Jack's Christmas Movie Marathon 2013

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Last Update Dec 24, 2013

Ever since 2010, I've been doing an annual Christmas movie marathon. It began with the top Christmas movies according to google, but now I exercise a bit more personal discretion, so that I can avoid the ones that I know are terrible. There still might be some I dislike, but these days if I'm truly hating it, I'm inclined to simply stop watching and skip the review. A few of these I've seen before, and they're on the list because I wanted to see them again and share them with you. They're presented in the order I view them, which is based primarily on the whimsy of what I feel like watching on any given night. I make some attempt to save the best for last, but generally these aren't in order of quality.

This has now become an open-ended tradition for me, so if there's a movie I haven't reviewed yet that you want to recommend (or if you want to share your thoughts, or just say hello) please email me at revjack@prykop.com. You can also check out other things I've written if you'd like.

Enjoy, and have a MERRY CHRISTMAS!

The List

Titles in bold are ones that I particularly highly recommended.

Silent Night, Deadly Night
Ernest Saves Christmas
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
Babes In Toyland (1961)
A Christmas Carol (1999)
Christmas Story / Joulutarina
Nutcracker (1986)
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas
Mickey's Christmas Carol
The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus

The Reviews

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Reviewed on 11/25/2013

After witnessing the murder of his parents by a psycho in a Santa suit, a little boy grows up to become a murdering psycho in a Santa suit.

This is exactly the sort of slasher film you'd expect from looking at the box (no nordic existential drama here.) But I have to admit, it's equally devoted to being a Christmas movie--the decorations and carols and children wide-eyed with wonder were as gratuitous as the jiggling bare breasts and lingering shots of bleeding wounds, all of which were delivered in abundance.

There was even a fair share of Christmas moralizing, albeit unconventional and ham-fisted, as we watch the young psychopath mix up the memory of his parents' murder with all the talk of being naughty or nice. And though it's a nun at his orphanage that really beats his psychosis into him, it's another nun at the orphanage that stands in as the compassionate everyman in the story, sparing us a general diss on Catholicism.

This is also one of the only movies in all my marathoning actually set in the seventies and early eighties, which as I've noted before were kind of a wasteland for Christmas movies. It made for a nice retro trip back to the time of station wagons and helmet hair. I got a kick out of all the old popular toys that get background cameos, a few of which I probably got from Santa in 1984.

I'm not generally a fan of slasher flicks, but the violence was rather tame by modern standards, not at all scary, and I found myself laughing more than I have at certain other movies that were supposed to be funny. On the other hand, the two rape scenes were rather extreme by modern standards, especially since you get the sense that they were mostly a throwaway excuse to film more titties. That wasn't something I could laugh at.

But on the whole, I found the movie surprisingly enjoyable. That isn't to say I'd make a tradition of it, and it's certainly not for everyone. But just as a good gag gift deserves its place under the tree, this one deserves a mention among the Christmas classics.

Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)

Reviewed on 11/26/2013

Going into this one, I was a little bit worried that I was starting to scrape the barrel. When I get to the point where all the movies I'm watching are of the form "Popular Franchise Christmas Special," I should probably let my movie marathon tradition end with dignity. But I'm not there yet, and if you can forgive a few catchphrases that are otherwise lost to time (KnoWhatIMean?), this one stood on its own as a relatively decent, heartwarming and thoroughly wholesome Christmas flick.

Having gotten a bit too old for the job, even by magical standards, Santa Claus arrives in Orlando to recruit his successor, a children's television show host named Joe. Santa's taxi cab driver at the airport is Ernest P. Worrell, the cornerstone character of character actor Jim Varney. Joined by a runaway girl, hijinks ensue as they rush to ensure Santa's replacement is ready in time to deliver the presents on Christmas.

This movie had me smiling more than laughing, but it sure had me smiling a bunch. It was slapstick without being violent, corny without being cliche, and even the one obligatory reindeer poo joke was subtle enough to be overlooked. The moral of the story was exactly what you'd expect, but it was well delivered, and my heartstrings were legitimately tugged. Really, what this film had going for it, more than anything else, was its...earnestness.

It was admittedly somewhat dated, but that was almost entirely because of the scrappy homeless girl. If my little nephew ever sees this, I will have to explain to him what a Punky Brewster is. There were also a few continuity errors that really stood out to me, but I'll refrain from pointing them out here. I also have to mention (not that this is a bad thing) that the guy playing Santa really, really reminded me of Jim Broadbent, who will hopefully actually be playing Santa sooner rather than later.

I don't know if this was the first ever "Santa successor" movie, but it's the earliest one I've seen so far, and it might deserve credit for originating the premise. Either way, it played the premise well. Even if you're unfamiliar with any of the other Ernest movies, you might want to check this one out for Christmas.

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006)

Reviewed on 12/01/2013

Let's review: In The Santa Clause, we met Scott Calvin (Tim Allen), a divorced father who accidentally becomes the new Santa when the old one falls off his roof and dies. Scott grows closer to his son, we learn valuable lessons about the importance of belief, and Christmas is saved. Then, in The Santa Clause 2, Scott/Santa must find a wife before Christmas because [heteronormative handwaving]. He does, and Christmas is saved again.

So, what should the third film be about? I imagine a writers' brainstorming session at Disney, with the following ideas on the white board:

* Santa and Mrs. Claus are expecting a baby...on Christmas! Will Santa's busiest work day prevent him from being there when Mrs. Claus needs him?

* Mrs. Claus' parents are coming to visit...and they don't know she's married to Santa! Will the elves be able to pass as Canadian?

* After wishing that he had never become Santa, Scott travels back in time and sees how his wonderful life could have been different.

* Jack Frost is trying to take over Christmas, and now Santa must team up with the Council of Legendary Figures (Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, etc) to stop him!

Any one of these ideas could have carried a whole movie on its own. The main problem with this movie is that it attempts to incorporate all of them, and so none of them are really given a chance to develop.

Those first three ideas at least in some way expand upon the original premise of the series, but they are given shortest shrift. Each plotline has a beginning and an end, but no middle, and any possible additional insight into the complicated emotional dynamics of modern families is left on the cutting room floor. If you haven't seen the first two movies, you won't care who these characters are at all.

The story of Jack Frost, on the other hand, would have worked better if it hadn't been shoehorned into this series. Though it's ostensibly the central conflict, the battle barely begins before it's over. The idea of Santa working alongside other "legendary figures" is hardly original to this movie, which brings nothing new to the premise. Martin Short as Jack Frost looks the part, but plays it like a washed up comedian getting his last feature film gig before everyone forgets who he is altogether.

Tim Allen spends most of the movie in his Santa outfit, making it easy to forget he's also supposed to be an ordinary guy. The original movie's novel take on a modernized North Pole is absent completely, and the entire thing might as well be set in the most traditional Santa's workshop imaginable. Also absent is David Krumholtz' character Bernard the Elf, who helped make the first movie a classic and whose presence somewhat legitimized the first sequel. Instead, the writers double-down on the previous movies' reindeer fart jokes.

There were a few funny gags to be found in the background signs around the North Pole. Scott's father-in-law's reaction to discovering Scott's secret made me chuckle a bunch, and the presence of Aisha Tyler as Mother Nature made me say, "Hey, that's Aisha Tyler!" But really, the best that can be said of this movie is that it's even less offensive than its unobjectionable predecessors. There's not a lot to love, but there's not a lot to hate, either. If you miss out on it entirely, though, don't worry-- there's not a lot to miss.

Babes In Toyland (1961)

Reviewed on 12/04/2013

Of the "Babes in Toyland" I've seen, this version is my favorite. The 1934 version remains worth watching, both as a nice introduction to Laurel & Hardy and as proof that people actually made movies in 1934. (And let us speak no more of the 1986 monstrosity.) But I think this one probably captures the best that Toyland can hope for--Disney, in the top form of its golden age, filling the screen with nonstop color, music and whimsy.

The original love story is repeated here, though this time handsome Tom Piper and evil Barnaby are going after Mary Contrary. There's also a side quest in which Tom, Mary and the children must help the absent-minded Toymaker (NOT Santa) finish building toys in time for Christmas. Meanwhile, the Toymaker's assistant's attempts to modernize things lead to mayhem with a shrink ray. There are also gypsies and an ode to Spain.

But really, all this is just an excuse to tie together one musical spectacle after another. The songs in this are much better than in the earlier version, with sweeping choral refrains like you just don't hear anymore and massive dance numbers choreographed for the stage. This version also pops with deeply saturated Technicolor, from when color was just invented and folks couldn't get enough of it.

This had a star-studded cast for the time. I still had to look most of them up, but this was a good chance to learn about old celebrities. I already knew Annette Funicello, legendary Mouseketeer, who plays Mary and defines this version as "the one with Annette Funicello." And I recognized the voice of the Toymaker, Ed Wynn, who was also both the model and the voice of Disney's Mad Hatter. Then there was Ann Jillian, who I knew from her work as an adult but I didn't immediately recognize as the child playing Little Bo Peep. The character of Barnaby is played with the perfect mixture of sleeze and cheese by Ray Bolger, who also played the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz." Tommy Sands, playing Tom Piper, was apparently one of the original teen heartthrobs, though in this movie he only really shines when he dons drag as an old gypsy woman. And I was saddened to read the bio of Tommy Kirk, who lights up the screen playing the Toymaker's assistant, but was blacklisted by Disney in 1964 after being outed as gay--a great injustice.

All that said, there's the ever-present question...is this a Christmas movie? By modern standards, not especially. After checking my lists twice, I notice that most of the movies made before this also lack the undeniable Santa signifiers. At the time, having Tom & Mary ride off to their honeymoon on a snow-dusted sleigh might have been more than enough. This version also features the classic "March of the Wooden Soldiers," which puts me in a holiday mood while it lasts. It's probably my fault for being desensitized, but that's just not enough to cut it. There's a lot more going on here than that one end scene, and I feel like I could watch this in the middle of July without it feeling out of season. This is possibly the apex of an entire generation of kid's movies, but it could be shoved to the back of my marathon by later films that lay it on thicker. That didn't stop me from enjoying it.

A Christmas Carol (1999)

Reviewed on 12/08/2013

This is the version with Patrick Stewart in it. He did a passable job as Scrooge, but I was disappointed that he did not do a fantastic job. This was a made-for-tv movie that I would have glossed over if it weren't for him, but I don't think he delivered better than a made-for-tv performance.

The noteworthy performance here came from Dominic West (best known as McNulty from "The Wire") as Scrooge's nephew Fred, who is normally not such a stand-out character in this story. He comes off as a bit annoying in his opening scene, but as the story progresses, he carries enough sincere Christmas spirit to make up for this production's weak spots.

Joel Grey was an excellent choice for the androgynous Christmas Past, my favorite incarnation of that character so far. Richard E. Grant did well as Cratchit, but from what I know of his other work, I think he would have been better cast as Scrooge.

Overall this was a straightforward faithful adaptation that didn't try to do anything unconventional, which is probably for the best. Besides dragging a bit and having noticeably cheap special effects, I felt like it faltered thematically. At the start, Scrooge is too pitiable. His irritation with forced Christmas cheer seems all too reasonable, and his journey with Christmas Past plays too much like a psychotherapy session.

Then, with Christmas Present and Future, the focus turns to how everyone thinks Scrooge is a dick. This movie includes the scene I praised in the 1951 version where Marley laments our inability to do good once we're dead, but it fails to play the sentiment out. Here, Scrooge is changed not by the release of his repressed desire to do good so much as by the threat that nobody will mourn him when he dies. And as Scrooge listens in on the callous bankers and ruffians badmouthing him post-mortem, I found myself wondering why he'd even care what they thought at all. He just doesn't seem relatively all that much worse than most of the folks around him.

But of course, Scrooge learns his lesson anyway and wakes up on Christmas morning ready to change his ways. Patrick Stewart tries a little too hard to laugh like "a man who had been out of practice for so many years" (to quote the Dickens) and we get the impression he might need to practice a bit longer. But he uses his money to buy everyone dinner and adequate health insurance, and that's enough to make a Merry Christmas.

I can't say this version of "A Christmas Carol" was bad, but I'll be looking for versions I haven't seen before I come back to this one again.

Christmas Story / Joulutarina (2007)

Reviewed on 12/14/2013

Finally, a Santa origin story that meets my high expectations! This movie from Finland tells the tale of Nikolas, an orphan in a small pre-industrial arctic village who grows up to be the toymaker we all recognize. Even my inner adult walked away thinking, yeah, that's probably how it happened.

It's to this film's credit that I kept forgetting I was watching a story about Santa. I was repeatedly drawn in by Nikolas' story in its own right. It's not a complicated story, but it's compelling. As with Arthur Christmas, there are no bad guys, only good but flawed people in difficult circumstances. As with Rare Exports, the arctic isolation is itself a challenging enough foe for them to face.

Surprisingly, explicit magic factors into the story minimally and ambiguously, though the sleigh rides through the snowy evergreen countryside have a magic all their own. Only in retrospect do I realize that the visual spectacle of this movie involved neither supernatural nor electrical explanation. It holds its own against the North Pole of the imagination.

When I was reminded that I was watching the origin of Santa Claus, as the beard grew in and the reindeer were acquired, it did not at all feel forced or contrived. It was rather like I was watching a historical drama, seeing the details that finally made sense of the legend.

The moral lessons of Santa's story are captured impeccably here, and this would be a great movie to raise your kids right...if your kids speak Finnish. Anyone else should definitely give this one a try as soon as they're old enough for subtitles. I've spent decades looking for a "Life of Claus" that's worthy of its subject, and now there is one. Finland for the win.

Nutcracker (1986)

Reviewed on 12/15/2013

It doesn't take all the words I wrote below just to say meh.

It's not like I don't like ballet, or that I don't think it can be done well on screen. I'll use this review to name-drop Matthew Bourne--google him if you'd like to see ballet done well in the twenty-first century. He's done a version of Nutcracker that I've yet to see, but I'll bet it's engaging and unconventional, and I hope to someday review it for this marathon.

In the meantime, this here was the conventional Nutcracker. I'm sure I've seen this movie before, in an attempt to get to know the story, but it never stuck with me, and it'll only stick with me this time because I'm writing it down. The story is told in three parts. First there's a Christmas party where a creepy old uncle hands out presents to the kids, including a nutcracker doll for the young girl Clara. Then Clara dreams that there is a battle between the nutcracker and a huge multi-headed rat king. Finally, Clara and the nutcracker travel to a vaguely arabian foreign land, where they are treated to a rapid-fire sequence of dances that constitute the recognizable heart of this ballet.

The first two parts are somewhat haphazard, more regimented walking than dance. There were too many camera cuts to get a sense of the whole, and the blue screen effects were distracting. Things picked up in the third part, but only insomuch as you like some serious ballet. The whole thing runs less than ninety minutes, but I was checking my watch well before then.

This is a movie to see if you want to say you've seen The Nutcracker, but don't want to haul yourself to a live performance. It's kind of a classic by default, but only because other versions are even less palatable.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (1977)

Reviewed on 12/17/2013

This is from the heyday of Jim Henson, when "The Muppet Show" was just taking off. Whereas the technical proficiency I praised in The Muppet Christmas Carol made me forget they were puppets, this made me revel in the unbridled joy only a puppet show can bring. Henson was not afraid to occasionally just toss his creations through the air like so much laundry, and they carried more heart in their launch than any blue screen flight could convey.

This is not to say the puppetry itself was anything less than masterful. I found myself amazed that the songs I was hearing were not actually being sung by the fuzzball sock-otters I was was watching. Frogtown Hollow may have clearly been a puppet town, but that didn't stop it from being a real place, peaceful and cold.

The music, by famous songwriter Paul Williams, is all toe-tapping heart-bleeding folksy fun. Mind you, none of these songs are clearly about Christmas, not even the staple Christmas favorite, "When the River Meets the Sea." Instead, like much else from the seventies, they skip the religious specifics in favor of singing generally about peace, togetherness and harmony. It's kind of a secular humanist Christmas, but when it's sung this movingly, I can dig it.

On the other hand, something about the plot does make me want to travel back to 1980 and vote for Reagan. The story setup is similar to "The Gift of the Magi" but with a baffling twist. Emmet and his mother are dirt-poor otters. Each must make a sacrifice to afford the gift they want to give the other. Except in this case, instead of the gift-giver sacrificing something they personally value, they're going to sacrifice the very basis of the recipient's livelihood! Emmet must put a hole in his mother's washtub to make a washtub bass, and his mother must sell off his toolbox to buy a costume, all on the mere hope that they'll win the local talent contest and use the prize money to make everything right. It's enough to lead even a child to think it's no wonder they're poor!

When all is said and done, though, I can't see this movie seriously steering anyone wrong. The somewhat odd story is a nice change of pace from the same old story, and the excellence of the music and puppetry overcome any flaws. Emmet Otter is definitely a Christmas classic we shouldn't forget.

Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)

Reviewed on 12/18/2013

For my 50th Christmas movie review, I'd like to sing the praises of Mickey's Christmas Carol. Though it clocks in at under a half hour, it belongs on any list that includes Rudolph, Charlie Brown and the Grinch.

I'm pretty biased on this one. I've probably seen it every year since it first aired on television. It's how I first learned the story of A Christmas Carol, and there's a part of me that will always consider it definitive, the standard by which I judge all other Christmas Carols. It's also how I learned the major Disney characters, who were otherwise reserved for kids with premium cable access. And in elementary school, I spent many hours at a typewriter in front of my VCR, transcribing this so I could use the script for the neighborhood play I was producing (and directing...and starring in.) Suffice to say, I liked it long before I watched it again this year.

This version does an excellent job of distilling the story, not just for a child, but for anyone reducing the story to its core elements. It borrows only snippets of dialogue from the book, instead letting the Disney characters tell things in their own words, but it keeps all the meaning and wit, with much greater brevity.

And though Marley is a bit goofy (because he's played by Goofy), the other Disney characters fit their parts well enough that they're indistinguishable from the characters in the story. That's of course true for Scrooge McDuck in the lead (I was surprised to learn he existed as a Disney character well before this.) But also, Mickey Mouse as Cratchit, Donald Duck as Nephew Fred and Jiminy Cricket as the Ghost of Christmas Past could have all been created just for this, and you wouldn't guess otherwise. There's a host of other characters from more easily forgotten Disney properties that are only known to me from this, and that never bugged me.

The animation is top-notch, even for Disney, as is the haunting musical score. This isn't any old cartoon franchise production, this is Mickey and friends making a work of art. And though I loved it long before I had any basis to judge good art, it was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, so I know I'm not alone in my opinion. Whatever fifty Christmas movies I review next, I know I'll be watching this one every Christmas for as long as there's Christmas. Mickey's Christmas Carol ranks among the best of the best.

The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

Reviewed on 12/21/2013

Based on a children's book by L. Frank Baum, the annual Rankin/Bass special from 1985 is by far the weirdest Christmas movie I've ever seen. I can't actually recommend it to sane people, but if you're the sort that worships transcendentally terrible movies, you should totally check it out. I know I'm glad I did.

In this version, Claus is an orphan found and raised by the Council of Immortals. But this isn't the council of holiday icons that is often used in Santa stories. This is a council plucked entirely from Baum's strange imagination, including Queen Zurline of the Wood Nymphs, the Grand Duke of the Light Elves, the Commander of the Wind Demons and The Great Ak, Woodsman of the World. Each is rendered in the distinctive aesthetic of mid-eighties action figures. Between the nigh-constant melodramatic echo applied to their stilted dialogue and the synthesized sound cues, anyone over thirty will understand why I call them the Masters of the Universe.

Claus also has a lioness sidekick named Shiegra. Seriously.

As the story progresses, Claus is almost incidental to it. The Great Ak does most of the heavy lifting as they battle the evil King Awgwa, who controls the Laughing Valley of Ho-Ha-Ho and steals toys in order to make children misbehave. From what I gathered.

I won't be incorporating this into my personal "Life of Claus" mythology. I walked away thinking, no, that's not how it happened at all. Just...no. I hate to blame Baum for the peculiarity of this particular adaptation--I haven't read the original story--but I'm guessing his characters should stick to Oz. And Santa should stay the hell out of Oz, because they fit together like a foot in a glove.

And yet, I couldn't stop watching, fascinated as this movie kept topping itself with more cheese. I will long remember The Great Ak proclaiming, "Men go to war, Claus! They fight amongst themselves for what are known as...CAUSES." It's rare to see any movie that's so good at being so, so bad. I won't call this a Christmas classic, but I'll call it a Christmas curiosity. Watch it like you'd watch a highway pile-up of clown cars, and be amazed that this is a thing that exists at all.

Snowglobe (2007)

Reviewed on 12/24/2013

It was bound to happen eventually. There's been a Christmas behemoth growing in the shadows of cable television for nearly two decades, and though I'd managed to avoid it so far, this year it caught me. I have finally fallen into the clutches of ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas.

I found Snowglobe accidentally when flipping channels for something to watch while I ate lunch. A young woman, harried by her family over the holidays, finds herself sucked into a magical snowglobe, where every day is a picture-perfect Christmas. It seemed a little cheesy, with the kind of broad acting you usually only see on shows with laugh tracks, but I finished eating and kept watching. I got pulled away before the end, but a few days later I saw it on Netflix, and I was compelled. I had to find out what happened. Though it's still tough to admit it, Snowglobe turned out to be a humorous and original Christmas tale. I can't help but recommend it.

I don't want to speak too much about the plotline, because it's actually got twists and turns that are worth not spoiling. It ultimately does end up going exactly where you expected it to, but it has fun getting there.

Christina Milian, playing the lead, is the sort of actress you'll swear used to star in a second-rate sitcom, but IMDB will confirm you were thinking of someone else. Matt Keeslar, playing the perfect boyfriend from the snowglobe, has at least been in a few things I've seen, and it's his performance that really sells this movie. Will Farrell should take tips from Keeslar's ability to ground his humor in the premise of his character. There are other somewhat recognizable members of the cast, but the one you're sure to recognize is Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi from "The Sopranos") doing an excellent job as the overbearing ambiguously ethnic mother.

I feel dirty calling this a Christmas classic. I suspect ABC Family made this movie the way junk food scientists make potato chips, experimentally deriving the exact mix of sugar and fat to get us addicted, filling us up without any nutritional substance. Snowglobe manages to be better than I expected, surprisingly unique for a made-for-cable movie, and I'll probably watch it again in years to come. But it's too soon to tell whether I'll look back on it fondly, or just as the first symptom of Christmas movie induced diabetes.