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Leave it to the folks who brought us Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run and Flushed Away to bring a delightful blast of fresh air to the conventional Christmas genre.
Aardman’s Arthur Christmas is that and more — an endlessly amusing 3D, CG-animated Yuletide romp with lively innovation at every turn and a dream voice cast headed by James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie and Bill Nighy.
While longtime Aardman adherents might find this Sony Pictures Animation collaboration to be slightly more mainstream than some of those earlier productions, there’s still sufficient evidence of an agreeably subversive spirit lurking just beneath the obligatory ribbons and bows.
The story of the heroic journey undertaken by Santa’s youngest son upon discovering an undelivered present may dutifully hit all the seasonal emotional posts, but the route it chooses to take is anything but predictable.
Audiences should be cheerfully transported, especially across the pond, where the film opens Friday. It opens in the U.S. one week later.
The forecast for North America, meanwhile, is for solid but likely more modest numbers, given all the British accents (not to mention comic sensibility), as well as a marketing campaign that really doesn’t quite capture the essence of the film.
Starting off by addressing the nagging question, “Just how exactly does Santa deliver all those presents over the course of one night?” the film depicts the seemingly impossible mission by doing it up Mission: Impossible style, complete with millions of elves schooled in covert ops and a hi-tech sleigh equipped with stealth cloaking technology.
The sequence moves like the dickens and effectively sets the pace that follows back at the North Pole, where Santa’s (voiced by Jim Broadbent) headstrong firstborn son Steve (Laurie) runs the Christmas Eve command with crack precision while coveting his aging dad’s gig.
Despite his not-so-secret ambitions, Steve is destined to be the subordinate Claus while sweet but klutzy younger brother Arthur (McAvoy) contentedly heads up the Letters to Santa Department.
But when a wrapped bicycle destined for a little girl in Cornwall turns out to have missed the big shipment, Arthur, determined that no child be left behind, goes on a rogue mission to personally deliver the present with the help of his not-quite-with-it Grandsanta (a terrific Nighy) and his old-school sleigh.
In her first feature animated outing, director and co-writer (with Peter Baynham) Sarah Smith not only successfully keeps this intricate operation humming, she instills a welcome female sensibility long missing from the boy’s club that is Santa’s workshop.
This time, Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) is no longer the only woman in town thanks to the presence of Bryony (a wonderful Ashley Jensen), a fiercely devoted member of Santa’s Giftwrap Battalion — and likely the only elf ever presented sporting an eyebrow ring — who manages to steal most of her scenes.
Visually, Arthur Christmas is splendidly state-of-the-art and vividly appointed right down to the tiniest detail.
The frosty milieu may at times be reminiscent of Polar Express but with much more personality.
Maintaining the warmly playful tone is Harry Gregson-Williams’ buoyant score; while Justin Bieber’s Jackson 5-flavored take on “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” manages to sneak along for the ride without feeling gratuitously out of place.
Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 23 (Sony)
Production companies: Aardman, Sony Pictures Animation, Columbia Pictures
Voice Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen.
Director: Sarah Smith
Co-Director: Barry Cook
Screenwriters: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith
Producers: Peter Lord, David Sproxton, Carla Shelley, Steve Pegram
Director of photography: Jericca Cleland
Production designer: Evgeni Tomov
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Costume designer: Yves Barre
Editor: James Cooper
Rating: PG, 97 minutes
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