The otherwise pretty agreeable Arthur Christmas really ought to come with a warning that before the film actually starts—indeed, before the Columbia Torch Lady appears—the viewer is going to be subjected to Justin Bieber (with some kind of moussed-into-submission badass hairdo and ludicrous rough trade costumery) in a music video. So before the movie, you have to wade through about three minutes of the Bieberized techno/dance-mix version of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”—with some sort of “shake it, shake it, baby” break. And it doesn’t end there, since the Bieberific yowling returns over the latter part of the ending credits. With this in mind, I’d suggest sprinting from the theater the moment Bill Nighy’s impression of Jimmy Durante singing “Make Someone Happy” ends. You are warned.
Now, the movie proper is a very pleasant—if hardly overwhelmingly great—animated Christmas fantasy with at least two inspired choices for voice casting with Jim Broadbent as Santa and Bill Nighy as his father, Grandsanta. (Some reviewers have wondered how American audiences will take to Santa with a Brit accent—a strange concern considering the movies’ best-loved Santa Claus was British Edmund Gwenn in the seasonal staple Miracle on 34th Street.) The film doesn’t bring anything revelatory to this type of movie—apart from a somewhat cynically adult (not in the “dirty” meaning) sense of humor—but there’s no evidence that it was trying to do anything other than be good at what it is. And it is.
The concept is pretty straightforward. The current Santa (Broadbent) is mostly a figurehead by this point and on the brink—or so it seems—of retiring and turning over the reins to his son Steve (Hugh Laurie). Well, he might expect there aren’t any reins these days, since the battle-fatigue-wearing Steve uses a high-tech spaceship affair and an army of special-op elves to get the job done. In fact, the humorless Steve’s only concession to Christmas is a tree-shaped goatee. But Santa has another son, Arthur (James McAvoy), who’s a bit of a klutz and whose job is to answer letters to Santa. But since Arthur is a true believer, he’s good with that. The story itself involves what happens when one child’s present doesn’t get delivered. Steve doesn’t care and Santa isn’t much more concerned.
Arthur, on the other hand, is aghast—and Grandsanta has a plan. Unbeknownst to everyone, he has the old sleigh and the reindeer in readiness. So Grandsanta, a not-exactly-willing Arthur and a wrapping-obsessed elf, Bryony (Ashley Jensen)—plus eight working reindeer and one very bedraggled pet one—set out to right this holiday oversight. Naturally, this proves much harder to do than might be imagined—thanks in no small part to the fact that Grandsanta is 136 years old and not entirely sharp. He’s also not entirely honest, since his motive has less to do with getting the overlooked child her present and more to do with proving that he’s not “past it” and the old ways in the old sleigh have their merits.
There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but the results are unfailingly pleasant and sweet-natured—much as a family Christmas ought to be. That also means that life-lessons will be learned and the the true meaning of Christmas (in the secular sense) will be restored. Considering the nature of the movie, you expected otherwise? I mean, even A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas did that. The point is that it works and it works well—being both surprisingly touching and funny. Rated PG for some mild rude humor.