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Arthur Christmas vs. The Muppets: Some auteur elves are smarter than others

A scene from "The Muppets" (left) and "Arthur Christmas" (right)


Arthur Christmas: 3 stars

The Muppets: 2 stars

At first blush, they seem to have a lot in common. Both are kiddie flicks arriving early for the holiday season, each intent on reviving and revitalizing a familiar bit of folklore. Arthur Christmas means to dust off the Santa myth; The Muppets wants to dust off its own myth.

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Being quick and clever and inventive, one succeeds; being none of those things, and weirdly apologetic to boot, the other does not. Let's see why.

Arthur Christmas is a cultural merger, with the Brits at Aardman Productions (best known for the Wallace & Gromit series) providing the idiosyncratic content and the Yanks at Sony Pictures Animation offering the 3-D, computer-generated style.

It turns out to be a happy marriage, largely because the content rules, beginning with this delightful conceit: Up in their North Pole residence, the Clauses are actually a family dynasty, a kind of roly-poly monarchy where the throne passes down through the generations.

These days, as the zippy opening sequence reveals, the reigning Santa (Jim Broadbent) is largely a figurehead. On Christmas Eve, the real work is done by his ambitious son Steve (Hugh Laurie) who, with a vast spaceship for transport and a million elves under his command, has brought global gift delivery into the modern age – it's a high-tech operation now.

Yet not quite fail-safe. Oops, of all the world's children, seems "one has been missed." Gwen, a little English girl with a posh little accent, failed to receive the pink bike she was promised.

For Steve, a strict bean-counter who knows that "Christmas is not a time for emotion," the oversight falls easily within an acceptable margin of error. But Arthur (James McAvoy), his younger brother – an inveterate klutz with a kind heart, a subordinate Claus relegated to the Letter Answering Department – begs to differ.

Happily, he has an ally in the cantankerous Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), long-retired yet eager to re-prove his mettle by dragging out all the old, low-tech gear – that dusty sleigh, the arthritic reindeer, the "magic dust." So, accompanied by a stowaway elf with a Scottish burr, off the three head on their beat-the-clock mission. That bike must be delivered to Gwen before the sun rises on her disappointed face.

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Predictably, there are wrong turns and misadventures en route. Predictably too, those 3-D glasses do what they mainly do, and prove more physically annoying than visually rewarding.

Still, for the kids, the action is always lively and, for the rest of us, the dialogue has a witty and even caustic edge. Co-writer Peter Baynham, whose resumé includes a telling stint with Sacha Baron Cohen, just can't help himself and finds in Grandsanta a convenient mouthpiece for his politically incorrect asides. Like this one: Steve is quick to inform the others that, with a mere two hours before dawn in England, their altruistic escapade is "impossible."

Snaps back our white-bearded curmudgeon: "They used to say it was impossible to teach women to read." Oh, Santa, we hardly knew you.

By contrast, after a 12-year absence from the big screen, The Muppets aren't about to mess with their Day-Glo image. Nevertheless, that absence looms oddly large in co-writer Jason Segel's rather contrived script. Again and again, sundry characters are heard to remark about Jim Henson's once-illustrious gang: "You guys aren't famous any more"; or, "The world has moved on. No one cares about you." Even Kermit himself is made to lament early on: "I guess people sort of forgot about us."

Of course, the movie then sets out to correct such awful heresy. To that end, after an opening production number as bright as it is forgettable, Gary (Segel) along with his fiancée Mary (Amy Adams) and his little puppet bro Walter, leave Smalltown to head for Tinseltown, where they discover that the former Muppet Studio stands in near-ruin and is about to be razed by some avaricious Texan (Chris Cooper).

Since a cool 10 million bucks are needed to save the studio, there's only one remedy: Dig out Kermie, Miss Piggy, Fonzie, Gonzo et al. from their various hideaways, then put on a network telethon to raise the cash and, more important, prove all those nay-saying cynics wrong.

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Several tunes, umpteen cameo appearances, scores of lame jokes and much up-beat sentimentalizing later, the throngs on the Hollywood streets are cheering wildly, but this old man in the gallery remains unconvinced. The Muppet charm, always more at home within the intimate frame of a TV set, is gone here.

How to get it back? Hey, ask Santa, but make sure he's the nice jolly one and not that cranky ancestor – Grandsanta, I fear, would pronounce this revival D.O.A.

Arthur Christmas

  • Directed by Sarah Smith
  • Written by Sarah Smith and Peter Baynham
  • Starring James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent
  • Classification: G

The Muppets

  • Directed by James Bobin
  • Written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller
  • Starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Kermit et al.
  • Classification: G
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