Now that I've seen this film, I'm a little worried for its well being. I worry that its marketing campaign is making it look like a made-for-TV kiddie movie or something that should go straight to DVD. I worry that Aardman Studios, the people responsible for it, isn't name-brand enough in a Pixar way (at least here in the United States) and that audiences aren't being told often or loudly enough that these are the same folks who brought them Chicken Run and everything Wallace & Gromit ever did. I worry that audiences won't automatically assume, like with Pixar, that they're in good hands. But you are.
Here's exactly what it is: a digital feature made with the same care, attention to detail, imagination and intelligence that's gone into every Aardman stop-motion project and, just like this week's other family-oriented release, The Muppets, one that earns the right to be loved by children and adults equally, in their own way.
As simple as the childlike question, "How does Santa Claus deliver billions of presents in one night?" and as complicated as an answer that involves high-tech information gathering, atom-splitting precision and a gigantic battalion of highly trained, Mission: Impossible-level elves, the story's ultra-modern disposal of Santa mythology (stuff you didn't really need anymore anyway, like the one about how a small family of elves sits around making wooden choo-choo trains in between cookie breaks) is juxtaposed against a warmhearted, sorta-dysfunctional family comedy about generational shifts in perception, growing up without turning hard-hearted and learning to find your own way when you've got the most famous parent in the world.
One bit of Santa lore the film clings to, one that goes back at least as far as CBS's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, is that the man can, on occasion, be difficult. In Rudolph he was grumpy, off his food and, frankly, a bigot when it came to differently nosed reindeer. Here (voiced by Jim Broadbent) he's just tired and a little doddering, an old man ready to pass the mantle to his tough, efficiency-minded, militaristic son Steve (Hugh Laurie). But it's youngest son Arthur (James McAvoy) with the Santa spirit; kinder, gentler, less special-ops and more caring about the actual children on the Christmas Eve route. And when a bike that was scheduled for delivery to a little girl in England is misplaced, Arthur and an ambitious gift-wrapping expert elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), along with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) hop in the now-retired vintage sleigh (as opposed to the Enterprise-like behemoth currently employed to manage a ballooning world population) to make things right. You know how it ends, but the getting-there -- like counting down the days to Christmas itself -- is where the fun is.
This kind of playful adaptation of fairytale mythology can fall apart the second the script decides to be too self-aware, winking, willing to indulge in quickly dated pop culture references, sarcasm and other bad attitude horribleness that's managed to soil way too many family films of the past decade (and you can go ahead and blame the first Shrek for all of it -- that's what I do). But again, this is Aardman and they know better than to go cheap or easy. And by taking the smarter, sweeter route, they've created what should rightfully become a Christmas classic. Don't let the weird ad campaign fool you.