feels like a movie I’d be happy watching in the middle of summer, because it seems to be less a Christmas movie and more a caper movie that happens to take place during Christmas (like how “Die Hard” happens to take place during Christmas!  Or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, which I made my parents watch in return for showing me this).  I acknowledge that the plot is helped along by a few too many Christmas miracles, and there are questions of time elongation… so much travelling, and with several substantial pit stops, they do in only a few hours!  There’s also a subplot with world governments mistaking Santa’s sleigh for aliens which doesn’t really go anywhere.

Character arcs, sure, yeah, lessons learned, happy ending, all that stuff.  A belief in the magic of Christmas is–variously–justified, learned, renewed, and rewarded.  And then Bill Nighy sings a song!  But then they play Justin Bieber over the credits.  Can’t win ’em all, I guess.  Harry Gregson-Williams provides a suitable score that never overpowers or undermines (wordplay self-satisfaction level: tolerable).

Ultimately, I got goodfeels and warm fuzzies and happytimes by the end of it, it kinda rekindled the fire in my own holiday heart hearth (wordplay self-satisfaction level: kinda embarrassed), as well as renewing my interest in catching up on Aardman’s feature output.  Now if only I can get the whole lack-of-girlfriend thing sorted out, Christmas will be saved!

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