In November in the small Cornish town of Trelew, a little girl named Gwen posted her letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole wishing him well and asking for a bicycle for her Christmas present. All the letters to Santa reach him, though these days the operation is rather more complex and modernised with more children to deliver to than ever before, and Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) has a vast staff of elves who assist him, though he is something of a figurehead now as his son Steve (Hugh Laurie) takes care of the management side, with a whole team of troops trained to perfection and a flying saucer sleigh to ensure nothing can go wrong...
But what if all that precision planning had a minor mishap? Because even a minor mishap in the great scheme of things is a major disaster for one little girl, she being Gwen who we saw at the start of the movie, one of British studio Aardman's occasional tries at CGI animation, like their too-minor hit Flushed Away of a few years before this which may have been an indication audiences preferred to watch their stop motion puppetry over their computer generated efforts. Certainly Arthur Christmas was a bigger success than the rat movie, but there were grumbles it was not the full strength experience we might have hoped for from a studio so beloved by animation fans across the world.
Indeed, there was a lot here which verged on the dreaded word generic, not quite suffering comparisons to the endless, cynical cash in TV movies which littered the television schedules where hardly any thought had been put in to the material other than to pile on the clichés and assume it would be watched by those who would see anything Christmassy entirely unironically. But perhaps that was the problem, that Aardman irreverence was toned down as if they didn't want to risk offending anyone by adding anything spicy to the mix, which resulted in a pleasant blandness rather than any particular big laughs. It's not as if the talent behind the scenes wasn't used to taking chances with their comedy, but here the big screen family landscape had smoothed out every rough edge.
Compare this to the considerably spikier and far funnier and more inventive The Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists which arrived the next year and shared many staff with this and you would get a better sense of what Aardman were about than something which appeared to have been thought up as a Yuletide variation of Monsters, Inc only without the inspiration. Pixar wasn't exactly a rival to the Brits, as they complemented one another nicely, but you had to admit the Americans might have had a better handle on the plot here than what seemed to have been inspired by someone's experiences with online shopping and the suspense with discovering whether the postie would deliver the parcel of presents in time.
What of the title character, Arthur himself? He was the other son of the current Santa, voiced by James McAvoy with an English accent, and he works in the mailroom answering all those letters to the boss because he is a timid fellow who doesn't yearn for the adventure of going out with the sleigh on Christmas Eve. However, what do you know, he just might have to when Gwen's gift goes unnoticed and he recruits his grandfather (Bill Nighy), the previous Santa, to take out his old sleigh with proper magic reindeer and get to Cornwall just before the little girl wakes up. This involves the kind of swooping "camerawork" that defined CGI animation of the twenty-first century, which was appropriate to scenes where Arthur, Grandsanta and a random wrapping (not rapping) elf called Bryony (Ashley Jensen) took to the skies. This was one of those innocuous movies you found yourself willing to be better than it actually was, there was nothing wrong with it especially, but it simply refused to take any chances. Not the ones you would have expected from this lot, anyway. Music by Harry-Gregson Williams.