Well, it’s that time of the year, again. You know: When Hollywood celebrates our Savior’s birth with animated mice singing Baby, It’s Cold Outside, and the true meaning of Christmas is eclipsed by the obsession of owning an official Red Rider BB gun. But here are a few Christmas-themed movies that celebrate Christ’s effect on mankind – with nary a reindeer in sight!
NOELLE (2007). A priest comes to a small village, determined to shut down the local parish. Before the priest, who has a secret of his own, even realizes it, he is allowing Father Joyce and his parishioners to stage a unique Christmas pageant – a living Nativity, in the hope of reinvigorating the congregation. But fate, and a mysterious little girl who keeps appearing out of nowhere, have brought these people together. Together they face repressed passions of love, fury and guilt, and learn to forgive others and themselves. Writer, director, producer and lead actor David Wall infuses his film with humor, pathos and dignity of spirit. Looking and conjuring up mannerisms of a younger Robert Redford, Mr. Wall plays his part with conviction and earnestness. And though his script is a bit too talky, and the limited budget gives the film more of a TV Hallmark Hall of Fame feel than that of a theatrical release, still Noelle contains the best element found in either television or on the silver screen – good storytelling. There’s an intimacy in this production few films with religious intent have been able to attain without an overabundance of saccharine-laced dogma. (Comes to theaters Dec 7th.)
THE CHRISTMAS BLESSING. New On DVD, this sequel to the 2002 CBS TV movie The Christmas Shoes, tells the story of a man’s struggle with his own life choices. Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) is a young doctor who loses his patient on the operating table and begins to rethink his career. He moves back to his small hometown and in with his father as he tries to decide what to do with his life. There he meets a woman, whom he quickly falls in love with, and a young boy in need of a friend. He finds himself questioning God, fate and the fragility of life after he discovers that both these people are also searching for a Christmas miracle. Replete with themes concerning the loss of loved ones and looking out for others, it tells its story well, engaging viewers with fine performances and a savvy mixture of gentleness and sincerity. Though not designed to preach the gospel, it does show reverence for God as scenes play out in a church. And in a way, it celebrates Christ’s loving nature, as several characters begin to place others before themselves. It becomes obvious that something spiritual is happening to these people.
THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE OF JONATHAN TOOMEY (also new to DVD). Tom Berenger, Joely Richardson. A mysterious recluse also happens to be the best wood carver in the valley. Slowly the woodcutter finds his world transformed by a young boy and his mother who have asked him to carve a yuletide scene. Mr. Berenger gives dimension to his role and the technical and artistic merits each blend together to give families an uplifting night at the movies. With positive messages, including a respect for God and Christ (prayers are spoken, church is attended and the main characters acknowledge the birth of Christ), and engaging performances, it is one of the best seasonal films I’ve seen in a while.
A DENNIS THE MENACE CHRISTMAS. Also new on DVD from Warner Premiere, this umpteenth episode in the saga of the troublesome Dennis has our little hero trying to get the grinch-like Mr. Wilson in the spirit of the season. Havoc ensues. Poor Mr. Wilson. The same could be said for thinking adults who have to sit through this one. But I viewed it with little nephews and nieces. They loved the slapstick and the happy ending. Also contains kid-pleasing special features. Stars Robert Wagner as Mr. Wilson and Maxwell Perry Cotton as the Menace.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). A man contemplating suicide is given the chance to see what life for others would be like if he had never been born. Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey reminds us that we touch so many people and can have a real influence on those souls. Director Frank Capra has given the world a great gift with this Christmas classic. And now it’s in color! Paramount Home Video has just released a 2-disc collector’s set, which includes a documentary on the making of the film and a special tribute to Frank Capra narrated by his son. Plus, the box set has both a brand new color version, as well as a restored black and white version (both in pristine shape).
THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947). Cary Grant and Loretta Young. An angel aids a struggling minister. I marveled at the ending sermon given by the Bishop, played by David Niven. Standing behind his pulpit, the Reverend reminded his parishioners to focus attention on Christ. “All the stockings are filled, except one. We’ve even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that. Let us each ask what He would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share.”
THE FOURTH WISEMAN. Gateway Films/Vision Video – check with your local Christian bookstore. Based on the Henry Van Dyke tale of a good magi seeking the birthplace of Jesus, but who, because of his duty to others, is delayed in the desert for 33 years, only to see (from afar) the Savior as He is being crucified. Martin Sheen stars as a devout man searching for the Messiah in order to give valuable treasures. But one by one he sells his priceless gifts to help the needy. Full of compassion and illustrations of how our Lord would have us treat our fellow man.
When it comes to the famous Dickens tale, here are three of the best renditions: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) starring Alastair Sim; A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984) with George C. Scott; and the musical version, SCROOGE (1970), with Albert Finney. Each a well-acted parable with regard to redemption.
A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (1965). A perfect animated tale by Charles Schultz with the PEANUTS gang searching for the true meaning of Christmas. Great dialogue, charismatic voice performances and an award-winning jazzy score by Vince Guaraldi. And how often do you hear cartoon heroes quoting from the gospel of Luke, proclaiming the Christ-child as the Messiah?
THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY (1968). The very moving seasonal song comes to animated life with the capable voices of Greer Garson, Jose Ferrer, and Teddy Eccles. Puts present-giving in perspective.
FRED CLAUS (2007). If It’s A Wonderful Life is the most heartwarming of Christmas classics, and Elf is the silliest, then surely Fred Claus is the angriest. There are a few laughs, but the genial mood is often disrupted by a searing harshness, as if the folks who once gave us Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were trying their hand with the meaning of Christmas. The resulting experience may be disturbing for little ones, while just annoying for adults.
DECK THE HALLS (2006). Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick. Comes the first joke: the mayor of our quaint little setting tells Steve a secret about the police chief being a cross-dresser. Hmmm, that seems like a strange first joke for a film aimed at the family. Suddenly, I’m visualizing parents throughout America’s dimmed movie theaters having to respond to, “Daddy, what’s a cross-dresser?” I’ve said it a hundred times: no one sets out to make a bad movie. But every time I generously offer up that statement, a film like Deck the Halls comes along to challenge the theory. DeVito does DeVito, which is fine, but he seems to be drifting through each scene with all the profundity of a snowfall that won’t stick. And poor Matthew Broderick summons up the same stodgy characterization he’s used in every film post Ferris Bueller, this one more unfunny and unlikable than any previous incarnation.
CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS (2994). Tim Allen plays Luther Krank, a man who decides to skip Christmas in favor of a Caribbean cruise. Ever see The Out-Of-Towners with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis? It’s a story about a loving couple whose vacation to the Big Apple is fraught with calamity. The comedy is siphoned from their discomfort. Well, humor farmed from pain takes a unique handling. The Three Stooges could do it. The Out-Of-Towners couldn’t. Neither could the Kranks.
Exceptions to my Santa rule
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1994). Richard Attenborough, Mara Wilson. The manager of a New York department store hires Kris Kringle to be the store Santa. Soon the old fellow has to convince the woman and her precocious daughter that he truly is Father Christmas. A delight and a rarity, as it is one of the few worthwhile remakes. Full of laughter, poignancy and charm, it is noteworthy for containing both visual and verbal Christian metaphors and points out that Santa is a symbol. Contains a great visual: A cross lit in Christmas lights on the side of a building, centered in the screen with decorated trees outlining the tableau. What an image! It places the true meaning of the holiday at the center of the screen and the story! There's even a Thanksgiving prayer - when is the last time you saw that in a Hollywood production? PG (one expletive; Santa is provoked by the villain, but he later repents). Although Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood have nothing to worry about, this newest Miracle is destined to become a classic. The scene where Santa communicates with a little deaf girl is worth the rental price.
ELF (2003). After accidentally sneaking into Santa's sleigh, a human baby is raised at the North Pole as an elf. After wreaking havoc in the elf community due to his size, Buddy (Will Ferrell) heads to New York City to find his place in the world and track down his father. But life in the big city is not all sugarplums and candy canes. His father is a "Scrooge" and his eight-year-old stepbrother doesn't believe in Santa. And even the snowmen aren't friendly in New York. Worst of all, everyone has forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, and it's up to Buddy and his simple elf ways to win over his family, realize his destiny and, ultimately, save Christmas for New York. Okay, that “true” meaning here is typical of Hollywood holiday movies. Its “real meaning of Christmas” is about the appreciation of kith and kin, not the birth of the savior of the world. But Elf, thankfully, is not another family adventure bent on convincing the child in all of us that Santa Claus really exists. It’s not trying to convince us of anything. It’s just trying to be funny. Come on, folks, it’s a story about a 6’2” elf! That’s not to say there isn’t a poignant moment or two. Like any Christmas comedy that has stood the test of time, Elf includes a pinch of humanity. The filmmakers are reminding tinsel hangers of the magic found in family. There’s a nice message about fathers and sons connecting. And of course, the Scrooge-like father discovers what’s really valuable. But it’s not a message film. It’s a forget-your-troubles film.