Generation gap at the Claus house in 'Arthur Christmas'

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 23, 2011 - 1:30 PM

As a dispute over Christmas traditions heats up, the comic action zips along faster than a sleigh full of gifts.

Britain's Aardman Animation Studio, those Picassos of putty who created Wallace and Gromit, continue to go modern with their latest film, "Arthur Christmas." Well, halfway modern. It renounces Claymation actors and sets in favor of glossy 3-D computer animation.

For fans of Aardman's delightfully bendy handmade efforts, this is not good news. Instead of being instantly recognizable and adorably handcrafted, "Arthur" looks as modern, streamlined and anonymous as an iPad. On the other hand, the daft British humor remains. Half a loaf, then, but still tasty.

Plotwise, we have three generations of the Claus family arguing about who really has the holiday spirit. Santa (voiced by plummy-toned Jim Broadbent) is about to retire.

Next in line is his efficiency-minded son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who has turned the North Pole into something like a vast, gleaming Amazon.com fulfillment center. His elves rappel onto rooftops like SWAT commandos and zip around the globe in a sleigh-shaped stealth aircraft.

Younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy), a sincere, accident-prone traditionalist, is aghast to learn that Steve's latest mission has left one little girl without her special toy. Crotchety Grandpa Claus (Bill Nighy) grumbles that it was all better in his day, with real reindeer and a wooden sleigh.

In movies like this, pace trumps plot, and "Arthur" rockets along with so many blip-fast moments of comedic delight that one viewing isn't enough to absorb them all. Forward-looking Steve insists that "Christmas isn't a time for emotion," but Arthur and Grandsanta commandeer a forgotten red sleigh from the warehouse (where it sits alongside cobwebby old pots of Lead Paint) and go rogue.

Their low-altitude flight path takes them across Canada ("Nobody lives there") and into a series of international crises. The script, by director Sarah Smith and "Borat" writer Peter Baynham, is a firecracker of complications, misunderstandings, sight gags and character bits.

The cast is sublime, with special notice going to "Ugly Betty" star Ashley Jensen as helium-voiced Bryony, a plucky elf from the Giftwrap Battalion. Her ninja-like ability to finish any package with "just three pieces of sticky tape" will be a running joke for many Christmases to come.

While holiday movies too often force mawkish good feelings down our throat, this one has a genuine warmth and unblushing corniness.

If "Arthur Christmas" doesn't make you happy, I honestly don't know what's wrong with you.

  • related content

  • Bryony, voiced by Ashley Jensen, left, and Arthur, voiced by James McAvoy, are shown in a scene from "Arthur Christmas."

  • ARTHUR CHRISTMAS

    ★★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rating: PG for some mild rude humor.

    RottenTomatoes.com: read reviews

    Showtimes: view listings

    | 3D
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