Friday, November 9, 2012

Over/Under: Christmas Movies

Christmas season seems to start earlier each year, so I will start my new blog with a look at some of the best, worst, overrated and underrated Christmas movies that I've seen.

The Most Overrated Christmas Movie- Elf (2003)
I could have easily gone with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, White Christmas or even A Christmas Story (great gags that definitely hold up and are iconic, but 24-hours of it?  Really?), but my pick is Elf.  I have never really enjoyed Elf.  I like Will Ferrell in plenty of things, he is clearly talented but he has played several characters that I just find grating and irritating.  And Buddy the Elf is one of them.  He plays the character too hyperkinetic and stupid and it lacks the sincerity, innocence, and likability that aloof characters like that need.  It is by no means a bad movie, it is worth a watch.  But a holiday classic that is often quoted and overplayed every year?  Yeah, definitely overrated.

The Most Underrated Christmas Movie- Babes in Toyland (1961)
I am one of the biggest Disney fans ever, but I didn't see this movie until a few years ago.  And I enjoyed myself the whole time, I couldn't believe that Disney had essentially hid this charming treasure.  It is bright, colorful, energetic with a lot of creativity in the old school animation, costumes and special effects.  In many ways this is Disney's Wizard of Oz, while not anywhere near as perfect as that masterpiece it has that same classic fantasy musical feel (this movie also taught Disney a lot of lessons that he improved on in Mary Poppins).  The cast is great with Tommy Sands, Annette Funicello, Ray Bolger (of Scarecrow fame) and the always entertaining Ed Wynn.  The best musical numbers are Castle in Spain and I Just Can't Do the Sum which features some great Disney creativity.  The final battle scene is full of great stop-motion special effects.  I really wish that this movie had a wider audience because it should be on TV every year or at least have a good DVD release.
Honorable Mention: Joyeux Noel, The Nativity Story

The Most Disappointing Christmas Movie- A Christmas Carol (2009)
How do you mess up A Christmas Carol?  It is such a simple, basic story that has been perfected in many various adaptations.  And the collaboration of Disney, Zemeckis and Jim Carrey on a holiday classic seems perfect on paper.  But this movie is so dull and pointless, aside from a good opening scene at Jacob Marley's funeral it never provides a unique take on Dickens' story.  Motion capture is completely unnecessary for a feature film, it limits both the animators and the actors.  Most of the big special effects scenes were forced and unrelated to the story and this has to be one of the worst Bob Cratchit's ever (sorry Gary Oldman).  You really should be able to expect more out of Robert Zemeckis.

The Most Surprising Christmas Movie- Arthur Christmas (2011)
I did not expect much out of this movie.  It was mis-marketed and seemed like a Dreamworks version of Prep and Landing.  But I should have known better because the master storytellers at Aardman's created one of the funniest and most heart-warming Christmas movies ever and one of the best animated movies of 2011.  It is a real shame that this movie did not catch on with audiences, because it is an ingenious explanation of Santa Claus and one of the most accurate depictions of a family I've ever seen.  There are no bad guys in Arthur Christmas, just natural conflict and personal shortcomings from a family that puts too much pressure on themselves.  Do yourself a favor and check this out, you will not be disappointed.

My Guilty Pleasure Christmas Movie- Borrowed Hearts: A Holiday Romance (1997)
Okay I get it, there made-for-TV movies are shameless, schmaltzy and overplayed.  But this is my favorite schmaltzy, shameless Christmas movie.  It always gets me, I know that it isn't great entertainment but who cares?  It's Christmas and I'm going to watch a sentimental movie.  Roma Downey and Eric McCormack have great chemistry and fun romantic comedy setups.  McCormack in particular gives a great performance in a scene when he recalls disappointing his father as a child, that scene always gets me.  The dependable Hector Elizondo gives one of his best performances in a more substantial role than he usually receives.  Sure this movie pulls all of the low blows with the cute kid, absentee father, jobless mother, etc.  But I really do love it.

My Favorite Christmas Movie- The Santa Clause (1994)
I was born in the early nineties so The Santa Clause was one of the more popular family movies that I grew up with.  And it was one of the best family movies of the decade.  It was creative, heart-warming, irreverent, clever and timely.  Tim Allen makes a great cynical father and St. Nick in his best performance as he shows a great range and character arc.  The cast is all solid with Judge Reinhold, Wendy Crewson, talented child stars and David Krumholtz as a great curmudgeon of an elf.  This is the feature length Christmas movie that I have to watch every year and could probably recite by heart.  I know there were two terrible sequels, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a great family holiday movie.

The Worst Christmas Movie- Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)
Don't get me wrong, I love Rankin-Bass.  The original Rudolph and Frosty have always been Christmas traditions in my house and I watch plenty of their other specials (including the overlooked Story of the  First Christmas Snow and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus) every year.  When Rankin-Bass is good they are good.  But when they are bad, they are almost unwatchable.  And I would say that this is their worst holiday effort.  Worse than Leprechaun's Christmas Gold, Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey and Pinocchio's Christmas.  One of the reasons that this movie was so ill-conceived is that Rankin-Bass often struggles to maintain quality for thirty minutes, naturally their full-length feature does not go too well.  When you are expanding a franchise to a theatrical film they should do something new and cinematic with it, but the animation looks cheaper than any half-hour or hour long television special.  When Frosty's Winter Wonderland and Rudolph's Shiny New Year are preferable to this that is not a good sign.

The Best Christmas Movie- Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Of course you can poke holes through the logic in this classic, but why would you want to?  There really are few films as warm and hopeful as this one.  Edmund Gwynn is the screen's greatest Santa Claus, I am still convinced that he is St. Nick.  I love the US Post Office proving Santa's sanity and Natalie Wood was a great child actress.  This movie embodies all of the emotions I want in a Christmas movie without ever being condescending or cheap.  For my money this is the gold standard of holiday entertainment.

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