Arthur Christmas is a CG animated film from Aardman (the British studio best known here for "Wallace and Gromit") and Sony Pictures Animation. Like Disney's Santa Clause movies, it attempts to explain how Santa Claus does his job in the modern world. The premise here is that the job of Santa Claus is passed from one generation to the next in the same family- when one Santa gets too old and retires, his son takes over, and so forth.
In Arthur Christmas, we have the current Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) almost ready to retire and have his son Steve (voiced by Hugh Laurie) take over, who has been gradually assuming duties including implementing many technological advances. The prior Santa, referred to as "Grandsanta" (voiced by Bill Nighy) still lives with the family at the North Pole. The title character, Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy), is the current Santa's younger son who loves the whole operation but is considered too awkward and dim-witted to be of much use, so he's relegated mostly to writing replies to letters the children send to Santa.
As the movie begins on Christmas Eve, we first see an elaborate sequence of Christmas present delivery in one city. The traditional sleigh and reindeer have been replaced with the S-1, a large spaceship, from which Santa and the Elves descend down from into the houses.
There's a Mission Control back at the North Pole, where many other elves are monitoring screens and other equipment, warning Santa and the elves when they're in danger of being seen by people, which is still a big no-no. Once all the presents are delivered and everyone's back at the North Pole, there's a big celebration with Santa making a yearly speech. Although it's been assumed he'll be retiring this year, Santa announces he'll be keeping his position for at least one more year, which annoys Steve.
As everyone is ready to consider this year's Christmas mission accomplished and take a much-deserved rest, one elf named Bryony (voiced by Ashley Jensen) discovers that there is one present that somehow did not get delivered. To make matters worse, it's from a girl who wrote a letter to Santa (answered by Arthur) questioning whether he was real or not. Santa is just at a loss as to what to do about this, as Steve says that one missed present is within the acceptable margin of error. Arthur however is extremely concerned that this will ruin Christmas for this one girl, and he takes matters into his own hands. He gets Grandsanta, who still begrudges all the newfangled ways of doing things and longs for how it was done in his day, to help him out. They pull the old sleigh out of storage, hitch up the reindeer (who are descendants of the original eight) and fly off to deliver the missed present, which comprises the rest of the movie. Since Grandsanta insists on doing things the old way, including using a printed map rather than a GPS device, they get off-course several times.
Having seen most computer-animated films since 1995's Toy Story, it seems that each one improves technically. In Arthur Christmas the animated human characters look very believable, with just the right amount of cartoonish qualities added. This is one movie that will have to be viewed several times to be fully appreciated, as the narrative is rather chaotic and there are many small details that go by missed the first time (I have so far only had time to view the entire movie once.) It's always amusing to see a new take on the Santa Claus legend, who he is and how he is able to deliver presents to every child in the world within one night. I felt there was a good bit of backstory to the Arthur character however that was missing from the movie- why is he so awkward compared to everyone else in the family? I'm at a loss to explain the movie's title as well, as his nor any other character's last name is Christmas. (The Spanish title shown when Spanish subtitles are activated makes more sense: Operacion Regalo or "Operation Gift" in English.) The story was written specifically for this movie, not based on a book or any prior story.
Arthur Christmas is presented on Blu-Ray in AVC format with a 1.85 aspect ratio. I've never seen a bad-looking CGI movie on any hi-def format, and this is certainly no exception. It's simply beautiful, with lots of details to explore through multiple viewings. The movie was presented in 3D during its theatrical run and there is a 3D Blu-Ray available, but I was only sent the 2D edition. This is a movie that would look great in 3D if done right and I hope to be able to see it that way eventually; I have seen the trailer in 3D which looked very good. A standard DVD is also included in this package, and sampling that the picture pales in comparison. Part of this might be due to the low bitrate used; checking on my computer the entire disc is only 5.23 GB. I don't know if the quality of DVDs recently has been deliberately compromised in order to make the quality-conscious people switch to Blu-Ray, but it seems the DVD could have looked better than it does. (I'll save my questioning of why studios even bother including a regular DVD with a Blu-Ray disc at all for another time.)
Sound on the Blu-Ray is in 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio and is a great mix, with some active surrounds and overall thrilling sound effects. Dialogue is well-recorded although the British accents may be hard to understand on first viewing. I was pleased to hear that most of it was "panned" across the front channels in relation to where the character was speaking on-screen. A French dub in 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio is included along with Spanish in 5.1 Dolby Digital. There is also a descriptive audio track for the visually impaired in 5.1 Dolby Digital, where a female narrator describes what is going on in between lines of dialogue. I only had time to listen to part of this but it sounds more interesting than many audio commentaries. (Descriptive tracks were used on the first DVD releases of Terminator 2 and Basic Instinct and largely disappeared after that, but seem to be making a comeback being used on many recent releases. The irony is that the tracks are hard to access if you are unable to see the onscreen menus or player controls.) The standard DVD has the main audio and Spanish and French dubs in 5.1 Dolby Digital, with the descriptive track in Pro-Logic rather than 5.1.
Both discs include standard English subtitles showing only the dialogue, and "SDH" done the same way as TV closed-captions, with the text appearing in a black box positioned near the speaking character. French and Spanish subtitles are also included. (Text on the Blu-Ray is white, while the DVD uses Sony's usual yellow.)
Both the Blu-Ray and DVD include a 13-minute making-of piece titled "Un-Wrapping Arthur Christmas" with the usual director and cast comments as well as an overview of the plot. Then there are Progression Reels for four scenes, shown with various stages of the computer animation process. Finally there is an "Elf Recruitment Video" which really just plays like a trailer for the movie. Both discs open with a promo for the Sony Entertainment Network, then trailers (all with 5.1 sound and the proper aspect ratios) for Hotel Transylvania, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, The Smurfs (regular trailer on the Blu-Ray, teaser on the DVD), and 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue. All of these are also selectable from the menus with an additional trailer for The Swan Princess Christmas.
Also included is an Ultraviolet code, which I redeemed to add to my Vudu movie library with up to HDX quality and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio. Sampling a bit of that, the transfer there is slightly cropped to 1.77. In HD quality I noticed the picture's resolution was higher than the standard DVD (but lower than the Blu-Ray obviously) but had more noticeable compression artifacts. I'm not really a fan of these "digital copies" but I already use Vudu on my equipment for rentals, and when I can use these copies with that at no extra charge it only makes sense to add them to my account.
Although it isn't perfect, I found Arthur Christmas to be a worthy addition to anyone's holiday movie list. It's certainly nice to look at, and I was amused that it applied a problem common in many businesses to the way Santa Claus operates- that of overall efficiency taking a higher priority than the purpose of the business in the first place.
Pictures in this review were captured from the standard DVD included with this Blu-Ray.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.