Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 2, 2020)
If I were a betting man, I’d gamble that the producers of 2011’s Arthur Christmas really would’ve liked to give it the more logical name Arthur Claus in the US. While Arthur Christmas acted as a play on “Father Christmas” in the UK, it made less sense in the US.
Why not rename it Arthur Kringle or Son of Santa or the like? I don’t know, but Arthur Christmas was what we got.
Released in the same time frame, Fred Claus was a fairly terrible film, so I hoped that Arthur would manage more entertainment. Both boast semi-similar themes, as they involve Santa’s relatives.
Here we learn that the current Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is actually the 20th man to hold that title/position. (Santa the 19th – here called “Grandsanta” [Bill Nighy] is still kicking, but I guess the others have moved to the Great Toy Shop in the Sky.) We see the entirety of Santa’s massive organization and find out how he manages to do his work in just one night.
On the job since 1941, Santa the 20th borders on figurehead status and appears close to retirement. Practical-minded son Steve (Hugh Laurie) strives for the job as Santa the 21st, while Santa’s less practical other son Arthur (James McAvoy) just seems to be happy to do what he can to help.
Two problems arise. First, Santa decides to defer his retirement, which makes Steve decidedly unhappy and eager to push his way to the top.
More immediately, however, the team learns that a toy didn’t get delivered. Steve seems fine with this, but Arthur gets upset that one child won’t have a happy Christmas. With the aid of Grandsanta and an elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), they sneak out to deliver the gift to little Gwen Hines (Ramona Marquez) and save Christmas.
Arthur was the first of two Peter Lord-produced films that came out over a fairly short period of time. Due to seasonal patterns, though, April 2012’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits hit home video a few months ahead of November 2011’s Arthur. (Studios will release non-family holiday flicks any time of year, but often they’ll hold Christmas titles for the mid-fall to optimize sales.)
I loved Pirates and would like to state that Arthur lives up to its level of inspired lunacy. I can’t – at least not in a wholehearted way. While Arthur gets in its laughs, it’s not on the same level as the wild and wicked Pirates.
Though at least it gets better as it goes. The first half of Arthur tends to be a bit of a drag, largely because it includes so many off-putting characters. We have two “real Santas”, a Santa in waiting, and a son of Santa, none of whom are particularly enjoyable.
Arthur’s the only one who falls into the potentially likable/sympathetic category, but he’s such a one-dimensional Pollyanna that he creates annoyance. The others are fairly limited as well, and they’re portrayed in an awfully negative way.
Santa’s too distant and aloof, while Steve’s little more than a career-obsessed yuppie type. Grandsanta has potential as the kooky coot, but he’s too self-centered to allow us to invest in him.
This does change as the movie progresses, especially as we wander toward the flawed characters’ predictable redemption. Nonetheless, the scars remain, so even when Santa, Steve and Grandsanta change, we don’t really care all that much.
At least the antics of Arthur, Grandsanta and the rest manage to create some fun and laughs as the movie progresses. As I mentioned, the flick doesn’t approach the hysterics of Pirates, but the film’s second half manages to be reasonably amusing and clever.
Arthur comes with a ton of prominent actors in its cast. In addition to those already named, we find folks like Eva Longoria, Laura Linney, Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, and Michael Palin.
None of them manage to do much with their parts, though none of them harm the project, either. Actually, McAvoy can seem irritating, but that’s mostly due to the nature of the character. Perhaps another actor could’ve made Arthur less annoying, but I think that would’ve been a tough job.
In the end, I regard Arthur Christmas as serviceable holiday entertainment. The movie sputters in its first half but manages enough winning material the rest of the way to redeem it. Don’t expect anything brilliant here, but there’s a fair amount to enjoy.
Not-very-family-friendly-footnote: am I the only one who thought when they freaked out about a “waker” that they shouted “we have a wanker”? I suspect I’m not alone – and given the comedy often embraced by the Aardman folks, I don’t think it was a stretch to hear it this way.