Five years ago, the Bristol, England-based Aardman animation folks -- who created the stop-motion legends Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep and therefore are eligible for sainthood -- made the digitally animated British/American co-production "Flushed Away." Jampacked with peril, if not with charm, the film had both eyes on a crossover American audience that never materialized.
Now comes happier news: a much better film. The company's second digitally animated feature, billed as "an Aardman production for Sony Pictures Animation," carries the name "Arthur Christmas." It's good. Frantic, yes, sometimes aggressively so. There's some padding in the airborne sequences built to exploit the 3-D format. But a tender and upbeat spirit informs the writing and the execution.
You just wouldn't know it from the maniacal first 10 minutes. Directed and co-written, with Peter Baynham, by Sarah Smith, "Arthur Christmas" rips the lid off the secret of how Santa manages to deliver presents to every child in the world in one night. The latest in a long ancestral line of Santas, voiced by Jim Broadbent, nears retirement and is due to hand the job over to one of his sons. Sporting a fir-tree-shaped goatee, firstborn Steve (Hugh Laurie) runs the annual assault like a military operation, overseeing the mighty "S-1," a 2-mile-long spaceship (vaguely sleigh-shaped) from which a million present-delivering elves descend and deliver. Typical of the throwaway details, we hear a computer voice announce in passing: "Converting milk and cookies into biofuel."
The film's heart belongs to the younger son, Arthur, voiced sweetly by James McAvoy. This fellow, eager to impress his distracted father, cherishes the Christmas holiday and corresponds warmly with "Dear Santa" letter writers around the globe. Crisis: This year a little girl in Cornwall astonishingly has been overlooked. It's up to Arthur, his 136-year-old "Grandsanta" (Bill Nighy, funnier than his material) and their long-mothballed traditional sleigh and reindeer to place a pink bicycle under the girl's tree in time for Christmas.
In its espionage and secret-mission trappings "Arthur Christmas" occasionally recalls "Cars 2," which for me is not a warm memory. But only occasionally. There's a wonderful supporting character along for Arthur's magic dust-fueled ride: a "wrapping operative," with an eyebrow piercing, named Bryony (Ashley Jensen). This elf lives to gift-wrap, and the way she takes care of present-packaging and taping duties under extreme duress and time constraints becomes a lesson in sustaining a one-joke character. Even when its storyline focuses on sibling rivalry or competing methods of yuletide maintenance, "Arthur Christmas" has the class not to devolve into constant bickering. Who knows? Perhaps the target audience will pick up a subliminal lesson or two in civility and kindness while trying to keep up with the onslaught of visual and verbal details.
'Arthur Christmas' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for some mild rude humor)
Running time: 1:37