A sleigh pulled by reindeer? That’s so five decades ago. With the population topping seven billion and the Duggars getting ready to welcome baby number 20, Santa (Jim Broadbent) needs all the support modern technology can provide. He may not be on Facebook or Twitter, but he has swapped the sleigh for a state-of-the-art spaceship with a cloaking device, and he has a battalion of elves with the precision technology of Seal Team Six and nifty hand-held devices with naughty/nice indicators. Santa’s head of ops is his burly son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), who barks orders from mission control in camo fatigues and a high and tight haircut. Meanwhile, his bumbling but kind-hearted brother, Arthur Christmas (James McAvoy), sits by himself and answers letters from children old school-style, one at a time by hand, wearing a fuzzy Christmas sweater decorated with candy canes and reindeer-faced slippers.
The British Aardman studio is beloved for claymation films like the “Wallace and Gromit” series, characterized by off-beat characters literally showing the fingerprints of the humans who created them and a refreshing unwillingness to focus-group their stories to make them bland and culturally non-specific. While this one has some accommodation to American sensibilities — surely a little girl from Cornwall would address her letter to Father Christmas rather than Santa — the Aardman sensibility has thankfully been transferred to the digital world without looking sterile or boringly hyper-real. Steve’s goatee is shaped like a Christmas tree, an elf has a pierced eyebrow, and a reindeer has a plastic cone on his head. The settings, especially on the North Pole, are deliciously intricate and the characters understatedly quirky. I longed for a pause button to explore the witty details, especially the Enigma code-inspired analog machines Arthur and his grandfather use to send messages.
Santa’s family is endearingly flawed and familiarly dysfunctional. He loves his sons and knows he should retire, but he just cannot give up the spotlight, even in playing a Christmas board game with his family. His father, Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) longs for a chance to show he can still take the starring role. I was especially taken with Mrs. Christmas (Imelda Staunton), whose comfy demeanor hides some unexpected skills. Steve is a numbers guy who is comfortable with a delivery record that is almost perfect and he is angry and frustrated at not being promoted to become the new Santa. Clumsy, anxious Arthur knows that no child should be disappointed on Christmas morning. So when one gift is mistakenly left behind, it will be up to Arthur to save the day. With Santa and Steve in bed and mission control shut down, Grandsanta, Arthur, and a spirited stowaway wrapping elf (Ashley Jenson as Bryony) set off in the sleigh to deliver that last gift, a pink twinkle bicycle, to a little girl in Cornwall before sunrise.
From the brisk Justin Bieber video that opens the story to the warm-hearted happy ending, this is a holiday charmer that shows us how imperfect families can still feel just right.
Parents should know that this movie includes ome mild fantasy peril and brief potty humor, scary jungle animals, and a gun.
Family discussion: Why are Arthur and Steve so different? Why does Santa decide not to retire? What does Grandsanta want to prove? How is their family like your family and how is it different?
If you like this, try: “Flushed Away” and “Shaun the Sheep”