Christmas movies

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Having never seen a version of Miracle on 34th Street, I figured now, when I’m in my late 30s, would be the perfect time to catch up. I still believe in Santa Claus, or at least the spirit of Santa anyway, and that’s more than six-year-old Susan (Mara Wilson) can say. She thinks we’re just a bunch of gullible fools, and she’s not impressed when her mother, Dorey (Elizabeth Perkins), the head of events for a large department store, hires a very realistic Santa (Richard Attenborough) for the holiday season. Despite his efforts and those of Dorey’s boyfriend, Bryan (Dylan McDermot), she just can’t seem to get in a Christmas mood.

I can see where Susan is headed, and it’s straight for the Hallmark Channel. She’s going to grow up into one of those women who hates Christmas because of a traumatic childhood, only to rediscover its joys after a hot guy enters her life. Mara Wilson, the cutest girl onscreen in the 90s, has a soulful sadness to her in this film, and Susan looks like a girl who’s been having an existential crisis for some time. She worries that Cole’s, the department store where her mother works, is going to be bought out and turned into a junk store, and when Bryan starts asking her about getting presents from Santa, she gives him a hard stare that says, don’t talk to me like a six year old.

I love little Susan and pint-sized Mara. Susan wants to believe in Santa so badly, but her cool, practical mother just won’t have it. Dorey even puts her relationship with Bryan on the line by insisting he stop encouraging such fanciful thinking. But Bryan is a dreamboat and all-around good guy and does what he can to give Susan a more magical Christmas experience, including a visit to Santa where her skepticism starts to fade. She concedes that the Cole’s Santa does look like the real deal and is bewitched by his beard and costume, but she really starts reconsidering when she spies Santa sharing a touching exchange with a deaf girl.

The movie is far less holly and jolly than I expected, and it seems more like a film for cynical adults than it is for bouncy kids. It doesn’t have the energy of Home Alone or the adventure of Arthur’s Christmas. Some will surely be bored by aspects of the plot, like when a competing store schemes to kidnap Santa and turn a profit. This results in the arrest and trial of Kris Kringle, and his release depends on a legal argument about the abstract concept of belief. If I was a kid, I’d much rather watch A Christmas Carol, any of them.

Miracle on 34th Street has its appeal though, and it’s thanks to the actors who really inhabit their roles. To this day, I think of Attenborough when I think of Santa Claus. McDermott is the perfect boyfriend and the perfect complement to Perkins. The movie is as much about Dorey as it is about Susan. The latter knows what she wants – a childhood filled with family and wonder. It turns out that Dorey wants that too; she just doesn’t realize it yet.

Released: 1994
Prod: John Hughes, William Ryan, William S. Beasley
Dir: Les Mayfield
Writer: George Seaton, John Hughes
Cast: Richard Attenborough, Elizabeth Perkins, Dylan McDermott, Mara Wilson, J.T. Walsh, Simon Jones, James Remar, Jane Leeves, William Windom, Robert Prosky, Joss Ackland
Time: 114 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

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Casper’s Haunted Christmas (2000)

Casper really is the friendliest ghost, so it’s hard to watch the kid get so thoroughly abused by his awful trio of uncles, Fatso, Stinkie, and Stretch. I’d forgotten how cruel these guys were and was shocked by their relentless bullying, which goes unchecked for longer than I’m comfortable with. I’d hoped someone would call child protective services, but the only ones called up in this Christmas special are the ghost police, and not to arrest the Ghostly Trio for child abuse.

Casper is cited for failing to scare anyone, intentionally, and has just days to meet his scare quota for the year. If he doesn’t scare at least one person before Christmas, he’ll be banished to a friendless void for all eternity. To add to the punishment, his uncles will be joining him since they’ve failed to raise him in the ways of the ghost. Kibosh, the glowy green lord of the undead, sends them off to Kriss, Mass (get it?) to get their scare on, and enlists anxiety-ridden Officer Snivel, inspector of ectoplasmic law, to oversee the matter.

There’s no reason for Casper and his uncles to end up in the most Christmas-y place in America except that this is a holiday special. The creators use every festive tool in the box to create the right mood. Folks are preparing for a performance of The Christmas Carol, the town is covered with snow and decorations, and some people have even lined their toilet seats with sprigs of holly. The merriest of the families are the Jollimores, and Casper meets Holly, daughter of Noel and Carol, of course. She mistakes him for a talking snowman, which puts a crimp in his scaring plans but he’d rather be friends with Holly anyway. His uncles, however, are more than happy to put spook up the holidays, despite having their haunting licenses revoked.

It’s hard not to love Casper, more so because the ones who should care most about him are so mean. Plus, the cuddly translucent light bulb of a boy wants nothing more than to be a good, honest kid. He is conflicted when he doesn’t correct Holly about his true nature and is worried that she’ll be scared when she learns the truth. He’s equally concerned that he’ll have betrayed her trust, something that kind of happens when Casper’s cousin, Spooky, comes to town. The Ghostly Trio hope that Casper’s doppelganger will conjure up some scares and trick Officer Snivel, releasing them from Kibosh’s threat of eternal damnation.

I have great affection for the friendly ghost, and if you have 80 minutes to spare, then this a serviceable holiday film for the family. You’ll have to overcome several things though. The truly harmful behavior by the uncles, even if they do get their due, should be put into context for kids. Also ignore the horrendous computer animation. The ghosts are surprisingly plump and squeezable, their ghostly qualities nicely rendered. Everything else, however, is animated with the grace of clunky animatronic lawn decorations.

Released: 2000
Prod: Byron Vaughns
Dir: Owen Hurley
Writer: Ian Boothby, Roger Fredericks
Cast: Brendon Ryan Barrett, Tegan Moss, Scott McNeil, Graeme Kingston, Terry Klassen, Samuel Vincent, Colin Murdock, Lee Tockar
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Angels in the Snow (2015)

Angels in the Snow isn’t the worst Christmas movie ever – that would be Saving Christmas – but it tries damn hard to be. Mawkish, clichéd, simplistic, the movie is void of any real sentiment and instead skates by on cheap, unearned emotion. The Montgomery family begin their Christmas holiday by leveling threats of grievous bodily harm against one another but not two days later, they’re jaunting merrily through the snow. In between, there’s a torrent of physical and emotional destruction.

Keeping with that theme, this movie is also a painful viewing experience. The filmmakers are so determined to drive home their message about family that they overly manufacture every aspect of their film. You’re watching a charade, not a movie. The characters may have the same problems as normal people but they never act it, content to stick to one assigned emotion. Kristy Swanson tries her best with what can be called a developed character. As Judith, she struggles to keep the Montgomery clan together, or at least aware of one another. But if she’s not mediating between her bickering children, she’s trying to coax her grumpy, overworked husband, Charles (Chris Potter), away from his mobile, neither with much success.

So it’s a godsend when the Tucker family sweeps in to escape a blinding snow storm. The family of four are the perfect antidote for the miserable Montgomerys, and they immediately bring warmth and laughter into the cold, cavernous log villa. Judith loves and longs for her new guests’ family dynamic. Joe (Colin Lawrence) and Amy (Catherine Lough Haggquist) are a model couple, and their two teenage children are disarmingly affectionate towards each other. The eldest Montgomery kids, sullen Alexander (Nick Pucha) and grammar-obsessed Jennifer (Lizzie Boys), look on with confusion, bemusement, and not a little disgust, and I’ve never related more to a teenager. The Tucker family are flawless. They are too perfect and before long infect the Montgomery family with their perfection.

You couldn’t make things more black and white. Literally you cannot because the Montgomerys are white and the Tuckers are black, and I’m not sure I’ll be awarding extra points here just because, hey, a black family. The Tuckers have the emotional depth of cardboard cutouts. Like you could stick actual cardboard cutouts into the scene without losing nuance. Also, there is some real Magical Negro stuff going on, and come on, UPtv. Charles does open up late in the game, and it finally feels like things are getting somewhere, but it seems like emotional vulnerability isn’t a path that leads to a better story, just a reason to wrap things up.

Released: 2015
Dir: George Erschbamer
Writer: Julie Brazier
Cast: Kristy Swanson, Chris Potter, Colin Lawrence, Catherine Lough Haggquist, Nick Purcha, Lizzie Boys, Jaeda Lily Miller, Kolton Stewart
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: UPtv
Reviewed: 2018

The Swan Princess Christmas (2012)

The original Swan Princess movie barely mustered a thumbs up rating on my Netflix, thanks mostly to its set of snappy showtunes. The Swan Princess Christmas, however, gets a hard thumbs down, several if that were possible. I would be more forgiving if it clocked in at 45 minutes, but at an hour and a half, this full length feature drains all the princess and Christmas spirit out of me.

Rothbart, the evil sorcerer killed in the first movie, is back with a vengeance, even if he doesn’t have a body to go with. He has it out for Derek, sorcerer slayer and prince hero to Odette, the erstwhile swan. The royal couple are blissfully in love and spending their first Christmas together, but all will not be merry if Rothbart gets his way. As he tells his hench-cat, the only thing more powerful than the dark arts is Christmas, so he’s going to destroy the happy holiday and…presumably get his body back?

The end game is not clear, and neither is the magic. Rothbart’s visible spirit is kept in a chest in the cellar where, it turns out, royalty also keep their Christmas decorations. Somehow his voice can still follow around Number 9, his cat, instructing the feline on the finer details of mischief-making. Only Derek can open the chest and unleash Rothbart’s spirit because dem’s the rules. Homeboy tries to make up for his mistake by rigging wind chime traps because wind chimes are like garlic and silver bullets to dead sorcerers.

While all this is brewing, folks are getting hyped about the holidays. Since Christmas Day is not celebration enough, this nameless kingdom also gets Ornament Day, essentially a glorified tree lighting ceremony. Queen Umberta is super wound up though; she’s whatever the Christmas version of a bridezilla is, and Rothbart does his best to exploit her fondness for tinsel and micromanagement.

For a movie called Swan Princess Christmas, you’d expect a little more Swan Princess for your buck. Odette supports her man, but it really seems to be Derek’s show this time around. He gets to sneak around the castle and do important stuff that will directly lead to the downfall of Rothbart while Odette gets to choreograph a song and dance number for the Christmas variety show. I mean, at least let her snowboard with her husband.

Once again the music saves the day, or at least it tries really hard to do so. Certainly the music is the best part of the movie. The songs have a teen pop quality about them, but I mean this in a complimentary Britney-Christina kind of way. The animation doesn’t serve the songs well though. The set design is done with minimal imagination, and the characters, or rather their hair, always look one step behind.

“Season of Love” (not to be confused with “Seasons of Love”:

“Season of Love” by Anna Graceman:

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:

“Christmas is the Reason”:

Released: 2012
Prod: Jared F. Brown, Richard Rich
Dir: Richard Rich
Writer: Yuri Lowenthal
Cast: Laura Bailey, Summer Eguchi, Yuri Lowenthal, Michaelangelo, Jennifer Miller, Joseph Medrano, Sean Wright, David Lodge, Catherine Lavine, James Arrington
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale (2015)

I’m going to put aside the fact that I’m questioning my life choices right now and just accept that I’m watching A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale at three o’clock on a Monday morning in the middle of July. The film is terrible. So is the title. The script reads like a reject from a fanfiction club. The movie is a love song to dogs and dog parks with only an occasional nod to Christmas, and I like exactly one of those things.

I also tend to dismiss offhand anything that is part of UP network’s Christmas lineup. UP, the channel that specializes in wholesome family programming, makes the Hallmark Channel look like Masterpiece Theatre (yes, even you, Hats Off to Christmas). ADCT has some redeeming qualities, but it is comically, relentlessly optimistic. Before the opening credits begin, Luce (Lexi Giovagnoli), our chief dogwalker, leaps out of bed with eyes wide open. She’s the kind of girl who sleeps with her makeup on so that she can get a jump start on life, at least she does if it’s five days before Christmas. Dean (Jonathan Bennett), a dog lover and a college student practicing his veterinary skills on the sly, also remains suspiciously upbeat even after he finds out that his dog park clinic will be bulldozed to make way for a luxury spa.

Both lead actors remind me of other people. I kept mistaking Giovagnoli for a perky, wide-eyed Melanie Lynskey, which is fine because I love Melanie Lynskey. This endeared me somewhat to her character, despite the fact that the Luce is a poster child for privileged rich white girl. I almost stopped the movie after a few minutes when Luce and her friends skip into a jewelry store though; they’re buying matching necklaces for some Christmas party while she has just maxed out her parents’ credit card to buy a nice watch for her boyfriend of three months. Bennett, on the other hand, is not so lucky in this department. I kept seeing pharma bro Martin Shkreli, apologies to Bennett and fans of Mean Girls.

In fairness, the plot is no worse than anything you’ve seen before on UP. There’s conflict of the existential and the romantic sort. Will the dog park meet its end? Does this mean one of the dog walkers will regain the hundred pounds she lost? Can lonely dog walker woman find true love without her canine matchmaker? Will Dean find out who Luce really works for? It all ends predictably, that is to say happily. You just have to watch a circus of amateurs tumbling around in order to get there.

ADCT lacks nuanced acting and writing, of course. I mean, the reason why dog-hating Luce is walking dogs is because she has no money and her parents are off doing some charity gig in Botswana, leaving her and her little brother alone for Christmas. She seems nonchalant about it, but this arrangement seems like a big deal and Luce probably needs to talk to someone about it. But fine, go walk them dogs.

Having forfeited an hour and a half, however, I will commend the movie for its characterization of Missy, Luce’s boss and husband of dog park killer. I expected her to be a one note ninny, and she is for most part. But she also surprises by being a decent person when called upon and by standing by Luce when the easy thing would have been to pit the two women against each other.

Released: 2015
Dir: Letia Clouston
Writer: Jake Helgren
Cast: Jonathan Bennett, Lexi Giovagnoli, Dina Meyer, Patrick Muldoon, Jennifer Joseph
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: UPtv
Reviewed: 2018