How does Santa Claus deliver two billion presents in one night? And, more to the point, what happens when he forgets one luckless child? These are the twin issues at the heart of Arthur Christmas, a delightfully festive present kindly delivered to us courtesy of Aardman Animation, the British-based company behind Wallace & Gromit.
The film opens as Santa and his little helpers jet about the world delivering gifts on Christmas Eve.
Yes, "Operation Santa Claus" is coming to town, as the elves dispatch presents, Mission: Impossible style, by acrobatically entering houses and dropping off goodies (there's even a scanner to detect if the kids have been naughty or nice).
A red-beret-wearing Santa (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is on his 70th mission, aided by two sons - the ultra-efficient, camouflage-sporting Steve (Hugh Laurie) and his more idealistic younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy). But when Arthur discovers that one child in Cornwall, Gwen, has been left without her present, it's panic stations in the North Pole.
Determined to ensure that no child is disappointed on Christmas morning, Arthur joins forces with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), Santa's retired father, who these days is reduced to sitting in an armchair and grumbling about the rise of technology in the present-giving business. Dusting off his sleigh, Grandsanta shows Arthur how it used to be done as they head out, accompanied by the elf Bryony (Jensen), in a race against time.
Those who saw Aardman's 2006 misfire Flushed Away - its first computer-animated effort - could arguably claim the company famed for its clay-based stop-motion work had lost its way. Yet Arthur Christmas is proof otherwise. Yes, this is also computer animated - and their first foray into 3D. But unlike Santa, with his motorised sleigh and high-tech mission-control room, this shows us that computers aren't all bad.
It helps that, aside from first-timer Sarah Smith's boundlessly energetic direction, it has a rock-solid script. Fans of such controversial comedies as Brass Eye and the Sacha Baron Cohen-starring films Borat and Bruno will be shocked to learn that Peter Baynham, a writer on all of the aforementioned, is the driving force here. Fear not, though, for this is as wholesome as sitting round the living room fire singing carols.
The humour is delightfully cheeky, particularly with Nighy's Grandsanta (who, in a moment of believing anything is doable, utters the immortal line: "They used to say it was impossible to teach women to read!"). The animation, meanwhile, is first-rate, particularly when Arthur and company detour to the Serengeti and sprinkle their "magic sleigh dust" on the wild animals, causing them to float like they were in space.
If you were being hypercritical, you could say that there is one too many hectic chase scenes. But from flying alongside blue whales to making a snowman in the clouds, there are moments of real beauty to treasure, too. The sort of film that makes even the biggest Grinch feel the magic of Christmas, this is a perfect holiday season treat