Arthur Christmas (2011)
At its core, Arthur Christmas is a brilliant little picture about a dysfunctional family at Christmas time. The reason we should care is that this family is heir to the Santa dynasty, a lineage of Father Christmases going to back to St. Nicholas.
There's a lot to like in this one. Right off the back, the portrayal of the operation is ingenious and original. Comparisons to the Star Trek Enterprise are obvious - I'd argue that there are at least as many parallels with Battlestar Galactica. This Santa's using technology a few hundred years ahead of the rest of the world. Intriguingly, they've also got some more traditional magic in reserve, though that's generally become obsolete.
The elves appear quickly and instantly steal the show. These might be cheerful, excited elves, but they're cheerful, excited elves with black ops military training. On their own, they're nothing we haven't seen before - intentionally or not, they're basically indistinguishable from the Prep & Landing teams - but this scale is unprecedented. The writers actually figured out what it would actually take to pull off a one day, worldwide gift delivery and built the movie around that math. There's no time displacement here: just numbers, efficiency, and determination.
The movie is sold by its characters: all are faulty, and none are useless. At times, they all play the role of comic relief, but it never feels cloying or tone-breaking. The movie's success hinges on Steve, the title character's older brother, who's as close to an antagonist as the movie gets. Only he's not an antagonist, nor is he ostensibly wrong or evil. He's got a different perspective than Arthur's, and that schism forms the movie's principal struggle. It all boils down to big picture versus little picture, and which outlook better suits a symbol like Santa Claus. I don't think there's much doubt where the movie will fall, but make no mistake: you spend the first fifteen minutes of Arthur Christmas rooting for Steve for a reason, and nothing later undermines the character established there.
The only main character who isn't family is a wrapping elf named Bryony. Like Arthur, she's introduced as something of a misfit (a Christmas movie tradition). She wears crossed black tubes on her back arranged like a ninja's sheaths. Inside, she keeps wrapping paper, and in her hands it's far more dangerous than a sword. There are a lot of great characters in this movie, but she's easily my favorite.
I was pleasantly surprised to see this movie take a more innovative stance on 'belief' than we're used to. Most movies about the fat man are built around the axiom that you should believe, no matter what. Arthur Christmas delivered a more nuanced message: that, ultimately, the illusion of Christmas is more important than how it happens. Belief enters into the equation, but it's the belief of others that's important. While it's subtle enough to not impact a six year old who's a true believer, this may be the best movie ever made to show to a doubting nine year old to transition them from thinking Claus is real to understanding why it's important younger children are offered that belief (oh, by the way, if you're a kid reading this and you just found out the Santa myth's a lie, go tell your mom she should be doing a better job vetting what you read online - I mean, come on, this blog's called "Mainlining Christmas" for Christ's sake).
In addition to all the positive stuff I just said about the film's structure, characters, and all that, I should probably also mention it's freaking hysterical. Probably the funniest movie I've seen this year, in fact.
So, consider this one highly recommended. When this hits DVD, I might have to pick it up to re-watch on future Christmases. It's a hell of a movie, and I'll be extremely disappointed if it doesn't get nominated for best animated picture.