Aardman Animation’s Arthur Christmas isn’t a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s got spunk and wit and pizzazz and a holiday-inflected theme suitable to the season. It looks nice and it moves well. But it’s a slapdash movie, and it has all the subtlety of a carillon banging out “Jingle Bells” at four o’clock in the morning.
The title character is the younger son of Santa Claus. More accurately, he is the younger son of the current Santa, as the film explains that “Santa” is a dynasty that has spent the past thousand-odd years passing out presents to an ever-larger consumer base. Arthur is skinny and gangly and inept, but he believes in “Santa Claus” and his mission with an intensity that would be borderline pathological in a less fantastical story. At least this makes him a natural for the mail department, where he can’t get into any trouble, and where his devotion to the mission lets him pen fervent replies to the childrens’ letters to his dad.
The actual job of delivering presents, meanwhile, is handled by his older brother, Steve, the heir-apparent who oversees the quasi-paramilitary force of elves who operate out of a high-tech center and fly around in a super-advanced “S1″ sleigh that is several orders of magnitude larger than any aircraft carrier. “Santa Claus” himself–the boys’ dad–is a bluff and genial soul who is plainly lost amidst all the bustle, and contents himself with presiding over the operation as a figurehead. But disaster strikes on Christmas Eve when one toy goes undelivered. Steve and Santa are content to let this one mistake (out of two billion successes) stand, but it leaves Arthur frantic with worry, and soon he is taking off with Grandsanta (Santa’s own superannuated father) in the old sleigh to save the Christmas of one tiny tot.
Now, Christmas stories are a hard genre to write for, and like most of the classics Arthur Christmas falls back on the standard threat: “It looks like there won’t be a Christmas this year.” It’s only point of plot originality is that it’s not the season as a whole under a cloud, only the happiness of a single child. This leads to the one really powerful and affecting scene in the movie. When the elves discover what has happened, they challenge Steve and Santa: If the happiness of this one girl is unimportant, is the happiness of any child important? If Santa doesn’t care enough about this girl, does he really care about any of the children? At one blow, Steve’s statistics-driven excuse collapses, and his hyper-efficient operation exposed for what Grandsanta has always derided it as: a high-tech postal delivery office.
The film here offers an acute perception: The gift must stand for love, and love is always personal. It doesn’t matter how the gift is delivered; but it must be delivered, and it must be delivered in the genuine spirit and for the right reasons. Arthur is the only one of the bunch who still remembers this clearly; and that is why he and not Steve is Santa’s proper heir.
The story’s focus on the personal and the minute also plays out in its focus on the characters. Each of the men has a signal flaw which keeps him from appreciating just what Santa is supposed to be. Arthur’s heart may be in the right place, but he is inept to the point of being dangerous to those around him. Steve is all swaggering competence, but he has no heart and is too proud of his abilities to acknowledge that a great wrong has occurred on his watch. Their dad is decent but has grown timid and feckless as the world has changed. Grandsanta glares balefully at the high-tech world and dreams only of showing his son and grandchildren that he still has what it takes to deliver presents. It all ends happily, of course, with each character recognizing his flaws and working with the others to correct them.
The film’s big problem, though, is that this rather ambitious story gets only a schematic realization. Arthur and Steve and Santa don’t even rise to the level of caricature; they are more like the stuffed effigies in a Victorian Era engraving where each figure stands for (and is even labeled with) a particular virtue or vice. They have no depth, no shading, no texture, no complications, no secrets, no surprises, no inner life. They don’t reveal their fears or desires through action or dialogue; they speechify them. They are not characters, they are puppets through which the filmmakers describe what we are watching and how we should all feel about it. The movie also favors a grandiloquent score which pushes the moments of triumph and awe and pathos down our throats instead of letting us grope toward them ourselves.
The plot, too, comes with no twists. After Arthur and Grandsanta take off on their rescue mission the film settles into a stale and seemingly neverending series of jokey and frenetic predicaments: getting tangled up in the Toronto skyline, lost in the Serengeti, making a wrong turn in Mexico, fetching up without a sleigh in Cuba, and finally getting chased and shot at by a military drone. None of these side quests accomplish anything, except to plumb the shallows of the characters’ incompetence and finally give Arthur the genre-necessary moment of despair when all seems lost.
Even the action/comedy sequences pall. They are slick and exciting, but they add up to nothing. In spots they even have the effect of undercutting the film’s thematic emphasis on the personal. The story opens with a bravura set piece as the cloaked S1 settles over Aarhus, Denmark, and disgorges hordes of commando-style elves who, with gymnastic ease and special-forces precision infiltrate hundreds of houses and deposit thousands of presents. But the sequence is so complex and shifts so rapidly from one team to another that we never get a sense of individual skill. It would be much more fun, and much more satisfying, if we got to follow one elf or even one team of elves as they performed a single mission. But like Steve, who can only appreciate the statistical success, the movie prefers to give us the strategic view instead of the tactical victories.
When all is said and done, I have to say that I prefer the low-tech and schmaltzy approach of the classic Rankin-Bass specials. Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town and all the others weren’t subtle either. But they had a simplicity that seemed more in keeping with the theme they share with this film. It’s the thought, not the tinsel and the toys that matter. Arthur Christmas loses itself amidst all its shiny wrapping paper.