Every year, films line up for the holidays to draw us in and become perennials for Christmasaholics. Some of them fail miserably. I can’t imagine that anyone wants to snuggle up on an evening a few days before the holiday and share;”Fred Claus”, “Jingle All the Way” or, “Deck the Halls”. On the other hand, in the last decade or so we have added some real gems to our Christmas wish list. “Love Actually” may be our favorite recent Christmas film,but it sits on a shelf with the Jim Carrey motion capture “Christmas Carol” and “About a Boy”. We apparently have a weakness for Hugh Grant. So many movies are aimed at the family audience and just get it wrong. “The Polar Express” is a wonderful book but as a movie it is a bit of a nightmare. So the question going into this holiday season is whether this animated 3D Christmas kids story, would be added to the naughty or the nice pile.

I am happy to report that “Arthur Christmas” is a worthy addition to the Santa Claus mythology. It is everyone’s hope in doing a movie at the North Pole, that the workshops seem authentic and the mood is appropriately jolly. In “The Polar Express”, thousands of elves suggested mass labor enslavement and an almost totalitarian way of life. This movie also features mass numbers of elves, some of whom are members of the crack Christmas Gift delivery team, but instead of taking itself seriously, it is the background for satire and mayhem. This is a high tech version of Christmas, with i-phones and tablets used to communicate and massive computers to keep track of all the inventory and deliveries. If you squint your eyes a little and think about it for a minute, you may get the impression that the movie is about the incompetence of as a tool for Christmas shopping. The newest technology might allow someone to rationalize a microscopic glitch in the system. It is that glitch that sets our hero, Arthur, off on his journey of self discovery.

Nothing that happens will surprise you in terms of story elements. The path of this story arc is recognizable from the first minute. What will surprise you is the creative humor and wild characters that come with you on the trip. This is a story about a dysfunctional family that happens to be the Clauses. I skipped the Vince Vaughn version of this a few years ago, because with real humans, the energy required to sell the story would come off as maniacal. That is why animation is a perfect medium for telling this story. Silly ideas that might seem stupid with photo real characters and props, here seem like they are part of the natural environment. We did not see this in 3D, but I imagine that there would be some value in doing so, but the cartoon nature of the movie makes it easy to enjoy without the extra technology.

The characters interact in a way that makes sense for the story. There is no villain per se, just competing interests that sometimes cause friction for the characters. It is a multi-generational look at the process that goes into deciding how Santa should be for each new group of children. All the technology may make Christmas easier, (and it certainly makes it fun to watch), but it cannot replace what the heart of the Santa Claus myth is supposed to be about. It is fun to compare sleighs and old school reindeer with jet fueled power. We get to see how technology tracks the dreams of a child, but we know immediately that the human heart is the real file system for those Christmas wishes. All of the characters were voiced well, and I appreciated the fact that the actors are not mentioned by name in the opening credits. They may be listed on the poster, but they are not above the title and they are not instantly recognizable. The voices are primarily English, and for we Americans that usually carries a charm that seems inherent in British manners of speech.

There are so many visual gags in the movie that it is hard to pick out a favorite. None of them is dependent on a contemporary character or cultural reference like the Shrek movies are. We saw several trailers for upcoming animated children’s movies, and if there is an Anti-Christ, he is the producer of the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. We got a Lady GaGa reference in the trailer, and you know that is just the tip of the iceberg. Arthur Christmas is smarter than that. It’s humor is based on character and visual gags, not on pop culture shorthand that will be disposed of in a few years. Some of the technology jokes might date, but the whimsy and heart in this movie should last for many holiday seasons to come. I hope I can share this movie with grandchildren someday, but until I have those grankids, I will be happy to share it with any of you reading this.


Everyone looks forward to a Martin Scorsese film, even if you don’t particularly care for Scorsese as a director. His work promises much and every so often he delivers. He may be the most revered director working today, but I have not always been impressed with the product. “Gang of New York” was interesting but I have never felt the need to revisit it. “The Aviator ” is a well made film, but left me cold about an historical person that should be a lot more interesting. “Raging Bull” is a movie that feels like medicine to me, it is good for you but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I love musicals but hated “New York, New York”. On the other hand, every one of the gangster films I have seen multiple times and I admire the panache of storytelling he brings to these movies. Others have complained but I think “The Departed” is a worthy film to have on the shelf with “Casino” and “Goodfellas”. This newest film, is nothing like any of the movies I just mentioned. It is closest in look to “The Age of Innocence”, but it is not a twisty drama. “Hugo” is a tribute to movie history and the imagination, and it works like a dream, a dream of what we want movies to be about.

The subjects of the movie are cinema history, magic, and the importance of relationships to our dreams. Anyone who has read my previous posts, know that I am a sentimentalist, and movies that stir my emotions are my favorite type of film. Being the son of a professional magician, and a movie nut, you would think Scorsese would have me before I even walk into the theater, but remember “New York, New York”, he is perfectly capable of ticking me off. This time however, not only is the movie a marvel to watch, and a lesson in film at the same time, it plays on our hearts in a number of ways and makes us stare in wonder at the things we as humans are capable of dreaming. I am not a fan of 3D as it is often used. Most movies are fine without it. Exploitation fare is where I think most 3D works effectively. Scorsese has managed to make a 3D movie that tantalizes with some gimmicks, but mostly helps us see the depth of the sets and scenery. We can feel the intricacy of the world that our young hero Hugo lives in. There is some wonderful footage from the original films of Georges Méliès, but there is an imagined background to those films that is visually brought to life using modern film techniques combined with the crude but genius trickery used in those early movies.

Characters in this story all have a dream that they hope or fear. Most of the focus is on Hugo, a boy orphaned, but far from being overwhelmed. He is clever, skilled and also quite sad as he lives his daily existence in the train station in Paris between the wars. His lonely life is sustained by his desire to unlock the secrets left behind by his deceased father. The Automaton he is trying to repair holds secrets that will effect many of the characters in the story. At times, as he spies on the world of the train station, it felt like this was going to be an antique version of Ameile’. We see bits of other peoples lives, some of them seem hopeful some hateful. Hugo is not interested in all of that, he is focused on the mechanical puzzle that he thinks holds the hope that his loneliness will come to an end. The isolation that he feels must be overcome before, not after he solves the puzzle. This is where the performances of the young leads, and the old-timers come together to give this story life. It looks like it is a kids movie, but it is only a kids movie in so far as all of us are children when faced with the wonder of magic. The characters are not warm from the outset, they are often bitter and suspicious. The one exception being Isabelle, played my my favorite Hit Girl, Chloë Grace Moretz. It is only after Hugo begins to trust and care about Isabelle, that any of the rest of his hopes can come true.

So much goes on in the movie that is hard to describe without giving away plot details, but I can say it is all visually realized in a wonderful way. The mechanical gadgets, and moving parts of projectors and clocks are ubiquitous, they are in the foreground, background and center of the story. Rather than being distracting, they make the world of Hugo more realistic. I marvel at technology of any type, not just the digital world we live in but simple concepts like mirrors and watches, which have been around for hundreds of years but required someone to come up with a way to make them work. Georges Méliès was one of those people that figured out how to make something work. This story tells us in retrospect how movies came to be a place for storytelling and how special effects were achieved, without giving us a lecture on the subject. All of this material is told in a compelling story concerning odd characters that populate a world filled with wonders most people never think about. I like the fact that many of the background characters are intimidating in one way or another. Their true natures are revealed in a more natural way as a result. We don’t feel as manipulated as we might have been if Spielberg had been the director.

This is a warm movie from a director that can be cold in regard to our emotions, even when his characters are hot. He does not go overboard in trying to make us love everyone in the story,our affections are earned and they are reasonable within the parameters of the story. The 3D is not obnoxious, in fact it adds to the character of the movie in much the same lush way as the effects in “Avatar” did for that movie. I could feel a couple of story cheats on occasions, there was some pretty obvious foreshadowing of the train climax, but it was not supposed to be a surprise, it is designed to satisfy an appetite that the film makers created in us. This is well worth your time and money, I can’t guarantee you will like it, but if the subject and film makers intrigue you, then it will be very satisfying.