Old-school holiday goodwill trumps modern high-tech impersonality in Arthur Christmas, a yuletide fable that boasts Aardman Animation's peerless mix of whip-smart comedy and cheery heart. Sarah Smith's film opens with young English tyke Gwen (Ramona Marquez) writing a letter to Santa in which she professes belief in St. Nick as well as peppers him with questions about, among other things, the fact that she can't see his North Pole home even with Google Earth. Her missive's blend of sincere faith and tongue-in-cheek skepticism permeates the ensuing action, in which meticulous detail is given to Kris Kringle's Christmas-night operations, which involve continent-hopping in a red stealth spaceship and the military-style deployment of thousands of elves into slumbering children's bedrooms to deliver presents. This massive process is coordinated with cold efficiency from HQ by Santa's older son Steve (Hugh Laurie), whose ambition is to replace his clueless, sleepwalking figurehead father (Jim Broadbent) as the next Santa, while Steve's true-believer brother Arthur (James McAvoy) simply adores his dad, Christmas, and responding to the myriad letters that are received each year requesting presents and expressing certainty in the same holiday magic embraced by Arthur himself.
Despite Steve's highly automated assembly-line system, things go awry when a single present—a bike, for Gwen—is accidentally not delivered, and Steve convinces his lazy father that it's a negligible oversight. That stance strikes Arthur as blasphemy, and with help from his crazy-coot Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), he endeavors to right this wrong by putting that bike under Gwen's tree via travel with Grandsanta's old sleigh and reindeer. This odyssey is one in which sincere conviction is pitted against, and inevitably triumphs over, easy-way-out cynicism, a rather standard narrative trajectory that Smith (working from her and Peter Baynham's crackerjack script) enliven with equal doses of affecting empathy and lunatic humor. The latter routinely comes courtesy of Grandsanta, an instant holiday icon driven by both staunch dedication to tradition and a desire to stick it to his condescending gadget-using offspring. Whether it's forgetting the names of his reindeer (he claims their names include "John" and "You over there") or replacing one with an auto dealership sign's metal deer emblem, Grandsanta is so consistently hilarious that he steals the show, relegating his more two-dimensional relatives to second fiddle.
Arthur's general thinness is a sometimes nagging issue for the film, which in attempting to deal with a number of family-reconciliation dynamics—Steve's careerism and callousness, Santa's absenteeism, Grandsanta's spitefulness—spreads itself a little too thin to fully develop its protagonist. Nonetheless, voiced vibrantly by McAvoy, Arthur remains an engagingly guileless hero, and his inner conflict between fear of stepping out of his warm-and-safe HQ comfort zone and his terror over the thought of a child not waking to a Santa-delivered gift results in a number of jaunty set pieces in Africa, Mexico, and suburban England alongside Grandsanta and spritely wrapping-expert elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen). Through these sequences involving killer lions and a feisty chihuahua, Aardman's CG work proves faithful to their classic Claymation designs, with characters' faces elongated and marked by bulbous noses and sharp pointy features, all while simultaneously boasting a goofy elasticity and verve that match the story's rambunctious soul. It's a holiday saga perched gracefully on the dividing line between silliness and sappiness, a balancing act all the more delightful for its refusal to indulge in the very fart and poop jokes that curdle the mood of so many modern kids' films.