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 Pictures Home Entertainment presents 'Arthur Christmas - 3D' debuts on Blu-ray as part of a 3-Disc Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet combo pack, housed in Sony's clear Blu-ray 3D packaging with a lenticular slipcover. In terms of content, both the Blu-ray 3D and the Blu-ray Discs appear to be identical. Meaning, the Special Features (see below) are fully available on either disc (in two dimensions). Trailers must be skipped individually and include recent Sony family releases like 'Hotel Transylvania' and 'The Pirates! Band of Misfits'. At this time, it's unclear whether or not the Ultraviolet copy is HD or SD. 'Arthur Christmas' is also available in a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD combo pack, but I'm not sure if that includes an Ultraviolet copy or not.
'Arthur Christmas - 3D' makes a strong debut on Blu-ray, thanks in part to rich visuals and a flawless MPEG-4 MVC encode, framed in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Whether or not you're watching 'Arthurs Christmas' in two or three dimensions, this digital presentation is a winner. Vibrant colors, an immersive world, and an impressive dynamic range highlight both presentations which, for my eyes, obtain the same level of depth, detail, and brightness in both 3D and 2D. The film's 3D includes a few pop-out moments, but generally sticks to building out the universe behind your display. Overall it works well, adding scale and scope to the vast interiors of the S1 and North Pole Headquarters, but sometimes feels a little flat in less dynamic frame compositions. And, though my particular plasma display is more prone to crosstalk than some other technologies, I only saw one mild instance (you may or may not be affected).
So why, despite no technical flaws and all the compliments, not 5-stars?
In truth, 'Arthur Christmas - 3D' looks fantastic, is accurate to the theatrical presentation, and is nearly perfect. But the film itself isn't quite as detailed or textured as something from Pixar or even DreamWorks. When standing next to those worlds, 'Arthur Christmas' doesn't quite have the same dazzle, the same wait-are-we-still-watching-a-cartoon textures. So the film looks fantastic, but isn't quite 3D or HD perfection.
'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 - 3D', totaling almost 30 minutes and, as stated above, available on both the Blu-ray 3D and Blu-ray disc. I personally wish there were more, but given the film's box officer performance, this is understandable.
'Arthur Christmas - 3D' is a delightful family film about a young man whose true passion in life is bringing joy and happiness to the good children of the world through the true magic of Santa Claus. As we have come to expect from Aardman/Sony Pictures Animation collaborations, this film is imaginative, witty, and utterly infectious. This is a film that will definitely join my personal Christmas Movies Holiday Rotation. As a Blu-ray 3D, picture and audio are just shy of greatness and the 3D presentation is virtually identical, in terms of brightness and vibrancy, to its 2D sibling. However, Special Features underwhelm, lacking quantity and depth. If you enjoy 3D, 'Arthur Christmas - 3D' is recommended. If not, might I suggest the 2D Blu-ray packaging, which includes the same Special Features and costs a few dollars less.
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.