Of the three (count 'em!) family films that opened the day before Thanksgiving, the animated Arthur Christmas initially seemed the most ideal option for younger children, given the nostalgic, in-joke appeal of The Muppets and the melancholia and gravitas of Hugo. Who could have guessed, however, that this frisky, buoyant entertainment might actually be the least appropriate for the grade-school-and-under set? Sure, the bright colors and fast pace will keep the ankle-biters amused, but is there any way they'll register just how freakin' hysterical this thing is?

During its first 10 minutes, in which our dotty Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent) and his team of silent-ninja elves descend from a camouflaged, city-sized aircraft and deliver toys worldwide, director Sarah Smith's outing appears to have been made expressly for hyperactive tots with short attention spans. The animation and choreography are spectacular, yet between Santa's duties and the bustling, behind-the-scenes activity at his high-tech North Pole headquarters, the movie is manic without being particularly enjoyable. (A product of the British animation studio Aardman, Arthur Christmas, at first, is too much Flushed Away and too little Wallace & Gromit.) But once Santa returns from his rounds, and stands triumphantly under a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" - the first of many comic references that kids likely won't get - the film morphs into a sensationally witty, riotous, and even touching generational comedy designed less for children than adults' giggly inner children.

One toy, you see, has accidentally been left behind during the Christmas Eve mêlée, leaving Santa's aged pop (Bill Nighy) and adorably clumsy younger son Arthur (James McAvoy) responsible for delivering the gift before sunrise - much to the consternation of Santa's officious elder son, and heir apparent, Steve (Hugh Laurie). What happens next, meanwhile, is really better experienced than described, but if you imagine a revved-up, animated, holiday-themed episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, you'll get the basic idea. Beginning with a board-game-playing scene reminiscent of those fabulously caustic "Mama's Family" sketches on The Carol Burnett Show, the awkwardness and tension between the three generations of Clauses here are bitingly funny and instantly recognizable; in a lovely touch, the gift maven Santa gives his sons personal checks for Christmas. (Dad gets cash.) And once Arthur, Grandsanta, and the reindeer take to the skies, the film's ingenious visual and verbal gags arrive at a joyously speedy clip, with consistently clever, farcical routines about GPS and Grandsanta's sleigh mistaken for a UFO and Steve's overly solicitous elf assistant (he gives his boss boxer briefs for Christmas) paying off again and again. It may start shakily, but Arthur Christmas winds up a terrific holiday treat for grown-ups. Bring the kids if you want to.


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