Literalism is the joke behind the 2011 computer-animated feature Arthur Christmas. It’s right there in the poster: “Ever wonder how 2 Billion presents get delivered in 1 night?”
2 billion kids have wondered the same thing, and also how reindeer can fly, and how Santa gets down the chimney, etc. According to Arthur Christmas, nowadays it’s accomplished via a massive, technologically sophisticated process involving a city-sized, rocket-powered sleigh, and countless elves operating like commandos, rappelling down the sides of buildings and through windows, SWAT-team-style, to plant gifts and leave traces that simulate Santa’s visit.
The real Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is at the center of it all, as an ineffectual figurehead, hustled here and there by the elves. The real brains of the outfit, and his itching presumptive heir, is his son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who runs the show from a palatial mission control back at the North Pole and resents his father’s refusal to retire and pass him the reins. The retired senior Santa (Bill Nighy) watches and scoffs at the newfangled spectacle from his rooms.
The title character is Santa’s recessive younger son, who works answering letters, and truly cares about the kids. When Arthur (James McAvoy) learns of a glitch in Steve’s system—a little girl in a small town in Cornwall hasn’t been given her bicycle—he’s appalled that his father and Steve are prepared to just blow it off, as within the margin for error. With just a few hours left before sunrise in England, Arthur and his grandfather set out to make the delivery old-school, using a sled, reindeer, a gift-wrap-obsessed elf and a bit of magic dust. All does not go smoothly.
It does go hilariously, however. This blend of “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” with Apollo 13 is one of the more inventive Christmas movies I’ve seen in a long time. If you and your kids missed it last year, it’s worth checking out on video.
A product of Aardman Studios—the folks that brought us the Wallace and Grommit films—it’s dizzyingly imaginative on a visual level, and despite the sentimentality inherent in the storyline, it isn’t mawkish, probably because it’s so bracingly honest about creeping institutional impersonality. I also liked the shades of gray in the characters—Arthur is lovable but clueless; without his less warmhearted, more competent relations he’d be helpless. The crotchety Santa emeritus, also lovable, has his own selfish reasons for wanting to make the run, and Steve and father aren’t presented as soulless.
In reality, of course, the charming tradition of giving Christmas gifts has degenerated over the decades into an angst-ridden consumerist nightmare driven by a technological juggernaut far more pitiless than that depicted in the film, with Santa Claus, that fascinating composite of diverse cultural traditions, reduced to its mascot. Arthur Christmas carries, and is deepened by, a rueful awareness of this corruption under its merry, bright surface.