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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011 11:18 am

For an early holiday gift, see Arthur Christmas

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James McAvoy is the voice of Arthur in Arthur Christmas.

While Aardman Animation’s Wallace and Gromit characters have been embraced in their native England, they’re only marginally known in the United States. Animation fans are aware of their odd relationship and the elaborate adventures they find themselves in, but the British sensibility they’re infused with has made them a bit of a hard sell to the masses here. The same can be said of their feature film debut, Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit as well as the other Aardman feature, Flushed Away. They’re just a bit too proper to connect with audiences in a way their first feature, Chicken Run, did.

However, I think that their latest film, Arthur Christmas, will strike a chord here. It puts a clever spin on the Santa Claus myth and features gags that are not bound by as much cultural baggage as their previous productions were. The film hits the ground running and settles on a pleasant pace that avoids becoming too frenetic but keeps the story moving briskly. As one would expect, Santa’s operation runs like a well-oiled machine; there can be nothing slipshod when one’s expected to deliver presents around the world in a single night. St. Nick’s eldest, Steve (voice by Hugh Laurie), makes sure of this, lording over the operation with the demeanor of General Patton.

Meanwhile, his brother, Arthur (James McAvoy), is in charge of the letters department. It’s his job to make sure all of the requests he receives are forwarded to the right department. However, something goes awry. He discovers a bicycle has been left behind by his jolly old dad (Jim Broadbent). Determined to make sure that the young girl the present is supposed to go to doesn’t wake up to a barren spot by her tree, Arthur sets out to deliver the gift with the help of the slightly kooky Grand-Santa (Bill Nighy) with an antiquated sleigh.

The premise is simple, but it yields many delights. Arthur’s eager-to-please nature is impossible to resist and it effectively underscores the charming nature of the entire production. The script from Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith features one pleasant quip after another, while the sight gags they come up with should delight youngsters and the parents they drag with them equally. And while it isn’t necessary to shell out the surcharge to see this in the 3-D format, Smith’s visuals are wonderfully quirky and a source of constant amusement, with Santa’s wrapping brigade providing many humorous moments. Smith also makes sure that this isn’t an all-male operation. Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) takes an active role in the proceedings, while the punkish elf, Bryony (Ashley Jensen), makes her presence known to great comic effect whenever she shows up.

I’m not sure if Arthur Christmas is destined to find a place in the annual rotation of beloved holiday classics. However, it is an unexpected pleasure. It provides a delightfully fresh take on an old tale that generates more laughs than you’d think and a vibrant visual wonderland that will continue to impress on repeated viewings.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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