Christmas is my favorite holiday season. Sure, it's devolved into stampeding hordes of the shopping zombies duking it out for parking spots and must-have toys (and HD gear!), but if ever there was magic in our world, it would be the Christmas season. Family gatherings. Feasts. The first snow of the season. Hot cider and cocoa. A boost in goodwill that sees charitable donations spike for those less fortunate. Caroling. End of the year introspection. Hope for what's just over the horizon.
And, of course, movies.
Christmas movies take the real, human magic of the Holidays and open the doors to the fantastical. They entertain and fill our hearts with escapist joy, while inspiring us to be better versions of ourselves. Altruistic and humble and forgiving.
They inspire us to be human.
'Arthur Christmas' is quickly becoming one of my favorite Christmas films (it's a long list). I was saddened when it didn't do blockbuster numbers in cinemas last year, but hopefully this charming, delightful, and intelligent film will find an audience on home video. The story let viewers behind the scenes of Santa Claus. Claus is not one man, but generations of a family, who grow up in the North Pole and, for seventy years, take on the mantle of Santa Claus. When the film opens, current Santa (Jim Broadbent) is set to retire after his 70th trip 'round the world. His eldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), has boldly upgraded Christmas with advanced technologies and a futuristic "S1" sleigh that looks more like a spaceship. Aided by thousands of enthusiastic Elves sneaking into neighborhoods like super spies, Santa seems to be going through the motions, and yet because Steve's upgrades are so seamless, Santa doesn't realize his commitment and enthusiasm has waned, despite napping on and off through most of the night.
Then two things happen, throwing this perfected world into chaos. First, Santa decides not to retire, which sends Steve off pouting. And second, one toy -- a bicycle for a little girl -- goes undelivered. Steve and Santa appear content to let this one pass. It seems pride, image, and percentages are more important than the magic of Santa and Christmas. But don't forget about Santa's other son, Arthur. Arthur (James McAvoy) is a goofy, clumsy, loving young man who adores Christmas and Santa above all else. When he learns of the undelivered bicycle, he can't imagine a world where a little girl loses her faith in Santa, the greatest man in the whole world.
Arthur teams up with his Grandfather (Bill Nighy), a retired Santa who really wants nothing more than to take out his real, wooden sleigh one more time and get his picture taken to show Santa and Steve how Christmas is really done. But Grandfather Christmas doesn't really know what he's doing anymore and he and Arthur quickly become lost, racing from continent to continent trying to get back to a small village in England before sunrise.
An endlessly clever film, 'Arthur Christmas' makes audiences smile from beginning to end. With great characters, sharp dialog, and wall-to-wall jokes the film details the intricacies of the hidden Claus universe. if you're a fan of previous Aardman movies, you know what I'm already talking about and will, hopefully, admire the skillful filmmaking on display here as well.
Most Christmas movies are usually about someone who has lost his or her way, and by learning the true spirit of Christmas, he or she solves a more personal issue. 'Arthur Christmas' evokes similar thematics, but flipped on its head. Arthur already embodies Christmas in ways the real Santa does not, or cannot. In fact, the stakes of the movie are more about Arthur's purity. Will this wonderfully naive young man lose his Christmas spirit thanks to the cynicism of those who are acting selfishly?
As a technical excercise, the filmmakers fill the 'Arthur Christmas' universe with thousands of intricate details (and jokes), giving us a CGI creation that calls back to Aardman's stop motion film and television work. And yet, despite this depth, the overall film doesn't quite have the visual pop of a Pixar universe. However, I wish the last few Pixar movies had scripts this good, so perhaps it's a wash in the end. Another terrfic element scoring points for 'Arthur Christmas' is Harry Gregson-Williams' musical score. Known for his action movies, the composer delivers those stylistic goods from the very first frame, as the film spoofs spy movies, but Mr. Gregson-Williams' work truly shines when Arthur and his Grandfather take to the skies in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. The orchestra swells and one can't help but feel a sense of wonder.
Overall, 'Arthur Christmas' is an absolute joy, one that will certainly join my ever-growing collection of perennial Holiday Movies. Is it a true classic? Time will tell. I've enjoyed the movie a couple times now, and I think it's growing on me. However, the reimaginging Santa Claus the way they do -- the specific technologies used and in-jokes -- may eventually date the film to the early 21st century. If HDD had a 4.25 stars rating, that's probably where I would honestly land (though numbers are pretty useless in grading a film's merits and artistic achievements), but I'm rounding up because the film makes me smile and is intelligent entertainment the whole family can enjoy together.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony's 2D version of 'Arthur Christmas' comes in a Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet Digital Copy Combo Pack. The movie is pressed onto a 50GB Blu-ray Disc. It's indicated on the packaging as being a region free release.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that Sony's 2D presentation of 'Arthur Christmas' in high definition is demo quality. The 3D presentation bordered on that lofty sphere of 5-star perfection, but I think I'm pretty safe in saying that the 2D presentation gets there easily.
Here is where my opinion differs from that of our 3D reviewer. In my opinion, I think that Sony Animation, in conjunction with the fine folks at Aardman, have crafted a gorgeous looking film that has more than enough detail for me.
As for technical difficulties, I couldn't find a single instance of aliasing, blocking, or banding. I thought for a second that I saw some very minor banding, but if it's there you're not going to see it unless you're straining to find it. This is a beautiful animated film with a picture-perfect presentation provided by Sony.
'Arthurs Christmas - 3D' features a melodic 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround mix that has a few wonderful moments, but is generally light on immersion.
There's a lot to like about 'Arthur Christmas - 3D' in surround sound. Along with the terrific British voice casting, Harry Gregson-Williams' score is certainly the highlight of the mix, as it shifts from its action-spy movie opening sequences to soaring and heart-warming adventure sequences as Arthur and his Grandfather fly across the world in a magical sleigh.
But I expected a little more detail and depth. A little more wow-factor, given who intricate and intelligent the whole world was. There are certainly a few moments of strong LFE and world building, but the movie generally feels weighted toward front-channel moments. However, make sure to lissen for some of the funny, off-screen Elf one-liners.
Overall, 'Arthur Christmas - 3D' features a strong, but just-shy-of great sound mix.
There are three Special Features available on 'Arthur Christmas.' I personally wish there were more, but given the film's box officer performance, this is understandable.
I love this little movie. It feels destined to become a Christmas classic. One that kids will want to watch year after year, and parents won't mind because there are just as many jokes in there for them as there are for the little ones. 'Arthur Christmas' provides a whole lot of clever fun in a genre where movies routinely aim for lowest common denominator kind of stuff. With its demo-quality presentation and great sounding audio, the 2D version is an easy recommendation to make for the upcoming holiday season.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.