GENRE: Lovable CGI holiday romp
THE PITCH: How does doddering Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) deliver a billion gifts in one night? With an army of elves and a high-tech system commanded by his militaristic oldest son Steve (Hugh Laurie). But when a present gets left behind, Santa's bumbling younger son Arthur (James McAvoy) resolves to save Christmas for a little girl named Gwen.
MONEY SHOTS: Santa's "Sleigh" — a red mother ship worthy of a sci-fi blockbuster — hovers over a city as the "1st Field Elf Battalion" repels to the street. Like a bomb disposal team, elves must disarm a cow-moo toy to keep Santa from getting caught. Arthur and Grandsanta leave the North Pole driving flying reindeer as narwhals leap from the water. A pride of lions attacks the heroes in an African detour. Bryony (Ashley Jensen), an elf from the Giftwrap Battalion, wraps a bicycle while Arthur rides it.
BEST LINE: When Arthur tells Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) that it's impossible to get the present to Gwen, Grandsanta scoffs, "They used to say it was impossible to teach a woman to read!"
SUBTLEST LINE: The African encounter results in animals helplessly floating in mid-air, and the ensuing TV coverage includes the very British headline "Flying Baboons Cause Concern."
PRODUCT PLACEMENT: Brand names that get shout-outs include Versace and PlayStation, while Gwen writes in a letter to Santa, "If you live on the North Pole, why can't I see your house on Google Earth?"
FASHION STATEMENTS: Arthur's glowy-eyed reindeer slippers lead to recurring gags. Steve's sense of style includes Christmas tree-shaped soul patch and red-and-green fatigues. Santa's outfit includes a red beret and leather jacket, making him look like an R.A.F. veteran.
CAMEOS: I caught none of these during the movie, but among the voices of the elves at Mission Control are Joan Cusack, Robbie Coltrane, Andy Serkis, Rhys Darby, "The Wire's" Dominic West, while Laura Linney speaks for the North Pole's computer.
SELF-REFERENCES: Aardman Animations, creator of Wallace & Gromit, nods to its own work with a plush Shaun the Sheep and a toy train track gag from "The Wrong Trousers."
BIEBER DAMN: Not only do the closing credits include Justin Bieber's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a full-length, 3-D video of the song precedes the movie. When I told this to my nine year-old daughter, she replied, "That must've been torture!"
HOW'S THE 3-D? Not very noticeable, although some good pop-out effects involve reindeer and the lost present. You won't miss anything if you opt for the cheaper 2-D ticket.
HEY, WAIT A MINUTE: The notion of a high-tech North Pole with teams of commando-like elves was also done in the 2010 made-for-Disney-Channel special "Prep and Landing," which is pretty amusing in its own right. Given animation's long production schedule, I wonder if Disney or Aardman had the idea first.
NAUGHTY OR NICE? Arthur Christmas boasts a Christmas feast of funny gags and a surprisingly complex approach to family dynamics and the tension between cutting edge and old-school holidays. The plot bogs down in some superfluous business in the second half, but Arthur Christmas offers a fresh take on Santa lore and marks Aardman's welcome big-screen return since 2006's Flushed Away.