Arthur Christmas is one of those instant classics that I'll always revisit during the festive season. When I first saw it in the cinema, I had a very rigid set of films that I'd force my family to sit through during the holidays. The Muppets Christmas Carol, The Grinch, and Elf. Those were the staples, and any other film had to fit around them. I'd been watching those three since I was too young to know what Christmas was, they were all immovable parts of festive tradition. But once the credits started rolling and we left the screen behind I knew that Arthur Christmas would be the first outsider to crack that list. I'm much less of a Christmas movie tyrant now (or at least, marginally less), and festive films are more of a "I'll watch it if I feel like watching it" phenomenon, rather than an out and out tradition, but if ever I'm asked by friends or family to suggest a Christmas film, Arthur Christmas is at the top of the list.
Animation-wise it's at that sweet spot between the realism of modern Disney and the stylistic animation of films like Klaus. The aesthetic works well with the core family dynamic, with grounded characters that bicker and moan just like all relatives during the holidays, and whose critiques all come from a place of familiarity and love. With realistic animation backing up this dynamic, the audience is able to easily relate to the characters. Adding a delicate splash of stylised animation gives it the right amount of whimsicality for a Christmas film and lets the more visually active moments truly soar.
Pacing is another element that the film wholeheartedly nails. The narrative is structured perfectly, giving the right amount of time to the conflict's setup and running through the story beats breezily, whilst taking the time to hone in on significant character moments. It's a simple story of passing down the title of 'Santa' from father to son, with the younger son, Arthur, being constantly underestimated until he takes it upon himself to take an undelivered present to a child in England, despite being told such a task isn't feasible. It's a bit of a classic hero's journey, with Arthur proving he's worthy of being called 'Santa' despite never chasing the honour.
Tangentially speaking, the idea of the title 'Santa' being a matter of patrilineal succession is hilarious to me. It makes me envision an alternate movie that documents a history of intrigue and bloodshed to claim the position, similar to the history of monarchs in the real world. For better or worse, Arthur Christmas does not take this approach.
Instead, Arthur is a completely wholesome protagonist. A bit of an outcast and the only member of the Claus family that is truly in love with Christmas, Arthur works in the letters department of the North Pole, replying to the Christmas lists sent by children to his father, the current 'Santa' Claus. He's clearly seen as an odd duck by everyone around him. Elves snicker at his naivety and complain about his clumsiness — "I lost everything in that fire" one shouts from the background when Arthur recounts the time he was kicked out of maintenance for messing up the electrics. But the importance of his sincerity is often overlooked. He puts his heart into every reply he sends to the kids, and makes sure to relay their wishes exactly to the gift department.
Even his family don't always know what to do with him. His father Malcolm exclaims "dear Arthur, what a puzzle", and constantly forgets which department he works in. His older brother, the efficient, technology focused Steve Claus, is too busy with administrating the proceedings of Christmas night to take him seriously. Only his mother takes the time to humour him. The family relationship that I find the most entertaining and meaningful however, is the one between Arthur and his grandfather.
Grandsanta is the former 'Santa', now retired, who spends his days in his armchair mouthing off about the newfangled technology his grandson uses. He is charismatically cantankerous, stealing every scene with his sardonic remarks and over-the-top gripes. He's far from grim though. Even when he's muttering his discontent he'll more often than not have a wink in his eye and a cheeky grin on his face. He's also my personal favourite comedic relief in any Christmas film. The strength of his sass alone means the movie's humour works for adults and kids alike. The running joke that kills me every time I watch this film is his total disregard for the wellbeing of the elves — he views them as completely disposable. At one point he reminisces about threatening to feed two of them to a polar bear unless they help him hide his old sleigh. The fact that they agreed means they knew it wasn't an empty threat, which carries some pretty disturbing implications...
Grandsanta gets on well with Arthur, who's the only member of the family that takes him seriously. He sees his grandson as a pair of ears that will stick around long enough to listen to his many fantastical stories. Once the main conflict of the story kicks in, it's him who accompanies Arthur on his journey.
Their interactions during the delivery are fantastically funny. As a classic 'mentor' figure, Grandsanta is a subversive gold mine. He's certainly helpful, providing transportation and some (occasionally outdated) advice on how to navigate the world, but in a lot of ways he isn't exactly competent, leading them astray almost as often as he puts them on the right track. This is a superb narrative decision. By subverting the classic 'mentor' role, Grandsanta inadvertently gives Arthur room to grow as a person. The numerous mistakes he makes on the journey leads to his grandson being forced to take the reins. Clumsy, nervous, and riddled with a patchwork of phobias, Arthur steps up to the plate every time they come across a new obstacle, perhaps not with heroic bravado, but absolutely with his own brand of kindness and Christmas spirit. Even outside of their respective archetypes of mentor and mentee, the two characters complement each other in some narratively rich ways.
Their shared status as outsiders quickly becomes apparent, and takes centre focus during two back-to-back scenes in which Grandsanta reveals he'd ventured out into the world on his old sleigh and almost caused an international incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which led to Malcolm — "my own son" — forcing him to scrap the sleigh (which Grandsanta managed to avoid with the aforementioned threat of consumption via polar bear). The scene after this takes place on a beach, after Arthur and Grandsanta fall from the sleigh and their journey seems impossible to complete. As Arthur sits moping around a fire he reveals that he knows what people say about him. He even quotes his father and the elves directly: "dear Arthur, what a puzzle", and "he belongs in the South Pole". This moment is quite hard-hitting, as until now the audience had no idea that Arthur was aware of how isolated he is. Both him and his grandfather are outcasts, seen as useless.
Once this idea is firmly cemented in the audience's mind, an important comparison emerges. Their attitude towards Christmas is very different. Grandsanta sees Christmas as the source of his respect. He wants his family to remember that he was once 'Santa', and dash the image of the doddery old man he believes they have of him. His desire to deliver the gift is based around him wanting to prove that the old ways, his ways, are the best. It's understandable for him to want his family to take him more seriously, but this attitude actively gets in the way of Arthur's quest. Forcing them to stick to the old ways in order to boost his ego leads to many of their most dangerous diversions. For him, it's all about the image.
Arthur on the other hand doesn't care one jot about proving himself. Even if being an outcast does upset him, his enthusiasm for Christmas only wavers once during the whole film. He overcomes this by realising Gwen, the child who asked for the present, will never know who delivered it and how. All that matters is that it gets delivered. Arthur wouldn't care if his brother, father, or grandfather delivered the present, so long as the joy of Christmas is shared by every child in the world.
We realise Arthur has a better take on Christmas than any of the other Clauses. His father has become an apathetic figurehead with age, his brother is so focused on efficiency that he comes across as detached, and Grandsanta covets the status of being the man in the sleigh. Only Arthur is shown to truly love what Christmas means to the world, and this perfectly leads into the movie's climax, where Malcolm, with Steve's blessing, passes on the title of 'Santa' to the younger of his two sons.
It's truly joyous to witness Arthur overcome his many fears, and finally succeed in the end when no one believed in him. It's funny watching the elves all tear up and sing Christmas songs as they watch him make his final mad dash to deliver the gift before Christmas morning, but honestly, their sentiment is shared by the audience. It's a triumphant movie, and if you've stuck around this long to hear my thoughts on it, I hope you agree that it deserves to be remembered as a true Christmas classic.