When was the last time we saw a Christmas movie that became an instant classic and promised to be essential viewing during the holiday season? Love Actually? If so, it’s been a good eight years. If you ask me, though, you’d have to go all the way back to 1983’s A Christmas Story. Not since then has there been a Christmas movie so good, a year just seemed too long to wait for an appropriate time to watch it again. Based on what I’ve just seen with the pleasant, but all around mediocre Arthur Christmas, I don’t expect that to change.
The film follows the son of Santa Claus named Arthur Christmas (shouldn’t his last name be Claus?), voiced by James McAvoy. He works at the North Pole as the letter writer, answering the millions of letters Santa receives every year. He loves Christmas and revels in the joy it brings children the world over. This year, however, a child has been forgotten. A single young girl named Gwen is not going to be getting anything from Santa, though not if Arthur has anything to say about it. Determined to get that little girl her gift, he hops on the sleigh with his old, crazy grandfather (annoyingly referred to as “Grandsanta”), voiced by Bill Nighy, and sets out to make things right.
Arthur Christmas is not a game changer—few will argue it is—but it’s not easy to criticize. It has its heart in the right place and promises to be an enchanting view for the young tykes in the audience. In the film, Santa is as real as the air we breathe. There isn’t any doubt about his existence and nobody questions it. It’s fact. It’s like the movie exists within the head of a young child who struggles to stay up every year so they can catch a glimpse of the jolly fat man, always to no avail. The magic of the holiday is cherished and, at the very least, the film will allow the older folks to remember what it felt like when they woke up on Christmas morning and saw Santa’s gifts resting under the tree.
The problem is that the film just isn’t very funny, but it’s not particularly unfunny either. It rests in that strange middle ground (as so many British comedies do) where you can acknowledge its cleverness, but your amusement never evolves beyond a grin. The voice acting is splendid and the holiday-centric plays on words are fun for a bit, but there needed to be something more. The aforementioned magic never transcends the inherent magic of the holiday; the film itself is rather bland.
Nevertheless, the characters are likable, even when they’re not exactly living up the spirit of the holiday they help create. Arthur, in particular, is selfless and loving. When he embarks on his adventure, it’s not for a thrill or for fame. On the contrary, he’s rather scared. He is afraid of heights and knows that hopping in that sleigh is going to test his courage, but he does it anyway. His desire to get that child her gift trumps his phobias. It’s that love for children and the magic of Christmas that eventually forces the other more narcissistic characters to realize that Christmas isn’t about them. It’s about the unbridled joy a child feels when he or she finally reveals the mystery behind the wrapping paper.
Still, its mediocrity can’t be overstated. It’s a pleasant enough film to watch, but it’s missing that extra spark. Children will have fun and adults won’t be upset they had to sit through it—it’s as harmless as can be—but after a few years, it will fade into oblivion while the true Christmas classics live on.
Arthur Christmas receives 3/5