'Arthur Christmas' (PG)

The best stuff in Arthur Christmas comes early, during a terrific prologue that reveals how Santa Claus is able to fly around the world and distribute two billion Christmas gifts in the course of a single night (instead of a sleigh, Santa uses a gigantic red spaceship, and he’s helped by an army of elves as skilled as Navy SEALS.)

The sequence is funny, wondrous and exciting — all things that the rest of Arthur Christmas, sadly, is not. The latest production from the British animation company Aardman (the creators of the stop-motion classics Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit), has buckets of visual imagination. But the movie fails utterly at coming up with a story that merits all the eye candy. An impressive cast of actors (including James McAvoy, Michael Palin, Imelda Staunton and Jim Broadbent) has been instructed to shout all their lines at an ear-piercing decibel, in hopes that all their breathless line readings would enliven a moribund story.

No luck. After Santa returns from his annual trip around the world on Christmas Eve, everyone at the North Pole (now a high-tech operation run by thousands of elves and overseen by his oldest son) celebrates and turns in for the night. But Arthur, Santa’s younger, less successful son, discovers a gift that was accidentally left behind, and with the help of his grandfather, a former Santa now retired, he sets out to deliver the present before the sun rises.

Arthur Christmas is filled with imaginative visual designs and creations — I never tired of watching the flying reindeers galloping through the air — and some of the characters are memorable, such as the gift-wrapping elf who has the compulsion to slap a bow on everything she sees. But the picture’s attempt to turn the dysfunction in Santa’s family into a relatable fairy tale about the importance of getting along falls flat; the constant yelling and shrieking by everyone on the screen grows tiresome; and the story’s narrow premise — a race against time to deliver a bicycle — is too thin to warrant a feature-length movie. Arthur Christmas isn’t bad enough to write off as a lump of coal. But if this shrill, grating film had been a present, I’d be looking for the gift receipt so I could exchange it the minute the stores opened on Dec. 26.

Voices: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Eva Longoria, Joan Cusack, Robbie Coltrane, Laura Linney, Michael Palin.

Director: Sarah Smith.

Screenwriters: Peter Baynham, Sarah Smith.

Producer: Steve Pegram.

A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 97 minutes. No offensive material. Playing at: area theaters.