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Arthur Christmas Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD Review

Arthur Christmas (2011) movie poster Arthur Christmas

Theatrical Release: November 23, 2011 / Running Time: 98 Minutes / Rating: PG / Songs List

Directors: Sarah Smith, Barry Cook (co-director) / Writers: Peter Baynham, Sarah Smith

Voice Cast: James McAvoy (Arthur), Hugh Laurie (Steve), Bill Nighy (Grandsanta), Jim Broadbent (Santa Claus/Malcolm), Imelda Staunton (Mrs. Santa Claus/Margaret), Ashley Jensen (Bryony), Marc Wooton (Peter), Laura Linney (North Pole Computer, S-1 Computer), Eva Longoria (Chief De Silva), Ramona Marquez (Gwen Hines), Michael Palin (Ernie Clicker) / Lead Elves: Sanjeev Bhaskar, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Rhys Darby, Jane Horrocks, Iain McKee, Andy Serkis, Dominic West / Elves: Peter Baynham, Cody Cameron, Kevin Cecil, Kevin Eldon, Rich Fulcher, Bronagh Gallagher, Pete Jack, Danny John-Jules, Emma Kennedy, Stewart Lee, Seamus Malone, Kris Pearn, Alan Short, Sarah Smith, Adam Tandy

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Animation and the holidays have gone together for as long as most people can remember. And yet, the vast majority of holiday animation has been television specials, short films, and direct-to-video movies. There has been no shortage of theatrical features centering on Christmas, but they have overwhelmingly been live-action productions. In recent years, that seems to be changing. Last decade, two expensive Robert Zemeckis motion capture films (The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol) joined the previously pitiful ranks of The Nutcracker Prince and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
It remains to be seen if this month's new DreamWorks movie Rise of the Guardians, which features Santa Claus as part of a world-saving team with Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, qualifies. But there is no doubt that last year's Arthur Christmas, a product of Sony Pictures Animation and Aardman Animations, fits the bill.

This computer-animated family film, Aardman's first since the underperforming Flushed Away (2006) and parting with DreamWorks, opened Thanksgiving Eve 2011 against some formidable fellow PG-rated competition in The Muppets and Hugo as well as Happy Feet Two in its second weekend. Arthur settled for a fourth place debut. While Muppets proved to be front-loaded and Hugo had the legs of a major Oscar contender, Arthur never really found any footing at all, dropping out of the top ten on Christmas Day and failing to gross even half of its estimated $100 million budget from the domestic market. As an Aardman movie, Arthur hailed from England and it performed better in the UK and certain other markets. Nonetheless, it still has a long way to go to profitability, as it arrives on DVD, Blu-ray, and Blu-ray 3D Tuesday from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The nicely-sweatered Arthur Christmas relishes answering the letters children write to his father, Santa Claus. Arthur's hunky older brother Steve, mission control supervisor, is all ready to become the next Santa.

As its title implies, Arthur is a full-fledged Christmas movie, immersed in the North Pole lore on which many modern celebrations focus. Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) is the son of the 20th and current Santa Claus, a man named Malcolm (Jim Broadbent) who has held the position for forty years. Arthur's older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie), the efficient Mission Control supervisor who has white hair and a Christmas tree-shaped goatee, expects their father to hand over the reins this year, as their grandfather Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) did back in 1941. Even ignoring seniority, there is no question as to who will inherit the job. Arthur's enthusiasm greatly exceeds his coordination. The elves talk about his clumsy ways behind his back. And he's been assigned to answering children's letters largely to get him out of the way of more pressing matters.

The movie opens on Christmas Eve and updates us on Santa's present-day delivery methods. You won't find Santa flying a sled pulled by eight reindeer anymore. Nowadays, Santa flies a massive aircraft, accompanied by dozens of elves who in very similar fashion to Disney's Prep & Landing ABC specials sneak inside houses and make necessary arrangements for the big guy with high-tech gadgetry and spy precision. All that Santa has to do is drop the right present under the tree and move on to the next chimney. The productiveness offers an explanation for the age-old question of how one man gets to every child in the world in a single night.

Wrapping up what appears to be another successful Christmas, Santa announces his intention to not retire, before taking to his room for his desperately needed rest. But, the colorfully-sweatered Arthur discovers one present has not been delivered: a bicycle intended for a girl named Gwen, whose letter he has answered, in Trelew, England. Steve and Santa are ready to make peace with the oversight, accepting it as a statistically insignificant blemish on an otherwise perfectly executed holiday. But Arthur isn't about to give up. He, 136-year-old Grandsanta, and a wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) trot out the old-fashioned sled affectionately called Evie and eight reindeer in an effort to make the delivery before little Gwen can wake up to Christmas morning disappointment.

The three unlikely companions do not have the best sense of direction and their mission becomes a wild international adventure with wrong stops made in the Sahara desert and a town in Mexico. Back at the North Pole, Steve, the elves, and Santa scramble to make things right while dealing with a computer system meltdown and antiquated communications methods.

Despite seventy years on the job, Santa Claus (a.k.a. Malcolm) is not yet ready to retire. In Africa, Arthur finds that his glowing reindeer slippers temporarily interest the man-eating lions that surround him.

Aardman hasn't had the volume of output to be recognized as one of animation's big dogs, but creatively they have been quite extraordinary, as their perfect streak of overwhelming critical approval confirms. Their first eligible effort (Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) won the Best Animated Feature Oscar (an honor interestingly announced three months after Chicken Run started winning over critics and moviegoers). With just four of their pictures qualified, Aardman has as many wins in the category as Studio Ghibli and DreamWorks' ridiculously productive in-house division.
True, Wallace's win came during Pixar's last literally off year. But it was no fluke. The reason why we went five years without an Aardman movie was because this studio takes great pride in its work. They have each been technically artful, scripturally substantive, and very funny.

Arthur keeps the studio away from its painstaking signature stop-motion, but still manages to deliver in all the important ways. The film is extremely inspired visually and plenty taut in its structure. Neither of those facts would matter much if it wasn't anchored in appealing humor, genuine heart, and winning personalities (which, it is). Like Pixar on their usual game, Aardman makes it look so easy. Obviously, both studios pour considerable time, thought, and talent into their movies. Other animation houses don't have as much of that to go around or simply don't push themselves to excel. There's plenty of money to be made in "good enough" family entertainment, even when using that definition loosely. But that mentality clearly doesn't fly very often at Pixar or Aardman.

While Arthur Christmas may not dazzle as consistently as Aardman's other features, it is nonetheless a film full of joy, good ideas, and respect for its viewers. Santa and the North Pole are well-tread terrain that does not leave a great deal of creative leeway. But director Sarah Smith and her co-writer Peter Baynham, both veterans of live-action British television comedy (and Baynham an Oscar nominee for his work on Borat), seize opportunities to make this interpretation stand out. Santa himself does the least of any leading character, allowing the rarely regarded notion of the position's lineage to entertain us with distinctive past and potential occupants. There is little question of how things will turn out and no doubt about where our sympathies are to lie. These thoughts rarely cross our minds, though, as breathtaking digital canvases, amusing action sequences, and smart jokes keep us engaged and smiling.

Like virtually all of today's big budget feature animation, Arthur Christmas was made and theatrically exhibited in 3D, a fact that might very well have had a negative impact on its ticket sales. Though not reliant on in-your-face gimmickry, the film's sets and flying subjects do lend themselves to certain depth effects, no matter how trivial. That is something to consider as you decide which of the film's three physical media editions is right for you: the single-disc DVD, a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD, or the 3-disc Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD combo pack reviewed. Like most of Sony's newest releases, all three come equipped with UltraViolet, an increasingly studio-preferred alternative to digital copy files for device streaming and computer download.

Arthur Christmas: Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + UltraViolet combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.85:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-rays: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English, French), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish, Descriptive Service)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish), Dolby Surround (Descriptive Service)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish, French
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English and Spanish
Release Date: November 6, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $55.99
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (2 BD-50s & 1 DVD-9)
Thick Clear Keepcase in Lenticular Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as Blu-ray + DVD ($40.99 SRP), DVD ($30.99 SRP),
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Present-day computer animated films practically do not even require this section these days. As the movies are typically transferred from computer to disc with no additional mediums in the way, the results are as perfect as 1080p will allow them to be. Arthur Christmas is no different, its 1.85:1 transfer full of colorful eye candy. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is no slouch, either, brimming with engulfing activity as the story and exciting settings demand.

Scottish actress Ashley Jensen is seen voicing Bryony the elf in "Un-Wrapping 'Arthur Christmas.'" The elves take Denmark in early stage animation in one of five Progression Reels.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Arthur Christmas appears to have been less than 100% nice this year, as Santa has given it a modest collection of three bonus features, all of them HD on Blu-ray.

"Un-Wrapping Arthur Christmas" (13:26) is a standard promotional making-of featurette, relying heavily on film clips, recording studio-film split screens, and

crew and voice cast members describing the film as if you haven't already seen it. It's better than nothing, but it's a lot less substantial than a companion to an Aardman film should be.

Less superficial, five "Progression Reels" (13:51) deconstruct scenes and the film as a whole with unidentified audio commentators speaking over views of sets, characters, and shots in different stages of completion.

Finally, an "Elf Recruitment Video" (1:03) merely promotes the film with clips and graphics. The film's more ordinary trailers, including a teaser featuring unique animation of Arthur addressing viewers, are unconscionably absent here.

The same disc sold on its own, the DVD here contains all three of the Blu-ray's bonus features, as does the Blu-ray 3D.

But, wait, there's more! Digging around the standard Blu-ray's contents, I found four unlisted extras. "The Christmas Family Tree" (10:10; 00014.m2ts) covers the film's characters with more crew and voice cast comments. "Santa's Soldiers" (9:07; 00015.m2ts) applies the same treatment to the elves. A music video for Justin Bieber's prominently advertised end credits cover of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" (2:33; 00018.m2ts) finds Biebs singing in a toy factory and exposing a busy vest. A behind the scenes short (1:40; 00017.m2ts) lets Bieber discuss the video obnoxiously.

Justin Bieber shows some vest in his inexplicably hidden "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" music video. Mrs. Claus and a snoozing Grandsanta are among those featured on the DVD's main menu.

Why these were hidden, I couldn't tell you. They strike me as way too substantial to be deliberate Easter eggs. But then why strip a movie already commercially challenged of some retail value? I'm pretty sure these are menu-inaccessible, which means you need a BD-ROM drive and more to see these. Which means you probably can't see these and, if so, not with any ease.

The Blu-ray and DVD open with a Sony Entertainment Network ad and trailers for Hotel Transylvania, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, The Smurfs, and 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue. The Previews submenu holds those trailers and one for The Swan Princess: Christmas. The Blu-ray 3D adds trailers for The Amazing Spider-Man and Men in Black 3, while presenting Hotel's preview in 3D.

The appealing menu has characters pose and clip screens pop up as score plays and snow falls. The disc supports bookmarks, resumes playback, and colors a Christmas tree as its loading icon.

The three uniquely-labeled discs are held in one of the thick, clear keepcases Sony favors for Blu-ray 3D releases, which utilizes both sides of the cover artwork. Inserts provide a Sony Rewards code, your UltraViolet code, and UPS Store and bologna coupons. The case is topped by a 3D lenticular-faced cardboard slipcover.

To save Christmas for one little girl, Grandsanta, wrapping elf Bryony, and Arthur set out on an unpredictable globe-trotting adventure to deliver a bike.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Arthur Christmas is no masterpiece, but it is another fine, fun addition to Aardman's impressive canon.
Visually ambitious but not at the cost of sharp storytelling and bold characters, this flavorful adventure will not be mistaken for other CGI and holiday films. It's too soon to say if it has what it takes to be a yearly staple, but at the very least it will make a nice alternative or accompaniment to the specials and movies you revisit seasonally.

Despite the year-long wait, the Blu-ray and DVD are surprisingly short on bonus features (especially excluding the curiously hidden bonuses inaccessible to most) and disappointingly what's here is less substantial than other Aardman supplements. Nonetheless, the feature presentation is a delight and you'd be foolish to wait for a better release on such an underperforming movie. Still, in light of the platter's lightness, it might not be a bad idea just to see the movie this year and wait for a better deal to buy it.

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Arthur Christmas Songs List: Bill Nighy - "Make Someone Happy", "White Christmas", "Silent Night", "Old MacDonald Had a Farm", "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", "Ding Dong Merrily on High", "Jingle Bells", "We'll Meet Again", Justin Bieber - "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town"

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Reviewed November 2, 2012.



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