Catching up with Christmas films

20 Dec

Last year, I came across a list of Christmas films (I think it may have been one of those cheap-to-make countdown programmes that they fill schedules with, but I don’t remember) and was surprised by how many I hadn’t seen. I mean, I have seen a lot of Christmas films, and deliberately avoided a lot of others (anything Hallmarky) but there are still quite a few significant gaps, apparently.

I decided to do something about it by watching five new (to me) Christmas films this Christmas. (It’s still technically Advent, but you know what I mean.) My plans were initially scuppered by being in hospital at the start of December, and then by being mostly asleep, but as we got closer to Christmas I reached the vegging-on-the-sofa stage of my recuperation, and so watching five films became less of a challenge and more of a natural activity.

I’m just going to list these in the order I watched them rather than ranking them, because they are quite hard to compare, and because I don’t want to risk death threats if I fail to rank a particular puppet-based film highest. So let’s jump in with my first new film, Noelle.

Noelle (2019)

I was aware of this film and I remember wanting to watch it, so I was content when my nieces selected this for family viewing. It’s got a lot of flaws, but I have to say I did enjoy it a lot. It’s about a new Santa having difficulty stepping into the role he inherited, and his sister helping him out.

Young Noelle, in the first scene, is insufferable. Everyone in the North Pole, which is supposedly a wonderful place, is really horrible to Noelle. Perhaps the constant cold makes them vindictive – everyone in Phoenix is much nicer. The whole “be yourself, don’t be someone you’re not” message was a bit yawn and the resolution was obvious from about the first five minutes, making you annoyed that all the characters are too dense to see it

But the film made me laugh out loud a few times. I enjoyed Gabriel’s tech solutions, and the big finale was as much fun as it should have been. The Big Inspiring Speech™️ made my sister cry, although I remained dry-eyed, but the line “Hello, Santa,” in the homeless shelter was really quite touching.

The Christmas Chronicles (2018)

For some reason I keep thinking of and talking about this film as ‘The Santa Chronicles’, which is ironic as it’s the ‘Chronicles’ bit that has no basis in reality. I mean, the whole thing takes place within the space of about twelve hours. It features two insufferable kids (I assume Americans think nine-going-on-19 is in some way cute), one of them taking it to the point of criminality. They cause problems through their selfish sense of entitlement and spend the rest of the film helping to sort out their own mess before they run out of time. When they’re not having a heart-to-heart in the snow, that is, or reading other people’s letters, or watching videos. Pacing was a serious problem in this film. How can you maintain the ‘nick of time’ tension when Santa has time for a quick jazz recital?

That’s not the only problem with the film. You eventually find out that by “Christmas will be ruined” they mean that it will be ruined for a small part of North America. That’s doesn’t have quite the same weight. Many of the jokes fell flat (again, it could be an American/European thing). And the prissy CGI reindeer! 🙄

But the film had things going for it, too. The production values were very high, as you would expect for Netflix. The sleigh looked lovely, the special effects were good, and Santa’s suit didn’t look like something you would only wear for a bet, and was trimmed with fur that could have come from a real animal. Kurt Russell also made a refreshingly tough Santa – here’s a man you could see giving an Arian a slap, although confusingly he implied he was not that St Nicholas – no idea why.

The Christmas Chronicles also solved a couple of logistical Santa problems (how do all the presents fit in the sack, how can he travel fast enough) without beating you over the head with them, which was satisfying. And there was a nice moment (slight spoiler coming) when Santa waited for someone to release him with a key, for that person’s sake, before revealing that he could have left any time he chose. With some editorial scissors, there might actually be a good film in here.

Scrooged (1989)

When I first decided I was doing this five-new-Christmas films thing, this was the one I immediately put on my list. A modern-day (ish – it’s the 80s) Ebeneezer Scrooge seemed a role tailor-made for Murray. Unfortunately, he’s not on top form. It’s all a bit overblown, caricatured and shouty. The comedy beats also seem very slow from this distance.

The main character does have his epiphany, but it’s in a rather annoying way, requiring a complete doormat of an ex-girlfriend who will apparently put up with anything (it’s a wonder she left him in the first place) and a drunken would-be murderer with a shotgun to back up the enforced good cheer. It’s not nearly as funny or as heartwarming as it thinks it is, so the “come on, everybody, join in!” bit at the end falls flat. But the Tiny Tim moment is actually very sweet. I’m glad I’ve seen it, and it was a fun 80s flashback, but it’s not going to become an annual favourite, that’s for sure.

Muppet’s Christmas Carol (1992)

This is many people’s annual favourite, and was a bit of a glaring omission for me. In fact, I assumed I must have already seen it because everyone has, but when I sat down to watch it, I found I had only seen a couple of songs and clips.

The first thing that struck me was the quality of the set – you would not find a better snowy Victorian London in a BBC Dickens adaptation. The costumes were also good, and I was surprised by how faithful this adaptation was. There is quite a lot of narration that is taken straight from the book.

There were also a lot of quick-fire visual jokes – I couldn’t get on with some crochet during this film! However, I felt like there were jokes I wasn’t getting because I am not a fan of the Muppets (like the reason there had to be two Marleys – because of a pre-existing double act that I’m not familiar with). I love Labyrinth, which also has Jim Hensen creations, so I didn’t find them too distracting, but I’m obviously missing some key muppety ingredient that makes other people love it so much. I found almost all the songs instantly forgettable, apart from One More Sleep ’til Christmas, which I already knew, and the one they cut, leaving a slightly confusing half-scene at a key point in the film.

In summary, it’s a good version of A Christmas Carol (of which there are well over a hundred adaptations!) but it’s not my new favourite version. In fact, I’m not sure it even makes my top three. (If I’m being generous, it could tie for third place with the Alastair Sim version). But I can see how it would be one of those films that you get fonder of with every viewing.

White Christmas (1954)

Here’s another absolute classic I had never got round to watching. Having been made almost 70 years ago, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I quite like a big, Technicolor fifties musical, and that’s exactly what this is. It suffers from many of the flaws of other fifties musicals: a two hour running time with enough plot to support about 30 minutes; characters’ actions motivated entirely by the needs of the plot; rather contrived misunderstandings; and a lot of pretty bad filler songs.

It was surprisingly unChristmassy for most of it, which was a surprise. I didn’t know that they rock up in an unseasonably warm Vermont, and it’s this problem that drives much of the plot (such as it is). But it does have the song White Christmas in it, which is extremely Christmassy, and (barely a spoiler) there’s plenty of snow by the end.

I found the unnecessarily revealing clothing in some of the dance numbers annoying (for the women, obviously – the men always got to be fully dressed) but the dancing was, as you would expect, excellent. Danny Kaye was very charismatic, his partner Vera-Ellen was impossibly dainty and bendy, and their dance to The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing was I-have-to-rewind-that-bit stunning. If you just watch that routine, the rendition of White Christmas, and the quartet singing Snow, you can skip the rest of the film and miss very little of worth!

I’m told that Holiday Inn is better (White Christmas is a sort-of remake of Holiday Inn) but it wasn’t available to stream free, so I went with White Christmas. Maybe I’ll try the black-and-white version another time. This big, splashy Technicolor movie was fine, though, as long as you didn’t think too hard about it.

These are not the most glowing reviews, are they? Maybe you have to discover new Christmas films by accident rather than design the way I discovered The Bishop’s Wife and the 1970 musical version of Scrooge (which immediately entered my top three A Christmas Carols). Or if you think there’s a Christmas film that’s just waiting for me to love, go ahead and tell me in the comments. If I haven’t seen it already, maybe I’ll look it up.

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