It's often said that much of the charm of Aardman’s films comes from the fact that they are so clearly hand-made. While it’s true that there is something immensely appealing, and indefinably British, about seeing Plasticine squished into life, so obviously tangible, it’s not the chief source of Aardman’s appeal. Arthur Christmas doesn’t bear a single thumbprint but it is Aardman to its heart. The real attraction of Aardman is in a strain of humour that is uniquely, intelligently silly.
Arthur’s story has it that being Santa Claus is a career, like being the CEO of a very large but cuddly company. The average shift lasts around 70 years before being passed on to the next son (this also obliquely suggests that Santa Clauses die – an idea too miserable to contemplate, so let’s not dwell). Like any other ageing industry, it has evolved and become computerised – as is shown in a gift-delivery sequence staged like Mission: Impossible with elves, packed so full of witty background jokes that you’ll have to watch it tens of times before you catch them all. Christmas is now such a big business and run with such precision that the only person who appreciates the true dizzy joy is Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy), Santa ‘Malcolm’ Claus’ youngest son, a flail of uncoordinated limbs held together with enthusiasm and an ugly jumper. When a child is accidentally left ungifted, Arthur, his retired ‘grandsanta’, a determined wrapping elf and the world’s most ancient reindeer venture out to ensure that Christmas comes to absolutely everyone.
The quest is the good ol’ ‘what can go wrong, will go wrong’ roadtrip. There’s a lion attack, several escaped reindeer and some very unkind bits about Toronto, all written with warm sarcasm by Peter Baynham and writer/director Sarah Smith. They don’t write for kids — they just write what’s funny, which is the Aardman way. It doesn’t all work: there’s a UFO plotline that doesn’t really hold together and, like Santa, the film’s a little flabby around the middle, where it briefly quite literally starts going round in circles and loses a bit of the fun. But it finds an ending that stuffs in all the Christmas jollity and huggy business that is absolutely core to a Christmas movie but without the overdone syrupy nonsense that makes you want to go to the nearest shopping centre and kick over a nativity scene. The feeling with which it leaves you is unfettered cheer. It’s just so happy. This could very well come to be regarded as a Christmas classic.