Another awful Christmas film: Hollywood, you shouldn't have!

Commentary

November 24, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Everyone loves Christmas, all the ho-ho-ho-ing and mistletoe-ing, all the celebrating and good cheer. It comes complete with centuries-old traditions and religious overtones all about promise and hope. It's blessed with an iconography filled to overflowing with images and characters everyone knows, from Nativity scenes and Santa Claus to frosty snowmen and jingling bells.

With all that going for it, why does Hollywood have such a hard time capturing its spirit on film? Why are there so many horrible Christmas-themed movies out there?

True, Tinseltown's filmmakers get it right every once in a while. Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a classic by any measure, while George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Michael Curtiz's White Christmas (1954) and Bob Clark's A Christmas Story (1983) have effectively captured the Christmas spirit on celluloid.

But for every Christmas success, there seem to be a handful of failures. Those four movies may be holiday perennials, but how many families look forward to sitting down together every year and watching Scrooged (1988) or Santa Claus (1985) or Jingle All the Way (1996)? And let's be honest: How many people think National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) is funny? (Unless you've been drinking a lot of eggnog, but that's a different issue entirely.)

This year promises no improvement. Already, two awful additions to the Christmas film canon - The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause and Deck the Halls - have opened, to terrible reviews and less-than-spectacular box office. That's especially unfortunate, since the past few years have seen a pair of worthy holiday films hit theaters, in Jon Favreau's Elf (2003) and Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express (2004).

Why does the flow of holiday dreck continue unabated? Herewith, a few suggestions for prospective holiday filmmakers, from a man who's sat through too many lumps of cinematic coal to remain quiet any longer.

Try something new.

The Santa Clause 3? Please, one should have been plenty. And don't give us another version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, don't give us any more stories about people dying over the holidays and avoid anything with a red-nosed reindeer in it. Both Elf, with Will Ferrell as an oversized member of Santa's work crew, and The Polar Express, the tale of a young boy's journey to the North Pole, trod new territory. Audiences responded accordingly.

Heck, even Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (2003), with Billy Bob Thornton as a department-store Santa with a decidedly foul vocabulary, at least took us places we'd never been. Some hated the movie, some embraced it warmly, but at least it was a new experience. Even when it comes to something as tradition-bound as Christmas, audiences appreciate new twists on old themes.

Avoid movies where the overriding message is that Christmas is too commercial. We know that already.

This year's Deck the Halls is about one man's obsessive quest to put up the gaudiest Christmas decorations possible. Christmas With the Kranks (2004) starred Tim Allen as a husband and father who was ostracized because he decided to forego Christmas presents and all the other holiday trappings. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) ignored completely the charm of Dr. Seuss' book, instead concentrating on the crass commercialism that has become a favorite whipping boy of Hollywood films (and don't get me started on the hypocrisy of Hollywood coming out against commercialism).

OK, listen up. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) said everything that needed to be said about how our society tends to forget what Christmas should be all about. Let's move on.

When adapting a holiday classic, be true to its spirit. This goes for movie remakes, too.

Ron Howard, no matter how many A Beautiful Minds he directs, is forever going to have to answer for his take on The Grinch, which was an affront to Dr. Seuss fans everywhere. And 1994's Miracle on 34th Street was one of the most unnecessary films ever, adding nothing but color film stock to the classic.

Don't force it.

It used to be that Christmas films only came out occasionally; now, we seem to get at least one every year. Howzabout we cut back on the regularity a bit and concentrate on making holiday films something special? When Jack Frost (1998) and I'll Be Home for Christmas (1998) and Christmas With the Kranks and The Santa Clause 2 (2002) and even - shudder! - Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) are the best we can do, let's not do anything at all.

One last thing to keep in mind: Some of the best Christmas movies don't center on Christmas.

Instead, they employ it as only one element of the overall story. It's a Wonderful Life, after all, isn't really a Christmas movie. Neither is Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), or The Shop Around the Corner (1940), yet they're both suffused with enough Christmas spirit that they've become holiday staples. Even Jean Renoir's The Grand Illusion (1937) includes a scene set at Christmas, one guaranteed - in that greatest of holiday traditions - to bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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