Welcome back to the continuation of Round 1 of Merry Movie Mayhem. If you have not yet checked out the exciting competition from the Candy Cane Division please be sure to do so. Today we focus on the Eggnog Division and a wide-ranging group of entertaining holiday stories. I hope everyone in The Manoverse has gotten their Christmas shopping started and are keeping warm while the temperatures are frigid & the snow flies outside. Here in West Virginia it has been unseasonably pleasant with no sign of snow, although I’m sure that’ll change soon enough. Stay safe, have fun, & never forget the reason for the season, that being the celebration of the glorious birth of our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ.
A Christmas Story
Starring Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon
Director Bob Clark (Black Christmas, Porky’s, Rhinestone, Turk 182)
Rotten Tomatoes 89%
A young boy in 1940s Indiana desperately wants a BB gun for Christmas, but his mother, teacher, & even Santa Claus himself all seem to be deadset against the idea. When A Christmas Story hit theaters in 1983 it wasn’t that successful. As a matter of fact it was released before Thanksgiving and quietly disappeared before the holiday it is named for even rolled around on the calendar. Three decades later, thanks in large part to a 24 hour television marathon that has become a Christmas Eve/Day tradition, it is adored by almost everyone who likes Christmas movies. I have ran into a few detractors here & there, but the marathon has been going strong for about 20 years, which seems to indicate that any negativity is negligible.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Starring Pia Zadora
Director Nicholas Webster
Rotten Tomatoes 25%
Regularly considered one of the worst Christmas films ever produced, SCCTM became a “so bad you’ve got to see it” classic after being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early 90’s, thirty years after its initial release. The plot involves Martians kidnapping Santa Claus so he can help their children loosen up & have some fun, which is exactly as terrible as it sounds. I suppose Christmas film aficionados ought to see it atleast once “just because”, but it really is an hour & a half of your life that could be better spent doing literally almost anything else.
The Verdict: A Christmas Story. I’m tempted to say that this isn’t a fair matchup, but I can’t imagine that Martians would fare well against any competition, so it may as well go down against what has to be considered one of the heavy favorites.
Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen
Director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood)
Rotten Tomatoes 76%
Two WWII Army buddies become a successful song & dance act. They meet up with two sisters in the same business. The foursome heads to Vermont to put on a Christmas show at a cozy country inn that just happens to be owned & operated by the guys’ former commanding officer. Romance, hijinks, and…most importantly…plenty of singing & dancing ensue. White Christmas was conceived mostly to cash in on the success of the wonderful song, first introduced by Crosby twelve years earlier in the film Holiday Inn (which featured romance, hijinks, singing, & dancing at a cozy Connecticut country inn), and whether one views it as sort of corny or wistful reminiscence of a bygone era probably depends on your age and perception of what entertainment should be. I think it is really interesting that the same man directed both White Christmas and Casablanca.
Starring John Cusack, Kate Beckinsale
Director Peter Chelsom (Hannah Montana: The Movie)
Rotten Tomatoes 58%
I love rom-coms, and when you combine that genre with a Christmas film you theoretically should have a winner. The story involves two people who meet each other while Christmas shopping and hit it off, spending a delightful evening together in New York City. They don’t exchange contact information and leave it up to fate as to whether or not they’ll meet again. In a film like this the conclusion is inevitable, but the journey is what’s important, and Serendipity has its charms. John Cusack is an underrated actor that has had a sneaky good career, and this is his wheelhouse.
The Verdict: White Christmas. Now THIS is an unfair matchup. Serendipity would win against many other films in this competition. It is a perfectly enjoyable movie with engaging actors in the two lead roles. But White Christmas…a rom-com before rom-coms were cool…is a masterpiece that is a must watch in my house every December, and on the random occasions when it’s on TV at other times of the year I’ll put aside anything I’m doing if at all possible and watch.
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Starring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus Van Pelt
Director Bill Melendez
Rotten Tomatoes 92%
Charles Schulz began writing the Peanuts comic strip in 1950, providing over 2000 newspapers with more than 18,000 strips for a half century. Numerous animated Peanuts television specials were produced over the years, with A Charlie Brown Christmas being the first and probably the best. The story centers on Charlie Brown’s struggle to find the holiday spirit, with pals like Lucy, Snoopy, & his little sister Sally being absolutely no help at all. It is sweet, guileless Linus, in one of the more elegantly profound moments in TV history, who finally explains to Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas.
Christmas with the Kranks
Starring Tim Allen, Jamie Lee Curtis
Director Joe Roth
Rotten Tomatoes 5%
Tim Allen hit a home run…mostly…with his Santa Clause trilogy, so it is logical that he would return to the land of Christmas movies seeking further success. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work. Allen & former Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis star as Luther & Nora, a middle aged couple whose daughter has joined the Peace Corps. They decide to skip all the usual Christmas hubbub & expense and spend their money on a Caribbean cruise. Things don’t go as planned though, thanks in large part to a group of neighbors who are way too creepy & intrusive. The movie is based on a John Grisham novel called Skipping Christmas. I’ve never read it and doubt I ever will. It is difficult for me to wrap my head around a Grisham book being as bad as this movie.
The Verdict: Charlie Brown. Peanuts is a heartwarming classic, while Kranks is a sardonic & sad commentary on what the masses deem entertaining these days.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Starring Kermit the Frog, Michael Caine, The Great Gonzo
Director Brian Henson
Rotten Tomatoes 69%
I tend to favor more traditional adaptations of the beloved Dickens novella, but there have been a couple of unique versions that really work. This is an unusual yet surprisingly authentic interpretation, with Kermit as Bob Cratchit and Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. Those of us of a certain age who grew up with The Muppets as an integral part of our childhood can’t help but get a kick out of it.
Starring Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon
Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief)
Rotten Tomatoes 25%
Countless movies & TV shows have embraced…even celebrated…the evolving definition of “family” due to contemporary issues like divorce and the…fluid…characterization of marriage. Hollywood likes to be hip & cool like that. Here we have Vince Vaughn & Reese Witherspoon as a couple whose failure to successfully skip town for Christmas means that they are forced to visit all four of their divorced parents for the holiday, with each part of these families being dysfunctional. The movie isn’t without its charms, mostly because of the appealing charisma of the two leads, but despite a star studded supporting cast (Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Jon Favreau, Kristin Chenoweth) it just falls flat.
The Verdict: The Muppets. I like Vince Vaughn, and I know family chaos is a favorite holiday film trope, but I’m not sure why I’m supposed to be laughing. The Muppet Christmas Carol puts a new spin on a classic that is fun for kids of all ages…even the grown up ones.
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
Starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern
Director Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire, Night at the Museum)
Rotten Tomatoes 24%
After the monster success of Home Alone a sequel was inevitable, and honestly the set up isn’t that far-fetched (or atleast it wasn’t in the pre-9/11 era). Lost in New York finds little Kevin…a bit older & wiser than in the original yet still a bemused child…all alone in The Big Apple while his family has jetted off to Florida. There he runs into his old adversaries The Sticky…nee Wet…Bandits, and must stop them from robbing a toy store on Christmas Eve. The subplots aren’t as engaging as in the first film, but the follow-up does actually work to a surprisingly entertaining degree.
Starring Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler, Woody Harrelson
Director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!)
Rotten Tomatoes 17%
I’ve become a fan of animated feature films in recent years, although the quality is admittedly inconsistent. Free Birds is a time travel yarn about two turkeys going back to 1621 in an effort to prevent their brethren from ever becoming the traditional main course for Thanksgiving. It’s a fun story, but hasn’t had the…stickiness…of other holiday movies. I saw it once at the theater and have never watched it again.
The Verdict: Lost in New York. It may not retain all the magic of its predecessor, but the second Home Alone film is more than adequate entertainment. Repeat viewings are a big part of what makes these holiday classics so special, and in the few years since its initial release Free Birds has shown no signs of becoming the kind of film we’ll still be watching in a decade or two or three.
Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
Starring Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney
Rotten Tomatoes 81% (a)
1934 saw the release of a song that has been messing with the fragile psyches of young children ever since. Whether one considers telling kids that Santa “sees when you are sleeping & knows when you’re awake” a little creepy or an effective Jedi mind trick is a matter of personal opinion, but it’s a tune that has long since become an ingrained part of secular Christmas tradition. A few decades later Rankin-Bass borrowed the title for this charming origin story explaining how everyone’s favorite jolly old elf came to exist, including his battles with the surly Burgermeister Meisterburger and romance with schoolteacher Jessica, the future Mrs. Claus. Town might get a bit lost in the shuffle amidst the abundance of animated holiday specials, and its outdated “technology” certainly seems quaint nowadays, but they still show it on TV every single year, so that says a lot.
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Starring Tim Allen, Martin Short
Director Michael Lembeck
Rotten Tomatoes 15%
The third leg of the Santa Clause trilogy finds Scott Calvin, aka Santa, expecting a baby with Mrs. Claus, dealing with the in-laws, & battling Jack Frost for control of the North Pole. The cast is amiable & talented, but they just don’t have good material from the screenwriters. Escape Clause is a little too…manic…for my taste and isn’t nearly as good as its two predecessors.
The Verdict: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Despite the ample talent of its cast and a premise that isn’t that terrible The Escape Clause tries to pack too much zaniness into one movie. Conversely, Town presents a low-key, entertaining, & delightfully plausible Santa Claus origin story.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
Starring Patrick Stewart
Director David Jones
Rotten Tomatoes no score
It isn’t a feature film. It isn’t animated. It isn’t modernized. 1999’s made-for-TV presentation of A Christmas Carol is a straightforward, somber, mostly faithful telling of the tale…just as Dickens would have wanted. The attraction here is Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart had finished his run as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation a few years earlier, and has mostly escaped being typecast in the years since. TNT still shows this version of Carol a few times each December, and I recommend giving it a whirl.
Rise of the Guardians
Starring Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman
Director Peter Ramsey
Rotten Tomatoes 73%
What happens when a few of childhood’s most cherished characters team up to save the world?? Guardians presents Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, & The Sandman as a group of ass kicking superheroes who recruit Jack Frost to help them stop The Boogeyman from ruining childhood…or something like that. For those that are paying attention there is a bit of almost profound social commentary about childhood, dreams, fear, & feeling invisible, but it doesn’t feel preachy. Guardians hasn’t latched onto the pop culture consciousness in the years following its release, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching.
The Verdict: A Christmas Carol. This is actually a tough decision. It’s not the best Carol adaptation, but it does remain faithful to the book and it does have Patrick Stewart. That’s enough for me.
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
Starring Joel Grey, George Gobel
Rotten Tomatoes no score
A century & a half after the poem from which it borrows its title was written came this animated tale about an anthropomorphic mouse who ticks off Santa Claus by publishing a letter stating that the townspeople don’t believe in him anymore. An idea is hatched to placate ol’ Kris Kringle by having the clock in the town square play him a tune on Christmas Eve. Chaos ensues. The story has very little…if anything…to do with the beloved poem.
Starring Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman, Abe Vigoda
Director John D. Hancock (Bang the Drum Slowly)
Rotten Tomatoes 67%
Anytime you can get Sam Elliott, Abe Vigoda, & Cloris Leachman in the same cast I’m intrigued. The story is about a little girl who befriends a reindeer that she believes is one of Santa’s famous flock. Drama ensues. Honestly, Prancer is a bit of a downer in comparison to other holiday entertainment. I feel like the story had possibilities but is dragged down by poor directing & cinematography.
The Verdict: Serendipity. Wait…what?!??? What just happened?? Well, this is my concept and I make the rules, so I’m calling an audible and giving a wildcard victory to Serendipity. I can count on one hand the number of times in almost 30 years that I’ve watched Prancer. I just find it visually unappealing and tedious on a variety of levels. TTNBC is pleasant enough, but amongst all of the greatness that Rankin-Bass produced it just doesn’t measure up. It isn’t easy to find on television, and if I miss it I don’t really notice or care. You’re welcome John Cusack.