6th December: Arthur Christmas

Image: Sony Pictures

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 2011

Directors: Sarah Smith, Barry Cook

Writers: Sarah Smith, Peter Baynham

Starring: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Ashley Jensen, Imelda Staunton

May contain spoilers.

This is the second time I have seen Arthur Christmas, the first being around this time last year. Perhaps it is the nature of 2020 that has made me feel more strongly towards it on second viewing. The film’s final note, and its overall message of spreading joy to others, whatever your generation or preferred means, really moved me this time. I have no shame in saying that I welled up a little at Arthur Christmas.

The film is a light intergenerational family drama wrapped up in a rollicking Christmas adventure. The latter is just welcome as the former, providing 90 minutes of escapism that is much-needed after the screaming hell-scape of a year we’ve just had. The generations in question are the Claus family, three tiers of the Santa clan, descended from a long line of present-bringers and cheer-givers.

At the centre is Malcolm (Jim Broadbent), current Santa and figurehead of the whole operation. He’s getting on a bit and is pretty clueless as to how Christmas is actually run these days. All of that is handled by his impersonal, tech-driven son Steve (Hugh Laurie). Steve is delivering the best Christmas success numbers yet, but lacks the obvious warmth and sparkle we associate with Santa.

The polar opposite is Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), the now-defunct head of the family, who hates Steve’s approach and constantly reminds us of the good old days when you used a sleigh and reindeer to deliver presents. Then there’s Arthur (James McAvoy), Malcolm’s youngest son, who is a bumbling idiot but loves Christmas and is the only one who deeply, earnestly believes in its ideals of spreading cheer and love around the world. 

Now let’s be honest here, all of the Santas bar Arthur are kind of a dick. Grandsanta pretends to have old-fashioned Christmas spirit but really only cares about proving Steve wrong. Malcolm, Santa himself, is so affable he’s hard to dislike, but he constantly ignores the merits of his wife (Imelda Staunton), and is a pretty rubbish parent. Then there’s Steve, who’s flaws are most obvious. However, although I think Steve is supposed to be the most dislikable character here, I found him more sympathetic than the older men. Yes, he’s got too hung up on the numbers, but at the end of the day more children are waking up happy than ever before thanks to him, whatever his methods.

The film’s strength is in knowing that this is the case, and feeling sorry for Steve, as it does for everyone. The script, by Peter Baynham and director Sarah Smith, elicits sympathy for every generation, whilst not varnishing over their flaws so much that we cannot properly feel the tension among the family. The whole thing feels genuine and properly engages on an emotional level.

This is, of course, just the nucleus of the film, and there’s so much fun going on around it that Arthur Christmas is a consistently joyous family watch. The personalities of the Claus family are all brought about by the central premise that one child has been missed in this year’s big Christmas present delivery, and it is scared, constantly worried Arthur who is most determined to get a bicycle to young Gwen in Cornwall.

Along the adventure is plenty of humour, mostly courtesy of wrapping-obsessed elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen), and genuinely gripping set-pieces. The ticking-clock plot works wonderfully and the animation has a glorious dynamism and vigour to it, keeping the family drama in the background as we watch cool flying things and some dramatic action. This is all bolstered by a magnificent voice-acting ensemble. Right down to Outnumbered’s Ramona Marquez as inquisitive, oddly well-informed young Gwen, the casting is spot on.

At one point in this film, we discover that Arthur’s coping mechanism for his worry is to worry more about something else that overrides the initial worry. It is needless to say that I strongly identify with this man. I’m probably not as brave and heroic as him, though. He is the driving force behind a wonderful holiday adventure with a big heart and a welcome dose of Christmas spirit.

Where it Ranks

Let’s add a ranking. Why not? The ranking part of My Marvel Diary was what caused a lot of its interest and controversy. So, to make this challenge more fun, from this point on I will be slotting every new film into an overall Christmas Movie Ranking. For this edition, of course, I need to catch up.

The films so far can roughly be grouped into three camps, with Arthur Christmas and Elf at the top, and Nativity! and The Holiday at the bottom. Although a probably more basic film and with less potential greatness than The Holiday, I think Nativity! achieves what it sets out to do far better than Meyers’ film. I also enjoyed it more and it’s shorter.

In the middle section we have Home Alone and Gremlins, both of which have sections of riotous fun and some dull stretches. I think Gremlins edges it for me because of its distinctive feel and the harder-edged invention and gleeful anarchy in some of its scenes.

Then the top two, both of which I love, comes down to how much Arthur Christmas affected me, and how it has grown in stature on second viewing. I still can’t get on board with the romance in Elf, either, so Jon Favreau’s film will have to settle for second place.

  1. Arthur Christmas
  2. Elf
  3. Gremlins
  4. Home Alone
  5. Nativity!
  6. The Holiday

Andrew Young