Three and a half stars (out of 4)
’Twas the night before Christmas
And all over the planet
All the toys were delivered
Except for one. Dang it!
That, in a nearly rhyming nutshell, is the premise behind the soon-to-be holiday classic, Arthur Christmas.
In a letter to Santa, canny little Gwen Hines of Trelew, Cornwall, U.K. — struggling to hold on to her beliefs in the fat man in the red suit — wonders how, in an age of “exponential growth,” he manages to deliver toys around the world in one night and, for that matter, how he gains ingress into homes with very narrow chimneys.
The answer, we soon see in a dazzling opening sequence, is that Santa Claus has gone super hi-tech in the modern era, employing a giant airship (not unlike something out of Star Trek) and an army of rappelling super-stealth elves whose attention to every detail extends to feeding potentially noisy dogs and putting the toilet seat down on the way out.
Young Gwen’s missive lands on the desk of one Arthur Christmas, voiced by James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class), the bumbling younger son of the 20th Claus incarnation and — wouldn’t you know it — the one who inadvertently causes her present to go undelivered.
No wonder the big picture has been left in the hands of older son Steve (voiced to the peak of comic pomposity by Hugh Laurie) whose super-efficiency masks a heart that does not hold to a “no child left behind” policy.
Likewise, papa Santa (the inestimable Jim Broadbent) seems content to remain a “non-executive figurehead” who takes all the credit, lets others do the heavy lifting and would rather sleep in till Boxing Day than concern himself with minor matters (pun intended).
It’s left to cranky old Grandsanta — whose Christmas spirit is also suspect — to propose a solution for the desperate Arthur: to get the mothballed sleigh out of cold storage, hitch up a team of eight magic-dust-infused reindeer and to deliver the gift the old-fashioned way.
If only it were that simple.
The U.K.’s Aardman Animation (which has delivered such claymation classics as Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run) teams with Sony Pictures Animation to deliver a computer-animated tale that is hilarious, fast-paced and superbly entertaining.
The attention to detail — from the mild acne on Arthur’s young chin to the age spots on Grandsanta — is quite simply astonishing. There are visual sequences throughout, including floating elephants and lions in Africa, that use 3-D to breathtaking effect.
The characters — including a plucky gift-wrapping she-elf named Bryony (“there’s always time for a bow”) — are memorably lovable, and the story, which gallops across the globe — including a Toronto layover! — is a surprisingly suspenseful flurry of fun.
Seasonal fare like this may not stand up well in the summer heat. But Arthur Christmas is suffused with so many moments of good humour, pure joy and eye-popping visual magic that it would make a worthy addition to the annual Yuletide tradition for kids and adults alike.
Bruce DeMara is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.