Andy Bockelman: ‘Arthur Christmas’ is full of good cheer

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

At the movies:

'Arthur Christmas'

3 out of 4 stars

97 minutes

Starring the voices of: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent

Now playing at West Theatre in Craig and Steamboat Springs’ Metropolitan Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas in Steamboat Springs.

‘The Muppets’

3.5 out of 4 stars

98 minutes

Starring: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and Kermit the Frog.

Not everyone can lull a pride of hungry lions to sleep chanting “Silent Night” and swinging glow-in-the-dark slippers.

But, if anyone is foolhardy enough to try, it’s “Arthur Christmas.”

Dec. 24 is the biggest night of the year at the North Pole, as a staff of hundreds gears up to assist Santa Claus (voice of Jim Broadbent) in delivering gifts to two billion children across the world.

With the jolly old man’s son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), overseeing everything, Santa and his elves have managed to make their yearly excursion smoother then ever this year with everyone working at their peak in each skill set.

And then there’s Santa’s other son, Arthur (James McAvoy), whose only talent seems to be getting in the way of all the delicate operations going on around him. But, even his inelegance can’t interrupt a top-notch system, as his father successfully completes his 70th year in his position.

However, the job isn’t quite done yet.

For the first time in years, a present has gone overlooked and undelivered, and much to Arthur’s horror, neither Steve nor Santa has a plan on how to get the parcel to its intended recipient in time for Christmas morning.

With no one else realizing just how important the situation is, Arthur sets out to get the final gift in its rightful place under the tree before daybreak, no matter the odds.

If there’s a vortex that sucks in all the tackiest Christmas sweaters in the world, the other end of it must be in Arthur’s closet.

But, his poor choice in holiday apparel only makes him all the more endearing, with the usually suave McAvoy unafraid of sounding like a complete dork.

Laurie is right on target with taskmaster Steve, who’s always on the ball business-wise, but severely lacking in the actual spirit of the season, having replaced Santa’s traditional sleigh with a shuttle straight out of “Independence Day” decades ago.

His tannenbaum-shaped goatee aside, should this guy really be the heir to the Santa Claus title?

Broadbent is fine as the current Father Christmas, who, after years of technological updates to his route, no longer really has to do anything but smile and wave to his adoring public, letting the elves or his wife (Imelda Staunton) handle everything.

The knee-high helpers are voiced by multiple big names — though you’d never know it based on their squeakiness — like Ashley Jensen, Joan Cusack, Robbie Coltrane and Michael Palin.

Bill Nighy is more than amusing as Santa’s father and predecessor, Grand-Santa, who decries the changes made to the yearly rounds, insisting to Arthur that the two of them can easily hitch up the long-forgotten reindeer to the old method of transport and get things done.

If only he could remember the flying animals’ names. … Eh, Bambi and “You with the white ear” are close enough to Comet and Cupid.

If only the old codger had enough sense of direction to not wind up in Canada, Mexico and Africa, rather than their destination in England.

The details you may have heard in the classic poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” are long gone here, having been brought up to date with entire squadrons of elves who take care of every possible contingency as part of their annual flight, making sure no child awakens to find Santa at the foot of their bed. Even if it means taking apart a noisy toy with all the precision of the bomb disposal unit in “The Hurt Locker.”

The kind of weird, cold central command vibe of Santa’s Workshop that we saw in “Fred Claus” is a little disheartening, but those slick details are exactly what the team at Aardman Animations — the masterminds behind “Wallace and Gromit” — pinpoints as the ruination of the holiday.

Arthur’s out-of-the-way job at the North Pole reading children’s letters to his dad puts him more in touch with why his family has performed such a noble undertaking for 20 generations.

Christmas should be a joy not a job.

Bravo, Steve, for keeping everything going with only the smallest hiccup, but if you can’t understand why it matters that a little girl finds a wrapped bicycle waiting for her Dec. 25, you have no right to call yourself a Claus.

“Arthur Christmas” may be chaotic and full of hard truths you never wanted to know about the inhabitants of the snowy north, such as the fact that a simple board game can almost end in bloodshed and tears even for Santa’s family.

Still, in the middle of this mad dash is a boy who knows what counts, and his determination to make Christmas perfect for every last child on the planet will get you a little misty-eyed.

In Santa we believe.

‘Muppets’ make laugh-filled return to screen

Here’s a bit of trivia for you: What TV show had a pilot episode called “Sex and Violence” and went on to inspire a series of unforgettable films?

Even knowing they have yet to make a movie, your better nature would lead you to think of “The Sopranos,” but the answer is the same show that has now brought us one of the best family films of the year, “The Muppets.”

Life is different to say the least for a guy who’s three feet tall and made of felt, which is why Walter (voice and puppetry by Peter Linz) has never felt completely accepted by people in his small town, Smalltown.

But, his brother Gary (Jason Segel) has always been very supportive, even going so far as to let Walter tag along with him and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) on their anniversary trip to California.

Sightseeing for Walter means only one thing: visiting the famed theater which once housed performances by The Muppets, whom Walter has idolized his entire life. But, the dilapidated location is hardly considered a Hollywood landmark any more.

In fact, it’s on the verge of being bought out and demolished by a Texas oil baron (Chris Cooper), prompting Walter to find and rally the long-disbanded Muppets to save the structure and their legacy.

Segel’s act in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” may have started him down a new career path, with his puppet-themed rock opera version of “Dracula” leading to the chance to star with the most prominent members of the puppet community.

As co-author of the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, he allows a 40/60 equilibrium between humans and their Muppet counterparts.

He and Adams, delightful as ever, happily share the spotlight with Walter, a fine new addition to the troupe, who’s both a Muppet and at the same time not, somehow existing outside their universe as a mere fan.

Based on his reaction when he finally meets the one and only Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire), it could be a little wearisome having someone fawn over you so fervently, but the friendly amphibian could use the help tracking down his old companions, with Fozzie Bear (Eric Jacobson) headlining a pitiful lounge act, Gonzo (Dave Goelz) the head of a toilet manufacturing company and Miss Piggy (Jacobson) working as the editor of Vogue Paris.

Clearly, the phrase “pearls before swine” has a different meaning in France.

You want all the supporting characters from “The Muppet Show,” you got ‘em, showing up in one way or another — Rowlf the Dog, Scooter, Swedish Chef, Camilla the Chicken, Sam the Eagle, Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, Lew Zealand, Sweetums, Statler and Waldorf, Crazy Harry, Link Hogthrob and many more.

Even the obscure Uncle Deadly makes an appearance as one of Cooper’s minions along with Bobo the Bear, sniggering on cue whenever their boss prompts them to laugh maniacally.

But, what Muppet movie would be complete without just as many celebrity cameos?

Scene-stealers Alan Arkin, Jack Black and Kristen Schaal are just a few surprises in store as the Muppets attempt to stage a telethon to get their act back together, even if one of their crew is hesitant to return to his old ways.

Yes, you heard right.

Insane drummer Animal refuses to get behind the skins again for fear of losing control of his emotions. Luckily there’s a stand-in (Dave Grohl).

The first Muppet feature in years to offer original music — Let’s just forget about “Muppets from Space,” shall we? — benefits greatly from songs written by “Flight of the Conchords” star Bret McKenzie.

Such ditties include the zippy “Life’s a Happy Song,” Gary and Walter’s “Man or Muppet” duet, and “Let’s Talk About Me,” a rap by Cooper’s Tex Richman that comes and goes so quickly you don’t have time to realize these beats are being laid down by a middle-aged white man.

Still, the icing on the cake comes with Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher’s unforgettable tune that jump-started the Muppet movie franchise, “Rainbow Connection.” Only Kermit’s wistful “Pictures in My Head” even comes close to giving you the same kind of experience the first time you heard that classic.

“The Muppets” recaptures the magic that first occurred when a young Jim Henson first cobbled together a talking frog more than 50 years ago. Maybe the man who started it all wouldn’t have thought of Fozzie tying whoopee cushions to his feet to create “fart shoes” or a cluster of chickens dancing around to Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You,” but it’s hard to believe he’d have any arguments with how his creations have turned out.

For any doubters, I’ve got four words for you: “Mah nà mah nà.”

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