Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas in December

Usually, when I make a morning to visit the theater, I know exactly what I'm going to see, and do so well before I leave my home. Whether I expect to see an amazing film like Drive or a cringe-worthy one like Red Riding Hood, I generally know exactly what type of experience I'm getting myself into. Sometimes I decide this the morning of. Sometimes it's the day before that I officially make plans. And sometimes I plan days in advance as I figure out my schedule. But on this particular day, I suffered a strange occurrence: I had no idea what I actually wanted to watch. As I've seen most of the current film releases by now, there was very little available that I had not yet caught. Three acceptable options were playing at approximately the same time, and so with a shrug I told myself that I would figure it all out once I'd made the actual trip to the theater. Even when I arrived, it was not an easy decision. Should I see The Descendants, the popular adult drama directed by Alexander Payne and starring a used-looking George Clooney? Should I instead partake of My Week with Marilyn, the semi-biopic starring Michelle Williams as the titular movie star and ingenue? Both came highly recommended, but I found myself honestly lacking in interest for serious dramas, and decided to put them aside for the time being. Now, as for Arthur Christmas... well, an animated family film was JUST what my mood called for. With that in mind, I bought my ticket and gaped at the shockingly-empty theater that housed my morning's excursion, wondering what I was in for.

A "one-horse open sleigh" it ain't
Every Christmas Eve, we are told as children that Santa Claus travels around the planet in a reindeer-driven sled, delivering toys to all the boys and girls of the world. Judging if you're naughty or nice, he crawls down your chimney, fills the stockings with goodies and leaves exactly what you wanted under the Christmas tree. Ah, what we believed when we were young, right? Well, what if it really WAS true? How would it be possible? Arthur Christmas answers these questions, introducing to the audience a new, more updated version of Christmas Eve events. Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) is still in charge, the latest in a long succession of Santa's, acting more as a figurehead while his legion of elf special forces and a giant futuristic air-ship do most of the heavy lifting. The entire operation is practically and efficiently run by his eldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who covets his chance to become Santa once his father retires. Santa's dedicated wife (Imelda Staunton) simply can't wait for him to quit so they can spend their twilight years together. His father, the previous Santa Claus (Bill Nighy) is bored with his own retirement and loves to taunt the newfangled methods Steve has introduced to his former position. And then there is Arthur (James McAvoy), Santa's younger son, whose passion for Christmas cannot be denied. However his bumbling, worrisome ways grate on others, and he is out of his element in a world in which Christmas has become so numbers-oriented that children are identified by serial numbers and addresses than names and what is in their heart. When an error occurs and a child is accidentally missed, Arthur's belief in Christmas spirit drives him to, against all odds, deliver this gift so as not to let a little girl think that Santa doesn't care about her.

Is it a puppy? I bet it's a puppy!
It's amazing that the concept itself is presented so soundly. In just the opening ten minutes, Arthur Christmas does all it can to halt any arguments you might have against its feasibility in their tracks. Everything is covered. How Santa avoids detection? Check. Homes without chimneys? Check. Large toy delivery? Check. What Santa needs with all those cookies and glasses of milk? Check. Every detail was planned out and properly answered here, even going so far as to cover what happens when kids wake up at inopportune times. Brilliantly planned down to the last detail and with military precision, there is not a moment in the opening sequence (or for that matter, anywhere in the film) that feels any less magical than when you ran downstairs on Christmas Day.

Obviously they took it literally when I declared this film "the bomb"
Of course, what makes Arthur Christmas truly magical are the characters we meet along the way. Arthur himself is such a perfectly-realized blend of comedic neuroses and good-natured innocence that you forget that he's played by an actor best known for his serious, dramatic roles. James McAvoy impressed me with his ability to mold himself into the part, and his character never gets dull or overly-righteous with the message he carries. I've never heard Hugh Laurie do voice work in an animated film, but just the fact that a skinny, older Brit can pass for a cocksure, buff and brilliant (okay, that part I can believe) young man with his vocal prowess is impressive indeed. Right from the start we can tell that Steve is lacking in the empathy needed to be the next Santa, and yet we can't outright dislike him, as the character refuses to be completely irredeemable. Jim Broadbent plays the elderly Santa extremely well, his pitch-perfect portrayal of a past-his-prime legend who doesn't know when to hang up the hat a well-thought-out fit between his polar opposite sons. Bill Nighy is of course wonderful as Grandsanta, quick to judge the newer implementations used for Christmas while pining for his glory days. Grandsanta's a few ornaments short of a Christmas tree, and Nighy plays up that irreverence as he so often does in comedic roles. Best of the cast though might be Emmy nominee (for her role in the BBC/HBO series Extras) Ashley Jensen as Bryony, an elf obsessed with gift-wrapping who follows Arthur on his quest. Not only is each character great, but the way in which they come together by the film's end (of course they do, it's a family film) feels special, as each family member learns to overcome their mental locks to see the story through to the correct conclusion.

Oof, if that was Santa, I'm glad I never woke up early
And it doesn't hurt that the animation (a joint venture of Aardman Animations and Sony Pictures Animation) is a clear winner in keeping the audience entranced. While not as amazing visually as, say, Rango, Arthur Christmas engages in a more cartoonish look that expresses its comedic elements nicely. When it DOES step up the animation a notch however, its one of the prettiest movies this year. Lately I've been seeing far more competent use of 3D technology in films, especially animated ones. Arthur continues this trend, as the immersion that 3D provides actually serves to draw you in more, as opposed to jarring you with obvious flaws. The great visuals also help the multitude of physical jokes appear more natural, as if they were being performed by live actors instead of being generated on a computer.

Never... Ever... wear that sweater again
In fact, the only real complaint I have about Arthur Christmas is that I was forced to watch a stupid music video featuring Justin Bieber singing what seemed to be a mix of Christmas caroling and Michael Jackson. It was situated before the actual film began, and what would normally be a throwaway in the Special Features options on a DVD release was instead the first instance in memory of being punished for actually showing up to a movie on time. Bad decisions aside, I am more than happy that I decided to make Arthur Christmas my eventual choice for movie mirth on this particular day. Director Sarah Smith knew the tale she wanted to tell, and despite inexperience making feature films this was arguably the best time I've had in a movie theater this year. Arthur Christmas has a wonderful story, exquisite pacing, and more than enough emotion to moisten the lenses of my 3D glasses. You might not guess going in (I certainly didn't), but Arthur Christmas ends up as my #5 Film for 2011. Even if you don't have kids yourself, you've got to go out and see this release, as even as a full-grown adult you will find yourself remembering what made Christmas so special when you were the little one chomping at the bit hoping to catch Santa making his yearly visit. Arthur Christmas makes you want to believe again.

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