In this film publicity image released by Sony Pictures, Bryony, voiced by Ashley Jensen, left, and Arthur, voiced by James McAvoy, are shown in a scene from "Arthur Christmas." (AP Photo/Sony Pictures, Aardman Animations)
Three out of four stars
A corporate-style monolith corners the market on holiday retail, cruelly displacing its outmoded workforce and crassly insisting that any individuals who fall through the cracks are part of the cost of business.
But 99-percenters don't need to start an Occupy North Pole movement over "Arthur Christmas," the animated comedy that shows how Santa Claus manages to deliver all those presents in a modern global market.
This pleasant holiday treat from Aardman, the British animation outfit behind "Chicken Run" and "Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit," has the old-fashioned spirit of Christmas at heart, spinning a snowflake-light tale with warmth, energy and goofy humor.
The title character is a classic holiday misfit, a cousin to Rudolph or Hermey the Elf, trying to find a niche in the vast enterprise that is Christmas. The upbeat, lanky younger son of Santa Claus, Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) desperately wants to contribute to the family business but is a clumsy bumbler assigned to a job where he can do the least harm: answering children's letters to the man in red.
The glory goes to his dad (Jim Broadbent), the latest in a long line of Santas, who has become a dotty figurehead as older, bolder son Steve (Hugh Laurie) revamps the sleigh-and-reindeer method with a mechanized operation that includes a massive sleighship with stealth technology. Elves descend down ropes like ninjas to leave two billion gifts all over the world in a single night, while Santa heir-apparent Steve oversees things from North Pole mission control.
Yet after a single present goes awry, leaving one little girl in Britain just hours away from awaking to a joyless Christmas, Steve shrugs it off as an acceptable rate of error, while drowsy Santa heads off to sleep alongside Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton).
Arthur, the one member of the family who truly understands the meaning of the season, can't stand the thought of a child missing out. He and loopy Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), the former Mr. Claus who still pines for his golden days, set off in the original old reindeer-pulled sleigh to deliver the wayward present before dawn, accompanied by eager gift-wrapping elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen, copping a hilariously rippling Scottish accent).
In her directing debut, Aardman veteran Sarah Smith and her co-writer Peter Baynham offer a fresh look at the Santa legend: a flawed Claus. Santa and his kin are as dysfunctional a family as any of those on their Christmas-delivery list, with petty jealousy extending over three generations, from Grandsanta to Santa to Steve.
Only Arthur among the Claus menfolk has his heart in the right place, and it's up to him to overcome his own ineptitude and insecurity to emerge, possibly, as the true alpha male of the Kringle clan.
There are lulls and comic misfires that feel like stocking stuffers the filmmakers threw in to pad "Arthur Christmas" to feature length. The story is simple enough that it could have been told in half the time by one of those old Rankin-Bass TV Christmas specials, whose unabashedly corny spirit lives on among the Aardman folks.
A Chatty Cathy of a cartoon, "Arthur Christmas" also crams in more manic banter than viewers, particularly young children, can digest (the Anglo accents will make it even harder for U.S. audiences to decipher some of the repartee).
Still, the visual gags will carry youngsters along, while there are plenty of clever wisecracks to keep their parents occupied. Bryony's lightning proficiency at wrapping gifts contributes some of the biggest laughs.
, no matter how many times the filmmakers fall back on it.
Following "Flushed Away," this is the second computer-generated cartoon from Aardman, whose earlier entries were created by stop-motion animation. But it's the company's first digital 3-D feature, and while the images are fine, it amounts to another case of unnecessary 3-D presentation from Hollywood. The extra dimension adds little.
Yet it's nowhere near as unnecessary as the Justin Bieber music video of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" that precedes the movie, in jarring 3-D. Hearing Bieber's take on the holiday chestnut in the end-credits is more than enough. (Sony)