Arthur Christmas, the new animated feature from Aardman, the studio famous for its stop-motion pictures such as Chicken Run and the Wallace & Gromit movies, glistens with a sheen that only a truckload of computers can buy. Gone are the slightly clunky characters that quivered through space as though negotiating a tract of land beset by mild tremors. Everything, now, zips past on an aerodynamic cloud, friction-free, with no sense of being touched by a single human hand.

This isn't a lament to lost technology — merely an observation about how closely the studio's story mirrors that of Arthur Christmas, which is about Santa having forsaken his reindeer-driven sleigh for what looks like the spacecraft from Close Encounters of the Third Kind dunked in an intergalactic vat of crimson paint. Santa himself is still human, thankfully, but you can see why his vehicle needed the upgrade. How else is he going to fulfil, over a single, silent night, the wishes of every covetous child on the planet?

The opening stretch is a gem, a precise spoof on how the mad scramble before Christmas has transformed into war. Some 15 years ago, the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Jingle All the Way suggested this by having two fathers fighting over a toy in a last-minute shopping spree, as if Christmas was about the child at home and not the one in the manger. And now, this spirit has spread to the North Pole, where Santa's minions function like a crack SWAT team on a mission timed to the split second.

They drop onto rooftops like paratroopers, shimmy down chimneys, evade alarms, employ sophisticated gadgetry (like a nifty nice/naughty meter that scans sleeping children in order to determine their gift-worthiness) and even pull off a nail-biting rescue. Finally we see why time zones were conceived, simply so that these elves could span the world on the night of December 24. And yet, one little girl is missed out, her gift still stuck in the North Pole. Santa's older son Steve, the technocrat responsible for modernising his father's operations, thinks it doesn't matter. But Arthur, the younger son and all heart, decides that it does.

And so, along with his cantankerous grandsanta — namely, the current Santa's father; the film puts forth the view that Santa, like the Phantom, is really the latest male heir in a long line partial to peculiar clothing — Arthur sets forth on the aerial equivalent of a road trip (a sky trip?), sprinkling magic dust on his reindeer to make them airborne. Arthur's subsequent adventures (voiced, among others, by James McAvoy and Hugh Laurie) are diverting enough without being special, though after a while we begin to wish that the characters weren't such threadbare, single-note archetypes — Underachieving Kid Who Needs to Rouse Himself, Wisecracking Sidekick Elder, BFF With an Endearing Quirk, and so forth.

Had the people at Pixar gotten hold of this material, you suspect they may have milked something poignant out of a son eclipsed by the shadow of the most overachieving father of all time. (Even God took a whole week to cover the world.) That's another way Arthur Christmas mirrors the modern version of the holiday in its title — lots of shiny trinkets, but little by way of magic.

Arthur Christmas

Genre: Animated/ fantasy

Director: Sarah Smith

Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy

Storyline: Santa's son has to make a delivery to a little girl before Christmas morning.

Bottomline: Entertaining, if nothing special.

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English Cinema ReviewsOctober 17, 2011