ARTHUR CHRISTMAS Review: Another Generic Holiday Film

Arthur Christmas strains so much to be a postmodern Yuletide yarn that it forsakes the much-needed sprinkle of Christmas spirit and concedes too much of the Santa myth in the process.

rating: 2.5

Arthur Christmas is another awkward entry into the ongoing cinematic debate about Christmas film ethics; that is, whether it is acceptable to reveal the truth about Santa in a film aimed squarely at children still young and innocent enough to believe. Sarah Smith's film nearly gives the game away by crucially repositioning the Santa mythos we're all used to, and though like any similar film it has mostly good intentions, its disappointing honesty might make for a few awkward moments for parents of young kids. In this world, Santa (Jim Broadbent) is nearing retirement and courting one of his sons, the logical but emotionally cold Steve (Hugh Laurie) to succeed him. Meanwhile, the other son, Arthur (James McAvoy), is clumsy but hearty, and when one child is missed off Santa's list, he goes rogue to ensure her Christmas isn't ruined, much to the disdain of his brother. Films like The Santa Clause have managed to get away with some robust postmodern revision, but it's only because they keep the age-old myth of an immortal Santa alive. This film, however, surrenders that morsel, conceding that Santa has a lineage, changing face and regenerating, much like an iteration of Dr. Who. It doesn't totally give the game away thankfully, but the fact that it toys with people doubting Santa's existence nevertheless is somewhat tactless and more importantly, needless for a film clearly aimed at very young children who don't need the illusion tampered with. More distressing, however, is how there seems to be little intention to deviate from the formula we've been dealt dozens of times throughout the years. The film actually appears to be acutely aware of each and every holiday film trope, and then keenly chooses to adhere to them in a relatively saccharine, only very occasionally charming way. As a production from Aardman, more intelligence and more merriment is expected. The inevitable story obstacles, meanwhile, are signposted and lazy even for the relatively forgiving standards of a caper of this type, and Smith arrives at several logical end points which she brazenly avoids, even recycling a gag about an accidental excursion to Mexico which was only mildly amusing the first time around. Further still, the surprising amount of un-PC humour creates a startlingly uneven tone; Grandsanta is amusing as he blurts out vaguely inappropriate, socially anachronistic one-liners, but some of the humour, referencing decapitation and alcoholism, feels rather much for a light film to keep the kids quiet over the Christmas period. Some cynical product placement - especially that of the Co-Operative brand of food stores - generated howling laughter during my screening at its unnervingly blatant use in one shot at the film's climax as Arthur rides through the town. It is at least successful as a visual dazzler, as is to be expected from a partnership between Sony Pictures and Aardman, the studio behind the Wallace and Gromit animations, and as such this film might still please the youngest kids if they aren't unsettled by the questionable narrative. While the characters, with their large noses and long faces, aren't too cute, there's enough colour and festive style here to get children in the mood for Christmas, but the screenplay traces along every line of the feel-good holiday film we've seen before. Despite a good cast, the lackluster script renders several vocal performances personality-free, such that you probably won't even recognise half the actors lending their voices. Arthur Christmas strains so much to be a postmodern Yuletide yarn that it forsakes the much-needed sprinkle of Christmas spirit and concedes too much of the Santa myth in the process. Arthur Christmas is released in the UK on November 11th and in the US on November 23rd.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.