“Arthur Christmas” goes a long way toward explaining how Santa Claus responds to billions of children every year, and how it all could go terribly wrong. This 3-D computer-generated comedy from Aardman, the creative team behind Wallace and Gromit, displays an unusual edge for a holiday family movie, but it does so without dragging the Bearded One through the driven snow.
In “Arthur Christmas,” Santa Claus is a hereditary position held by Malcolm Christmas (voiced by Jim Broadbent), who took over from his slightly batty father, Grandsanta (Bill Nighy). Having held the position for 70 years, Malcolm is considering retirement, and his most likely successor is Steve (Hugh Laurie), a militant efficiency expert who oversees operation for S1, the mammoth, sleigh-shaped starship that can drop thousands of rappelling delivery elves in one stop.
Deep in the background of this modern operation is Arthur Christmas (James McAvoy), a slight, Christmas sweater-wearing teenager whose adolescent awkwardness landed him where he cannot cause much trouble: answering children’s letters. Despite his bumbling nature, Arthur is sweet and best exemplifies the true spirit of the holiday. But when Steve’s well-oiled machine hits a hiccup and misses a kid, Arthur is enlisted by the tradition-loving Grandsanta to break out the old equipment and reindeer to get little Gwen from Cornwall, England, her new bicycle.
As fans of the quirky edges of British comedy might expect, “Arthur Christmas” has less regard for delicate dispositions than most American holiday offerings — the toothless, yammering Grandsanta makes it seem like his early 20th century reign was a bit of a mess, and there are a few oddly adult jokes that are not exactly preschool material. The film begins with a frenetic delivery operation that looks like the makings of yet another Christmas-themed cinematic disaster, a foul on holiday cheer, but then “Arthur Christmas” gets down to business and finds its footing.
Aardman advanced into computer-animated features with “Flushed Away,” and while that film still retained the same artistic style Nick Park brought to the Wallace and Gromit films, “Arthur Christmas” is going in its own direction with first-time director Sarah Smith. That Claymation-style charm is missed, but with a decidedly British viewpoint and a supporting voice cast that goes deep into English cinema (Robbie Coltrane, Jane Horrocks, Michael Palin, Imelda Staunton), “Arthur Christmas” puts a high-tech treat under the tree.