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All wrapped up in good cheer

‘Arthur Christmas’ takes a spirited journey

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By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2011

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So much for personalizing kids’ Big Memories. More and more it seems we are developing an entire mini-genre that delights in peeking behind the curtain of youthful, wondrous experiences, revealing the sprawling technical setup that is mass-producing the magic. We’ve seen the frenetic assembly-line motif employed in “The Polar Express,’’ “Hop,’’ and, less conventionally, “Monsters, Inc.’’ It’s often been pretty entertaining, but it also seems slightly at odds with the whole “everyone’s special’’ developmental outlook, doesn’t it?

You get the idea that they think so at Aardman, the British animation outfit that made its name with the bulbous claymation charms of “Wallace & Gromit,’’ and shifted to computer rendering with 2006’s “Flushed Away.’’ “Arthur Christmas,’’ the studio’s first 3-D animated feature, spends its first 20 minutes zipping through scenes of paramilitarized elves rappelling from their spaceship-size sleigh into sleeping tots’ homes, systematically handling everything from naughty-or-nice evaluations to “wakers.’’ The entire effort is built around making retirement-age Santa (Jim Broadbent, in doddering RAF officer mode) look good. It’s all coordinated from a cavernous mission-control center by his son Steve (Hugh Laurie), an overachieving stud with a tannenbaum-shaped soul patch and every expectation that he’ll take the reins next year as Santa XXII. It’s a perfect operation - until, of course, it’s not.

When a little girl’s gift is discovered overlooked back at HQ in the wee hours of Christmas morning, Santa’s other son, geeky, holiday-cheery Arthur (James McAvoy), is distraught that even a single child might be forgotten. Arthur doesn’t want to hear about 99.9 percent efficiency. Pretty much everyone else is inclined to stick to the pre-scripted take that the night was a complete success, as indicated by a pointedly familiar “Mission Accomplished!’’ banner. Soon, Arthur and old coot Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) are getting the family’s vintage sleigh out of mothballs and embarking on a shaky, directionally challenged race against the clock to make things right.

The journey can drag a little at points compared with that dizzying opener. While director Sarah Smith sends Arthur and his granddad on a detour through, say, Tanzanian lion country, another scene attempts to mine Toronto “iconography’’ for laughs. (Tall order, although Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham’s sly script offers a chuckle even here.) Still, when Arthur’s sleigh is skimming narwhal-inhabited nighttime waters, or when he and punk-elf sidekick Bryony (Ashley Jensen) are making their “Grinch’’-like sprint to the finish, the film’s indefatigable holiday spirit is infectious, and intimate as can be.

A 3-D music video of Justin Bieber covering “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’’ precedes the movie. Take it as you will: a special Christmastime treat, or a gift-wrapped cross-promotional fruitcake (um, thanks?) from Aardman’s Hollywood partners.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS Directed by: Sarah Smith

Written by: Peter Baynham and Smith

Starring: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Ashley Jensen, and Imelda Staunton

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 97 minutes

Rated: PG (mild rude humor)

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