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The 12 Films of Christmas

Last year I did an advent calendar sort of deal where I counted down the best Christmas television specials from December 1st through Christmas. Naturally, I wanted to do the same this year but with Christmas themed films instead!

Unfortunately, Christmas movies are pretty terrible. Sure, there are countless amounts of terrible Christmas television specials, but there are also enough that narrowing it down to 25 really wasn’t that hard. I even left out some that I genuinely like and make it a point to watch annually, especially repeat Christmas episode from long-running series. When I sat down to come up with 25 films I found it pretty trying. Now, I’m not an actual expert on Christmas movies, but I have seen a lot of them, but definitely not all of them. I’d love to say that I’m the foremost expert on them, but I’m not. Still, my original list of 25 was really shitty on the back-end. Since it was so poor, and my free time is even less than it was a year ago, I decided to go with a Twelve Days of Christmas spoof and do 12 Films of Christmas.

Starting tomorrow, you will see one entry per day on a Christmas movie I think is worth an annual viewing. That doesn’t mean they’re all great movies, but they work when viewed in that sweet spot between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also created some rules for myself. All of the films I’m posting on were theatrically released, so if you’re a lover of those Hallmark Channel movies you’ll be disappointed to know that not one of them is among my twelve (they suck anyway). I also decided that each film needed to be, unquestionably, a Christmas movie. This is perhaps a controversial stance as it eliminates from contention films that take place during Christmas, but aren’t really Christmas movies. To be specific, there’s no Die Hard. Same for Batman Returns, though I don’t think that omission would cause much controversy. Other than that though, anything goes. I’m ranking these films based on pure enjoyment, not the amount of Christmas spirit contained therein or the presence of Santa Claus. I have no affection for the Jesus aspect of Christmas either, so don’t expect much of him in these films either.

So if you want to read about Christmas movies, check back tomorrow for number 12 and continue visiting each day for another film. I don’t make any money off of this site and I’m just doing it for the enjoyment of it and I hope you too enjoy reading about the dozen Christmas films to follow.635850679509887126969022607_wjud-dot-net

#12. The Muppet Christmas Carol

#11. The Santa Clause

#10. Scrooged

#9. Gremlins

#8. The Nightmare Before Christmas

#7. Bad Santa

#6. It’s a Wonderful Life

#5. Home Alone

#4. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

#3. Miracle on 34th Street

#2. Elf

#1. A Christmas Story

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Home Alone 2:  Lost in New York (1992)

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

Home Alone, the John Hughes produced and Christopher Columbus directed film that dominated the holiday season of 1990, demanded a sequel. The film starred ten-year old Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister, who was eight according to the film’s script. Considering the star was already two years older than the character he was playing, and getting older every day, a sequel had to be written, produced, and filmed rather quickly. The problem, of course, is that Home Alone is the sort of movie that really shouldn’t have a sequel, but given the economics of film-making, it was going to have to make do with one.

A friend of mine and I had a disagreement over the Home Alone series. I consider the original a Christmas Classic. It’s not a perfect movie, by any means, but it is entertaining and I enjoy my annual viewings almost as much now as I did when I was young. As for the sequel, well, I’ve never had much love for it. Even when I saw it in the theater as a kid I knew what it was:  a cash-grab, carbon-copy of the original. I never saw much use for it after that initial viewing. My friend, on the other hand, considers the sequel the superior film (we both consider the franchise concluded with Home Alone 2) which I strongly disagreed with. Having not really spent much time with it over the years, I wasn’t well-equipped to defend my position. When browsing the Christmas section at a local store, I happened upon the Home Alone and Home Alone 2 Blu Ray combo-pack and decided now would be a good time to revisit this film and either reaffirm my position or discover a new holiday favorite.

Kevin is back to make the adults of New York look like fools.

Kevin is back to make the adults of New York look like fools.

As I mentioned in the intro, the writers for Home Alone 2 were being put in a tough spot. The plot for Home Alone, of a family rushing off on a vacation to Paris forgets their son at home, is ridiculous on the surface but presented in a way that makes it believable enough for a comedy. Now what isn’t easy is convincing an audience that it could happen again. To forget one’s child at home is a pretty serious infraction. Most of us would jump to conclusions and suggest that anyone who did that is not fit to be a parent, but as I said, the first film does a well-enough job convincing us that the McCallisters aren’t the worst parents in the world. If they were to forget young Kevin again though…

Home Alone 2:  Lost in New York takes Kevin out of the home and drops him in New York City. Leaving him at home again was out of the question, so a new location had to be picked. And in order for Kevin to be left behind once again, a new variation had to be found.

How does Kevin wind up in New York? Well, let’s start from the beginning. Pretty much everyone who worked on the first film returned for the sequel including the cast, writers, and other talents that made the first film such a huge success. And once again, the McCallisters and their extended family are preparing to head out on vacation for the holidays. It’s been one year since the events of the first film and everyone is in Chicago to spend the night before flying off to Miami in the morning. Before the family can take off though, they have to attend a Christmas recital that Kevin and Buzz are both singing in. When Buzz, standing behind Kevin onstage, acts out during Kevin’s solo the younger McCallister is embarrassed and slugs his older brother in response, which somehow collapses the scaffolding on the stage. Back at home, both boys are expected to apologize to the family and make-up before everyone can go to bed and rest-up for the morning. Kevin, feeling that he’s done nothing wrong, refuses to apologize and insists he’s still being dumped on by the family. He and his mother exchange words, and everyone goes to bed angry with one another.

Of course, these guys are back too and somehow bump into Kevin in the middle of the city.

Of course, these guys are back too and somehow bump into Kevin in the middle of the city.

This, of course, is basically how the first film started with only minor modifications and everything here is presented worse than it was in the prior film. Kevin is angry, and rightfully so. In the first film we could see that he’s kind of a pain in the ass and could understand the family’s position. Here it’s just stupid. Buzz’s actions during the recital get a huge reaction from the crowd, and even Uncle Frank concludes they were “pretty god-damned hilarious,” which is just over the top. It’s not that funny, and no reasonable person would be angry with Kevin, and it makes me feel like my intelligence is being insulted. Also of annoyance to me, is the fact that Kevin is ten years old in this film, despite it only being a year after the events of the first movie when Kevin was eight. Now, normally this wouldn’t be that big of a deal but in both movies Kevin makes it a point to remind people how old he is on multiple occasions. Why didn’t they just make him nine? It just bothers me. And Kevin and his mom’s conversation prior to him going to bed is so similar to the first movie it hardly seems worth having. He even wishes to have a vacation without his family and she basically challenges him to make it happen, like she did in the first film when he said he didn’t want to see her again for the rest of his life. Does no one in this family learn anything?!

The setup of the movie is lazy at best, awful at worst, but it’s not going to make or break the film. So how does Kevin wind-up in New York? He gets separated from his family at the airport while fishing through his dad’s carry-on for batteries for his Talkboy (in stores this holiday season!) and then mistakes another man in the same coat as his dad for his dad. Like the first movie, it’s a mad dash to the gate for the family to make the flight so they lose track of Kevin. They get on the correct flight, but Kevin winds up on a flight to New York thanks to a collision with a worker at the terminal. Kevin, who seems like a smart and crafty young boy, gets on the plane and never notices that his rather large family is missing. Meanwhile, no one on the correct flight thinks to double-check and make sure Kevin is there. Considering this has happened before, why wouldn’t they?! Instead, it’s not noticed until the family is at baggage claim.

Meanwhile, Kevin checks into a fancy hotel in New York quite happy to have ditched his family. He makes fools of the adults running the hotel, and thanks to the large amount of cash in his dad’s luggage, has no trouble seeing the sights and having fun. Unfortunately, the Wet Bandits are in New York too, and somehow in a city of millions end up running into Kevin. Marv is quite eager to tell anyone their new master plan of knocking off a toy store on Christmas Eve, and Kevin decides it’s up to him to stop them (apparently the police can’t be trusted) by luring them to his uncle’s vacant house full of booby traps.

They should probably be dead at this point.

They should probably be dead at this point.

What does this movie get right? Not much, I’m afraid. I’ve already expressed my displeasure in the ridiculous setup but I can say the film does improve once Kevin is in New York. This is where the writers actually do a decent job of making Kevin’s actions believable. As he did in the first film, he takes advantage of adults who just think of him as a kid and is able to utilize his VCR and Talkboy in ways that trick adults into thinking they’re being scolded or even shot at. It is just as far-fetched as anything else, but feels smarter and does produce laughs. The main event, so to speak, is Kevin’s repeat encounter with the burglars from the first film. Here the writers are challenged to top what they did in the first film and the director is expected to make the visuals stand-up. Unfortunately, their attempts to top the first end up being just as lazy as the first scenes. Variations of the paint can, blow torch, and other gags are repeated. A few new ones are added, but few are all that memorable. Instead they end up being more absurd. While the damage sustained by the two in the first film certainly would have resulted in lasting damage, many of the traps in this one would have ended in death. Of course they don’t, but they’re certainly harder to believe.

When a sequel is so similar to the movie it's following you look for any difference between the two, like Fuller's new affinity for Coke instead of Pepsi.

When a sequel is so similar to the movie it’s following you look for any difference between the two, like Fuller’s new affinity for Coke instead of Pepsi.

There’s also a B story at play, much like Kevin’s encounter with his elderly neighbor in the first film, only now it’s with a homeless pigeon lady in the park. It’s very derivative of the first, though I will say the acting of Brenda Fricker is not the reason why. Which brings up a larger point of contention that I have with this film:  the acting. If I’m going to accuse the writers of being lazy with this film I could certainly say the same of the actors and actresses present as well. The established ones seem to just phone it in or ham it up. Macaulay Culkin is pretty terrible, especially in the early scenes of the film. The actors aren’t presented with great material to work with, but they still don’t exactly step up to the plate. At least the John Williams score is still good.

In conclusion, I cannot agree with my friend that Home Alone 2 is superior to the original Home Alone. Everything about it feels too familiar and the gags just aren’t as funny the second time around. There’s nothing plausible about it and the only reason the film exists is because it had to. It was a major box office success, not on the level of the first but it still basically printed money. And that’s really all the film was supposed to do. I’m sure everyone working on it expected it to be worse than the first but were happy to take home some nice checks. Watch this one only if you’ve seen the first one too many times and just need something else to watch. Even after you do, you’ll likely end up wishing you just watched Home Alone instead.


Scrooged (1988)

Scrooged (1988)

Richard Donner is known primarily for being the director who convinced you that a man could fly, but he also directed and produced the first Christmas movie I ever saw where the lead character was something more than despicable.  In a way, Scrooged is kind of a precursor to a film like Bad Santa where the audience isn’t supposed to like or even feel much empathy for the lead role.  And even though Scrooged is a take on A Christmas Carol, the leading male in the Scrooge-like role just seems far more unlikable than any Scrooge I ever bore witness to.

The Scrooge in this film is played by Bill Murray, an actor who has made an awful lot of money portraying selfish, sarcastic, and cynical characters that audiences are able to embrace because that character offers some redeeming qualities.  Murray’s Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters ultimately embraces his hero role and puts his life on the line for the city of New York.  Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors is quite the unlikable character at the film’s onset, but throughout the movie he’s redeemed and becomes a better person in the end.  In Scrooged Murray plays Frank Cross, a television executive whose ambition in life is entirely career oriented.  Unlike many depictions of Scrooge, he’s not necessarily out solely for financial gain (though that’s definitely a part of it, and he’s pretty cheap) as his main ambition appears to be to rise to the top of the career ladder.  He’s ruthless, self-centered, and shows no empathy for the people around him.  As a television executive, he approves a television spot for an upcoming live edition of A Christmas Carol that has an apocalyptic feel opting to lure in viewers through fear and intimidation rather than on the strength of the program he’s pushing.  He shows no regard for his loyal secretary, Grace (played by Alfre Woodard and the film’s Bob Cratchit), and makes her work late with no Christmas bonus, and when one of his subordinates (Bobcat Goldthwait’s Eliot Loudermilk) disagrees with his absurd TV spot he has him fired.  Usually we can laugh at a Bill Murray character even when he’s a jerk.  With Frank Cross, we can’t even laugh at him because he’s too good at being mean.

Carol Kane's character is likely to draw the most laughs.

Carol Kane’s character is likely to draw the most laughs.

I am an unabashed Bill Murray fan.  I love him in pretty much any role.  I don’t know exactly what it is about Murray that appeals to me so much.  He’s obviously a great actor whose range still seems to surprise people whenever he takes on a more dramatic role.  He’s best known for comedies and I certainly have a nostalgic affinity for Ghostbusters.  He also reminds me of my own father so that can’t hurt.  With that said, even I find it hard to watch the first half hour of Scrooged.  Frank Cross is a terrible person and he gets away with so much.  His brother James (John Murray, Bill’s real-life brother) is willing to forgive his short-comings to a fault, while ex-girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen) almost seems to ignore his numerous flaws.  We never quite see how the two characters broke-up, just a hurt Claire proposing they take a break when Frank once again chooses his career over her, and we get the sense that Frank just shrugged his shoulders and forgot to ever follow-up on that break.  I watched the film recently with my fiancé who remarked that she kind of hated the movie while we were in its early stages and I couldn’t blame her.  I do wonder if perhaps Murray and Donner felt like Murray was too likable as an actor at this stage in his career and that they needed to over-do just how awful Frank is to counteract that.  The film does benefit some from this overly cruel Scrooge as the character is redeemed by the film’s conclusion, but I still get the sense the Cross character was overdone.  Not only is he too cruel, he’s not always believable in his cruelty.  And it’s somewhat surprising that this character even could be redeemed.

The film's makeup effects are still impressive today.

The film’s makeup effects are still impressive today.

The film was initially hyped as a special effects bonanza.  Given that the film was released in 1988, these effects are not impressive by today’s standards.  The effects are mostly put to use with the film’s ghosts.  Just like in A Christmas Carol, Frank is visited by three spirits, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.  All take on an appearance and character to better suit this film’s setting of 1980’s New York.  The first ghost, played by David Johansen, is a cab driver who takes Frank on a tour of his past giving the audience insight into his childhood and past relationship with Claire.  Christmas Present is played by Carol Kane and she is portrayed as a violent fairy-type.  She repeatedly strikes Frank and is likely to be the character who induces the most laughs.  The Ghost of Christmas Future is depicted as a Grim Reaper-like figure whose main twist is a television screen for a face (and his “body” is revealed as a mass of screaming souls that looked revolting in the 80’s but kind of cheesy now).  A lot of makeup effects are in use with the ghosts, and the best is probably reserved for the Marley character played by John Forsythe.  His decomposing body is grossly, and convincingly, portrayed on-screen with lots of gray and a dusty, flaky, texture.

Eliot doesn't respond well to being fired.

Eliot doesn’t respond well to being fired.

For the film’s comedy, it tends to rely on a grab bag of tricks as opposed to resorting to one style.  A lot of the “humor” in the film’s early scenes are of the dark variety as the audience is asked to laugh at the misfortune of others.  It’s horribly mean-spirited, and some won’t find any laughs at all.  As the film moves along the humor becomes more dialogue and situation specific with less of a mean tone.  There’s also physical comedy, notably from the Ghost of Christmas Present and later in the film when Goldthwait’s Eliot goes off the deep-end.  It’s not a rip-roaringly funny film, but the laughs are spread around well once it gets past the early parts.  The score is done by Danny Elfman and it’s a pretty typical Elfman type of score.  People seem to either love or loathe Elfman but I’ve never had anything against him and find his score suitable here.

Since this is a take on A Christmas Carol, Frank is shown the error of his ways and comes around by the film’s conclusion.  Just like how his cruelty felt overdone, the big redemption scene feels similar as Frank hi-jacks the live television production of A Christmas Carol to share his new-found appreciation for Christmas with the world. It’s uncomfortably funny and drawn out, but does provide the happy ending most were probably hoping for.  The film’s beginning and its end make it feel like the film is a lot longer than its 101 minutes running-time, but by the time it did end my fiancé had come around and proclaimed it “cute.”  I suspect most viewers will have the same experience.  Scrooged is too flawed a film to be a true Christmas classic, but it is well acted and differs enough from other clones of the source material to make it a worth-while viewing experience.  Those looking for something a little less saccharine in their Christmas movies will probably get the most out of Scrooged.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)

Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)

There was a time when I had no idea that The Nightmare Before Christmas was a Disney property.  When I first saw it around Halloween of 1993 during its original theatrical run, it was credited to Touchstone Pictures, which unknown to me at the time, was a spin-off of Disney.  Disney used Touchstone to market to older audiences and when the executives got a look at how creepy the imagery of Nightmare was they decided it was best to distance it from the Disney brand.  That’s not to say they expected failure or anything, on the contrary, Disney hoped to cash in on the Henry Selick directed picture due to its unique animation style.  That was another thing I wouldn’t become aware of for years.  The picture, often marketed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, was directed by Mr. Selick.  Burton crafted the story and worked on the character designs, script, and screenplay but had little involvement in the actual production.  This was due to him being a pretty hot commodity at the time and a certain Batman picture demanded a lot of his time.  Also, he had little desire in overseeing the tedious process of stop motion animation.  And who can blame him?  It’s a process that would drive many a person insane!

I remember being unsure of the film before first seeing it as a kid.  The adults taking us kids seemed more excited about it, though I’m not sure why.  Maybe it was the concept of marrying Halloween and Christmas into one film, or perhaps it was the visual style that is unique, if nothing else.  I think it was that visual style that initially put me off.  Not because it looked scary, but because Jack didn’t look like a skeleton in the traditional sense.  There’s a silliness to the look of the characters that’s lacking in true scares.  The vampires are a good example as they’re pear shaped and corny.  The look of most of the weird characters resembles that of Beetlejuice, one of Burton’s other popular films of the era.  I was way into X-Men at the time and preferred a realistic look to my characters, so I guess it’s not that surprising in hindsight why I had my reservations about the picture.

The film's protagonist, Jack The Pumpkin King, is bored and depressed over the whole Halloween thing and turns to Christmas for help.

The film’s protagonist, Jack The Pumpkin King, is bored and depressed over the whole Halloween thing and turns to Christmas for help.

Of course, they proved to be unfounded as myself and everyone I went with that day enjoyed the film immensely.  I’ve stated many times in my reviews of other properties that I care little for musicals and that was true of child me as well.  The Nightmare Before Christmas is heavy on song, more so than the traditionally animated Disney pictures of that time, and yet I still found it enjoyable.  There’s a humor to a lot of the film that’s present in the songs as well.  Most especially the “What’s This?” sequence where Jack is observing the differences between Halloween Town and Christmas Town (“The children are throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads,”).  That’s not to say they don’t get annoying, as sometimes the characters seem to break into song for the sake of doing so (such as when Jack explains Christmas Town to the rest of the gang), and I’m left wishing they’d just talk like regular folks instead.  The quality of the songs seems to vary too.  Danny Elfman was in charge of the film’s music (and also provided Jack’s singing voice) so I suppose he can be forgiven since he isn’t known as a Broadway composer.

Even though the film is a musical, it’s the visuals that make or break it.  And since the film has proven immensely popular ever since its release, it would seem to be that the visual style was accepted by the general public.  Selick has proven to be a master of the stop motion technique, and though films since have surpassed Nightmare in terms of animation quality, this film still holds up quite well today.  The characters animate very well and, for the most part, and lack the floaty quality many seem to have in the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials.  Selick and his team don’t settle for the easy way in most scenes as characters tend to always be moving in some way as opposed to remaining still.  The only noticeable shortcut, if you will, seems to be the facial expressions of the non Jack characters.  Jack famously had over 400 heads to show various expressions while minor characters presumably had only one, save for maybe a back-up or two.  Sally had to use the same head so as not to disturb her hair, which would have caused a nightmare for the animators.  I suppose then it’s not surprising the lead character is bald.

While Halloween Town is presented in mostly black and white, Christmas Town is the exact opposite.

While Halloween Town is presented in mostly black and white, Christmas Town is the exact opposite.

The animation helps set Nightmare apart from other Disney fare, but the general look of the settings is also quite unique.  Halloween Town is very much rooted in German Expressionism.  There’s hardly a straight building in the town as everything juts out at seemingly impossible angles.  Several characters live in towers and crowded spaces.  Halloween Town seems pretty small in general, with mostly barren land surrounding it.  I suppose some would describe it as “gothic” (which would explain why so many goth girls in my high school seemed obsessed with Jack and Sally), but that seems lazy.  There’s very little color used as it’s mostly shades of gray.  And where color is present it’s often found in minor accents on the characters as opposed to the setting.  In contrast, Christmas Town is an explosion of primary colors and the objects Jack takes from it contrast nicely when they’re present in Halloween Town.  Watching the scene in Christmas Town almost makes one think a Dr. Seuss film would be a good idea for Henry Selick to oversee (as opposed to those wretched live-action films).

Jack playing Santa.

Jack playing Santa.

Tim Burton may get too much credit for Nightmare’s success, but one thing that can’t be taken away from him is the success of the film’s plot.  Dreaming up a world where each holiday has its own world separate from reality is pretty neat, but then taking the next step of having one wage war on the other is quite clever indeed.  Though Halloween Town doesn’t wage war on Christmas Town, they do seek to take over its holiday for at least one year.  Jack is a character of good intentions, but he lies to himself about what it is he’s doing without thinking about the implications this will have on Christmas Town, and Santa Claus to be specific.  He, for example, sees nothing wrong with sending off Boogie’s henchmen to kidnap Santa.  This makes him selfish, as he’s only thinking about curing his own seasonal depression, and short-sighted since he fails to predict the villainous Oogie Boogie’s eventual involvement.  And yet, we as the viewer know that he’s inherently good and he does set things right in the end.  The romance between Jack and Sally feels a bit forced, but I guess expecting for more development in that area out of a children’s moving may be asking too much.

The film settles in at 76 minutes, which is not uncommon for stop motion.  It doesn’t feel that short to me, maybe that’s due to my tepid response to the musical pieces, but it doesn’t feel long or anything.  And I give credit to all involved with the property that no stupid sequels exist such as Jack visits Easter Land or Valentine Town.  There are some spin-off video games and such, though I’ve never experienced any of them.  The unique dual holiday format of the film makes it extremely marketable for Disney, so perhaps that’s good enough for them to not seek out a sequel.

I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas this year for the first time in many years.  I was curious how I would respond to it after so long.  Despite being almost shunned by Disney for most of its life, it very much feels like a Disney picture, though Burton’s involvement is obvious as well.  Some of the songs made my eyes roll, but the visual effects are too charming to resist.  I enjoy the film’s humor and the fact that it separates itself from other holiday films and specials, but also makes sure to harken back to them at times with tongue firmly planted in cheek (“My what a brilliant nose you have!”).  While I don’t disagree with Disney’s decision to originally release the film through Touchstone, I don’t think it’s overly scary for young kids.  Most will recognize the film for what it is, but as always, parents know their kids best and might prefer to watch it first before showing it to the really young.  The film probably doesn’t rank as one of Disney’s best, but it is a fun film to revisit during this time of year, and I regret not purchasing it sooner.

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