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Some parents may have already ruled out letting their kids watch Arthur Christmas this holiday season. After all, the movie is about Santa, right? Yes, the story features the jolly, red-costumed icon, but the focus is actually on his youngest son—a clumsy but kind-hearted young man named Arthur.
The presence of Santa and the North Pole in Arthur Christmas need not be any more of a concern than Aslan and Narnia, so long as the children watching this movie are aware that the story is not actual reality. With that understanding in place (as it should be for any fictional tale), Santa isn’t a problem, but some of this film’s content needs parental guidance to ensure it doesn’t ruin what is otherwise a fun, often-hilarious adventure that teaches a powerful message of selflessness and caring for others.
Christmas for Arthur has never been the same as it is for other children. As the youngest son of the twentieth Santa Claus, Arthur spends his holiday at the North Pole headquarters of Santa’s operations. Though Arthur likes to say that Santa’s deliveries on Christmas Eve are accomplished through “magic,” this movie reveals that science and technology are really behind the seeming impossibilities of the Santa legend. One of these illusions is addressed right away, with the more “realistic” premise that Santa is not one man, but has been many men through the centuries—all descendants of St. Nick.
Next in line is Arthur’s older brother, Steve, who is the big success in the family. A type A, powerful management force, Steve has transformed Santa’s yearly gift-delivering mission into a military-like operation of elf soldiers that runs with uninterrupted precision. Eager to take over as Santa when his aging father finally retires, Steve aims to impress with his efficiency and perfection. To Steve, delivering Christmas gifts is a business, and amid his technological advances and increased productivity, he has no time for the children the wrapped packages are for. He labels the kids of the world with numbers, not names, and doesn’t know a thing about their lives or desires.
Arthur, on the other hand, spends his working hours closeted in a little room where he reads all incoming letters to Santa. Arthur clearly loves his work, and becomes attached to each little child he responds to, writing return letters by hand. In these letters, he’s always sure to speak proudly about his father—encouraging the kids to believe in Santa, because he is, Arthur believes, the greatest person alive.
Arthur’s trusting belief in the good heart of his family is put to the test when Steve’s delivery operation hits an unparalleled snag. The true colors of Steve, Arthur’s father, and his grandfather (called, “Grandsanta”) are exposed as red and green, but not with holiday spirit. Instead, they show more than one flash of anger and envy as the former, current, and wannabe Santas vie for position and reputation. In the face of this battle, only Arthur stands for the love and kindness that Christmas is supposed to involve.
Arthur’s commitment to do good for others, no matter what the cost to himself, makes him the most admirable character in Arthur Christmas and gives the film its most redemptive quality. There are many negative elements to make up for from his family’s part in this tale, but Arthur does so through his constant disregard of himself and compassion for the vulnerable.
The only moments when Arthur does think of his own wants is when he encounters one of his many phobias. He tries to conquer the worst of these fears through what he unfortunately calls “worry,” but to “do it with worry” in this story really means something good—to think of (“worry” about) the other people who will be hurt if he doesn’t face his phobia. The mislabeling of this as “worry” is disappointing, but the concept of what Arthur is actually doing (putting others before personal discomfort and even danger) is laudable and sets a positive example to follow.
Arthur’s mother, Margaret, and a loyal elf named Bryony are the other bright lights in this film, demonstrating patience, love, friendship, and bravery. These uplifting spots are needed to compensate for the selfishness shown by the other three male figures in Arthur Christmas. Fathers are not represented well for the majority of the movie, as Santa and Grandsanta are both failing old men who seem to care nothing for their family or the children of the world. Instead, they are wrapped up in the pride of being an icon—having fame in wearing the red suit, as well as the love of their elf workers and the kids who depend on them.
Santa, Grandsanta, and Steve regularly get caught up in arguments about the old ways versus Steve’s new way—the ancient, shiny sleigh with reindeer, against the S1 flying craft. Arthur is needed not only to make the peace, but also to steer the men of his family in the right direction—challenging them to be the wonderful people he believes they are. Yet Arthur doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to verbally convince, argue with, or criticize these men, even when they deserve it. Instead, he leads by example, which ends up being the most powerful persuasion of all.
Overall, Arthur Christmas does a decent job in not undoing the positive aspects of the story with negative content. There’s almost no bathroom humor and fewer crudities than in the average recent kids’ movie (verbal reference to a “reindeer’s buttock” is about the worst of it). However, Grandsanta’s rude behavior and frequent name-calling is unnecessary and sets a poor example.
Grandsanta also makes a few cynical comments that are inappropriate for young audiences, including the jest that Steve will have to “knock off” his father to become the next Santa and a somewhat joking request that Arthur “finish” off Grandsanta “with a rock,” rather than leave him alone in a wilderness area (which Arthur doesn’t actually do). This cantankerous former-Santa is responsible for one other misdemeanor that will be missed by most young viewers (he says “h---” in a barely perceptible bit of dialogue).
In addition, disrespect for elders and authority figures is rampant throughout this story, as each of the Santa generations belittles the preceding one. Steve, in particular, clearly thinks himself superior to his father and Grandsanta, and bashes their ideas and traditions. Again, this negative element is mostly offset through Arthur, as he is always kind and respectful to his elders.
One other area of concern for Christian parents might arise with a slogan advertised at Santa’s headquarters that says, “In Santa We Believe.” The elves who embrace this catchphrase clearly know that Santa is a real person, rather than a supernatural being, and one who needs a great deal of help to even look like Santa in the world’s eyes. Thus, this phrase need not alarm viewers with the fear that Santa is being viewed as a god-like figure, as the context of this film does not support such an idea.
As a final note of caution, Arthur Christmas features, as many Christmas movies do, the idea that a person can “ruin” or “save” Christmas. This concept reflects the characters’ lack of understanding of the true meaning of Christmas, and could be harmful to kids absorbing this inference that receiving presents (and the existence of Santa) is what Christmas is all about.
Despite the moments when the filmmakers throw in some inappropriate jokes, there are plenty of other opportunities for laughs that are harmless and inoffensive. Refreshing wit and comedy, appealing to all ages, take the lead in this story that bursts with creativity. The imagination behind Arthur Christmas is obvious in not only the well-written, clever script, but also the skillful animation, which brings this foreign world to colorful and vivid life.
The smart dialogue and writing, however, wouldn’t mean a thing if not for the competent acting of the cast voicing the characters. In the lead is James McAvoy as Arthur. McAvoy raises the bar high for the supporting actors, as he captures the naiveté, enthusiasm, and emotional range of his character—even modifying his voice to emit a youthful unevenness that is perfect for Arthur but quite different from McAvoy’s usual smooth tones.
Big names pop up in the rest of the cast, with Hugh Laurie, Eva Longoria, and Laura Linney taking part. The lesser-known Ashley Jensen adds spark and vivacity to the film with her voice work as Bryony.
Solid acting and filmmaking isn’t much of a surprise to find in a big production like Arthur Christmas. Neither is negative content. But Arthur Christmas is more successful than many children’s movies at keeping offensive elements out and the uplifting in. In the end, viewers will learn a lot from Arthur’s example of selflessness and the importance of showing love to others.
It’s uncertain whether or not the rest of his family learns that lesson, but, while the film ends with announcing that the secondary characters are “happy,” there’s a clear, meaningful distinction between them and Arthur. For we are not told that Arthur is happy, but that he “made everyone happy.” No, that isn’t enough to “save” Christmas, but it is enough to qualify Arthur as a hero worth watching and rooting for.
Check out these similar titles:
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Walden Media, 2005)
The Muppet Christmas Carol (Jim Henson Productions, 1992)
Saint Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving (VeggieTales, Big Idea, 2010)
For more Christmas movie ideas, visit our What to Watch page!