Now comes happier news: a much better film. The company's second digitally animated feature, billed as "an Aardman production for Sony Pictures Animation," carries the name "Arthur Christmas." It's good. Frantic, yes, sometimes aggressively so. There's some padding in the airborne sequences built to exploit the 3-D format. But a tender and upbeat spirit informs the writing and the execution.
You just wouldn't know it from the maniacal first 10 minutes. Directed and co-written, with Peter Baynham, by Sarah Smith, "Arthur Christmas" rips the lid off the secret of how Santa manages to deliver presents to every child in the world in one night. The latest in a long ancestral line of Santas, voiced by Jim Broadbent, nears retirement and is due to hand the job over to one of his sons. Sporting a fir-tree-shaped goatee, firstborn Steve (Hugh Laurie) runs the annual assault like a military operation, overseeing the mighty "S-1," a 2-mile-long spaceship (vaguely sleigh-shaped) from which a million present-delivering elves descend and deliver. Typical of the throwaway details, we hear a computer voice announce in passing: "Converting milk and cookies into biofuel."