Aardman Animation’s Arthur Christmas opens with a scene that suggests it is not your parents’ holiday movie. In response to one little girl’s query about how Santa manages to deliver all of those gifts around the world in just one night, we’re treated to a thrilling sequence of hundreds of elves jumping out of a giant sleigh-shaped spaceship and delivering the gifts with a high-tech precision that wouldn’t be out of place in a futuristic action thriller.

Spearheading that massive operation is alpha-male Steve (Hugh Laurie), heir apparent to the cushy Santa position currently held by his father Malcolm (Jim Broadbent). Steve and Malcolm, it turns out, are just two members of a long line of Santas that stretch back centuries and also includes Malcolm’s father (Bill Nighy) “Grandsanta,” and Steve’s younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy).

But holiday movies are a decidedly traditional genre, and Arthur Christmas quickly falls into the familiar themes about the magic of Christmas and finding your place in the world and whatnot. Happily, it does so with enough wit and enough feeling to be a cut above some of the more cynical entries in the genre, though it’s not on the level of the best holiday classics.

It’s obvious from the first time we meet Arthur that it’s he, not Steve, who deserves to take over as Santa now that their father’s become little more than a figurehead. Arthur is a misfit in the proud tradition of other festive heroes like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Charlie Brown. Overexcitable and tragically clumsy, he’s got more holiday spirit in his musical light-up reindeer slipper-clad right foot than do Grandsanta, Malcolm, and Steve combined. When he learns that Steve’s clinically efficient system has left one lone child — named Gwen, of Cornwall, England — without a present, he takes it upon himself to deliver the gift, with an assist from Grandsanta and a gift-wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen).

As a self-admitted Grinch, I sometimes take issue with what I think of as “but it’s Christmas!” storylines, in which the holiday is used to justify all manner of insane behavior. (Some of the stupider parts of Love, Actually spring to mind.) But Arthur’s determination is so sweet and so palpable that I found myself mostly along with him for the ride — even though, when you step back to think about it, the stakes really aren’t that high.

Arthur Christmas is relentlessly positive, to the extent that there are no true villains. Good people who may be led astray by pride or jealousy or complacency, yes, but no one with truly malicious intentions. Though that cheery outlook drains some of the narrative tension, it also lends the characters a touch of complexity. When even well-meaning people are able to do the wrong thing, individual characters get to demonstrate both good and bad aspects, rather than simply sticking to predetermined hero or villain roles.

Which is for the best, because Arthur himself isn’t much of a hero. While I understand that he’s meant to be bumbling and overwrought, as drawn by Aardman and voiced by McAvoy, there are times when his nervous energy gets to be just too much. Much as I admired Arthur’s singleminded devotion to giving every last child on Earth the Christmas she deserves, his constant yelling was exhausting, and at times I couldn’t help but sympathize with the characters who wouldn’t let him join in any reindeer games simply wanted him to get out of the way.

Thankfully, the film also provides a gem of a supporting character in Bryony, who matches Arthur in sheer resolve and holiday cheer, but is as proudly competent as Arthur is awkward. There’s a running joke about her ability to wrap any toy with just three pieces of tape, no matter how oddly shaped. The gag seems like it should get old after the first couple of times, but the character takes so much joy in her own work that I found myself laughing each time. I could watch an entire movie centered just around Bryony and her ability to MacGyver her way out of any situation with nothing more than a roll of red-and-green paper, some sticky tape, and a glossy ribbon.

Arthur’s eventful journey around the world provides some mesmerizing imagery — especially at the surreal end of one action-packed sequence in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park — but as Aardman Animation’s first 3D feature, Arthur Christmas is too timid by half. For the vast majority of the movie, the 3D is hardly noticeable; ultimately, it’s tough to justify paying that premium surcharge.

But that issue and more are forgiven at the moment when (spoiler alert, although if you’ve ever seen a Christmas movie I am sure you already know exactly how Arthur Christmas ends) Arthur manages to get his gift to little Gwen. It’s impossible not to be moved by the utter wonderment on his face. That moment crystallizes the true meaning of Christmas, as interpreted by Arthur Christmas: that what matters is making someone happy. All the other stuff — the tired traditions, the inter-generational squabbling, the suffering you’ve endured to get there — matter not at all.

/Film Rating: 7.0 out of 10

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