Think the Christmas season is stressful for you? Try visiting the house of Claus around the holidays.
It's not all milk and cookies and ho-ho-hos up at the North Pole. Those hundreds of millions (billions?) of presents don't get made and wrapped and distributed by themselves. No, it takes work. It takes precision. It takes about 15 quintillion elves who have to fight off 30 below temperatures and deal with a sun that's been AWOL since early October while ensuring that 12.3 million Kevins find a copy of Modern Warfare 3 under the tree.
Forget the sled: Santa and a division of elves ride in a monstrous, super-fast spaceship-like thing that makes our Space Shuttle look like a fruit fly. It's patched directly into operations-control back at the North Pole, where Santa's bright and ambitious son Steve (and presumed heir to the Clausian legacy) clicks through the night with paramilitary precision—pausing only to take a quick quaff of espresso. Every gift drop is timed to the millisecond, every emergency situation plotted and schemed for. It's an operation that'd turn military brass green, the sort of innovation that'd make the Apple execs in Cuppertino weep.
Naturally, an operation like this doesn't come without cost. Santa (more a title than a name) loves his job, but he seems to have grown distant from his own family. And even though he's more a figurehead now than a true Santa CEO, he refuses to pass on the reindeer reins.
That doesn't sit so well with Steve, who's been Santa's right-hand man for ages now. He's been the guy responsible for bringing the Christmas Eve operation into the 21st century. He runs Christmas: It's about time he decked his halls with the perks that should go with the responsibility.
Santa's second son Arthur, meanwhile, tries to stay out of these family squabbles. He's simple, clumsy and wide-eyed. He has a heart for the season and a love for everything his father stands for. "He's the greatest man ever," Arthur says. And he means it.
Then one foggy Christmas eve, the unthinkable happens. A child doesn't get her present—a beautiful bike that she asked for in a letter written on construction paper. For Steve, missing one child isn't a big deal—a microscopic blemish on an otherwise perfect operation. But for Arthur, it means that somewhere out there a little girl is losing faith in Santa. And Christmas.
He simply can't let that happen.
Arthur Christmas is not intimidating. He's not gifted. Elves make fun of him. But what sets him apart is his incredible, overpowering goodness. He loves Christmas and he loves his family—which, in the confines of this film, are close to being one and the same. While the rest of his family squabbles and bickers, Arthur (with one hiccup of an exception) clings gamely to his wide-eyed wonder.
"If we all just gave into the Christmas spirit, it would be chaos!" Steve gasps. And he's kinda right. Arthur embraces the Christmas spirit and brings chaos in his wake. But chaos or no, it's great that this unassuming guy becomes the film's unlikely hero. It's not like he was given superpowers along the way, or had amazing skills that just needed to be unearthed. No, his superpower is his goodness, his compassion—even his worry, which really translates into a steadfast desire to make every child's Christmas dreams come true.
It's interesting to see how Arthur and Steve react differently to the girl who didn't get a gift. For Steve, it's "just one child," a number, and a statistically insignificant one at that. For Arthur, the kid is of paramount importance: There is no such thing as "just one child … a child's been missed!" Arthur wails in the hallways.
Arthur Christmas dabbles, in its own gentle way, with some other important issues: Santa struggles with knowing when to step aside. Grandsanta wants to prove that he's not some doddering old fool—that he's still relevant. Steve tries to balance his ambition with respect for his father and, eventually, the spirit of the season. The themes are mature enough, in fact, that while the Christmas season always seems to make us feel young again, this movie can make some of us feel our age. But that won't stop us from being invigorated by watching these fallible Clauses find a bit of redemption by the end—find happiness in who they are and where they're at in life.
Not to get overly spiritual here—this isn't a particularly spiritual movie—but Arthur's attitude toward that one child who was skipped calls to mind the primacy that each of us find in God's eyes. There's roughly 7 billion of us now. And each one of us is important. We know that it saddens Him when any of us "miss" the gifts He offers.
Still, those looking for the "true meaning of Christmas" will be disappointed with this movie. The Clauses trace their ancestry back to the original St. Nicholas. The giftless girl lives beside a beautiful small-town English church. We occasionally hear snippets of spiritual Christmas carols. But that's about it.
Arthur Christmas also stumbles by basing the reality of Christmas on Santa's present-delivery system. An old-timer elf, for example, tells of the last time Santa was spotted (in 1816) and had to go into hiding. There wasn't Christmas for six years, he recalls. When it looks as though disaster has struck again, elves literally push the panic button at the North Pole—a button that'll destroy operations there and deep-six Christmas for the foreseeable future. Santa's job makes or breaks the holiday.
Now, this has been a trope of cultural Christmas stories since at least Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and it's not like I expect every secular manifestation of the holiday to, à la A Charlie Brown Christmas, whip out a Bible and start talking about the Nativity. Still, isn't there something a bit irksome about putting the entire holiday on the shoulders of Santa when Christmas was around long before St. Nick, and it would be worthy of celebration even if none of us got a single candy cane?
After Santa returns from a successful Christmas Eve jaunt, two elves kiss. Some might jump to the conclusion that the smooching elves in question are both male … but we later learn that all the elves—be they male or female—like to keep their hair cut short and wear the same androgynous outfits.
A few folks are attacked by lions. No one gets chewed on, but the scene is fairly menacing. Arthur and his pals get shot at with a shotgun. A sleigh is blown up. A jet fighter is attacked with fruit and chocolate. Reindeer are violently disconnected from a sleigh while reentering the atmosphere. We hear about hypothetical beheadings.
Characters scuffle with one another. Someone smacks into a tree. Grandsanta lands in a trash bin. A Chihuahua attacks a slipper (while on someone's foot). Arthur slips around on ice and trips over elf work stations. A huge inflatable Santa is mowed down by a sleigh.
Crude or Profane Language
One nearly indistinguishable "h‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Grandsanta says that when he was delivering presents, he never worried about kids who woke up: A sock full of sand and a "dab of whiskey on the lips" were enough to keep the child quiet, he says.
Other Negative Elements
Grandsanta likes getting his jabs in. He makes fun of Santa, calling him a "postman with a spaceship." He tells Steve that he'll have to knock off Santa before he can take over the job. "At least have the decency to finish us off with a rock," he says to Arthur during the lion attack. Steve is seen with a dollop of bird excrement on his shoulder.
An elf, armed with a device that detects whether a child's been "naughty" or "nice," gooses a naughty kid's score with his own store of niceness. Arthur and Grandsanta sneak out of the North Pole. An elf contends that "children are stupid."
Arthur Christmas was written with the cynic in mind. It's for kids who can't quite figure out how Santa delivers presents in Toledo and Tokyo and Timbuktu all in one night. It's for kids who've seen that even the supposed best of adults don't always act admirably. It's for kids for whom this "magical" time of year sometimes feels a little less than. It tells these children that even if things aren't perfect, that even after your mom and aunt get into a squabble during Monopoly or Dad eats Santa's Christmas cookies, there's still something special about the season.
That specialness is embodied, of course, by Arthur Christmas—a goofy, awkward, kid-like guy who answers Santa's letters for him. He knows the elves make fun of him. He knows he'll never be as cool or efficient as his big brother. On some level, he knows he's a disappointment to his father. And yet he puts all that aside because he believes in Santa's true goodness. It's Arthur's awe-filled optimism—and, frankly, sense of forgiveness—that carries this movie. Arthur doesn't spend much time worrying about what his father thinks of him. As long as Santa cares for the children, that's all Arthur needs.
When Santa lets Arthur down, though, it's still a brutal blow. Indeed, our hero almost gives up on his quest to "save Christmas" for the little giftless girl. But then he has an epiphany: It's not about Santa the man, but about Santa the ideal. Santa is bigger than any one fallible father can be. And as long as that ideal remains true and pure, the gift-giving spirit of Christmas survives.
It's a salient message for us to teach to our children, I think, who have observed moral or spiritual leaders stumble and fall. Our faith and our integrity should never be pinned to people, but rather to principles.
Neither, of course, should Christmas be pinned to Santa. But you already knew that.