The Christmas Star (1986)

The Christmas Star is a pleasant alternative if you’ve exhausted the usual holiday hits and don’t feel like one of Hallmark or Lifetime’s repetitive offerings. It’s a story that’s been told before in one form or another but that benefits from affecting performances by Ed Asner as a conman Santa and the child actors who play the gullible kids. Asner is a perfect fit for Horace, the grumpy, bearded prisoner who escapes prison during a Christmas party. Decked out in his stolen Santa suit, he makes his way into the city and hides in the apartment basement of the Jameson family. Siblings Billy (Nicholas Van Burek) and Trudy (Vicki Wauchope) think he’s the real Santa, and word soon gets round to all the neighborhood kids that Mr. Claus has come to town.

Horace is eager to recover the loot from the crime that got him sent to prison. He knows it’s hidden among the Christmas decorations used by a large department store, but there are a lot of decorations. Also, he can’t go popping off reindeer heads in plain view of the public and police officers, though he tries. Being the resourceful criminal he is, he manipulates Billy, Trudy, and some of their friends into helping him find his money. At least this is his plan.

There’s some Christmas magic in watching the cynical, selfish loner transform into a repentant do-gooder. Horace doesn’t lose his rough edges, but he surprises himself by empathizing with the Jamesons when Mr. Sumner (Rene Auberjonois), their severe landlord, threatens to turn out the family. Sumner’s cruelty extends to his own son, John (Zachary Ansley), whom he bullies relentlessly, and Horace makes a quick calculation, deciding that he must intervene even if it means surfacing from his hiding place. For the first time in a long while, he finds himself in a position to do something positive and meaningful that isn’t also self-serving.

The child actors bring a lot of wonder to this film and keep the story honest. I loved the innocence of wide-eyed Wauchope while Van Burek also gives his character a sensitivity that is very endearing. The camera catches some candid moments that add personality to the city block and the people living there, like one shot of the girls playing with dolls and a crate on their porch step. The simplicity of a scene where Horace gives in and plays Santa to a group of children huddled in the basement was moving as well. There aren’t many Christmas movies that show the beauty and hope of poor kids, all of them whispering their most secret wishes to a person they believe can truly bring them happiness on Christmas Day.

Everyone in this film is searching for something to believe in, and they find it for the most part, which is why the ending is a bit out of sync. It channels some ghosts of Christmas past in order to help Horace tie up some of his criminal loose ends. There’s no need to rely on the supernatural though when the rest of the movie generates enough magic on its own.

Released: 1986
Dir: Alan Shapiro
Writer: Alan Shapiro
Cast: Edward Asner, Rene Auberjonois, Jim Metzler, Susan Tyrrell, Karen Landry, Alan North, Phillip Bruns, Nicholas Van Burek, Vicki Wauchope, Zachary Ansley
Time: 94 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Disney Channel
Reviewed: 2018