Santa (Shane Jacobson) doesn't want to retire, but rules are rules and he must train someone to replace him. The lucky winner, to be chosen from among millions of children, must be named Nicholas, be an orphan and have a pure heart. On the other side of the planet, there is a little boy (Jack Versace) who is a perfect match, but his lack of self-confidence and fear of heights make him a poor contestant. Will Santa agree to step down, and help his apprentice take his place?

3.5
Cute animation should please the kiddies.

Kudos to French animation outfit Gaumont-Alphanim and their Australian cohort Avrill Stark Entertainment for so lovably defining the spirit of Yuletide cheer with this endearing crowd-pleaser. Filled with layers of rich imagery and utterly saccharine but entirely forgivable sentiment, family audiences should be overjoyed with director Luc Vinciguerra’s simple but adorable story of an Aussie orphan that makes good as Saint Nick’s second in command.

Already a hit with last year’s Christmas crowds across mainland Europe, the tale of Nicholas (voiced by Jack Versace) and his first few months in training to be the jolly fat man’s replacement, melds traditional festive season iconography with some modern twists on the Santa Claus myth. Top-tier Australian voice talent (Max Cullen, Magda Szubanski, Delta Goodrem, Georgie Parker and Shane Jacobsen as Santa), bring the tale to life and I doubt there’s a present-hungry under-10 who won’t lap up the thrill and syrupy emotion.

Santa’s Apprentice is an expansion of the popular 2006 Gallic TV series; kids should love the talking reindeers and relate all too well to the villainous school-yard bully who almost ruins Christmas for the children of the world. Parents will respond equally well to the frustrations of two adult characters struggling with the financial and spiritual expectations of Christmas, as a counterpoint to the energy and spirit of a kid like Nicholas.

Vinciguerra has established himself as one of Europe’s leading animation visionaries (Disney awarded him the first episode of their cult series Zombie Hotel), and here he proves his big-screen worth with a film that artfully applies several different visual cues: 'Nicholas’ has the wide-eyed, thin-lipped persona of the anime genre; Santa is Hanna-Barbera to a tee; and cutesy comedy supports like the arctic-dog thing that Nicholas befriends are pure Disney (and a little too Lilo & Stitch, frankly). But Vinciguerra also adopts the brushstrokes and swirling colours reminiscent of Claude Monet in his backdrops and surface textures; clouds, snowscapes and city skylines are beautifully rendered.

Not all of it works, though. Santa’s army of elves are thoroughly unappealing drones that resemble the big-eyed, pointy-eared 'greys’ of alien abduction mythology, and the [spoiler alert] final minutes of manufactured mayhem where Santa is locked-up by Sydney cops, undoes much of the sweetness established earlier the film. But enough spirited cheer will be left in the hearts of the littlies to ensure the film survives as a welcome stocking-filler for many years to come.