It must be extremely difficult to make a decent Christmas movie; the proof is everywhere you look. Every year at this time, Hollywood cynically cashes in by unleashing a torrent of sentimental, half-baked goo: Deck the Halls, Christmas with the Cranks, Fred Claus, Surviving Christmas, Arthur Christmas and Four Christmases – and those are in the last few years alone.
SIDE NOTE: All six of those films are “comedies.” Unfortunately, none of them are “funny.”
When we consider the worst Christmas movies, a pattern emerges. In the vain yuletide hope that someone, sometime, somehow will make a better Christmas flick, I propose a list of rules. Follow them if you ever intend to make a holiday movie.
1. Do Not Attempt to Kill or Kidnap Santa Claus. This may seem obvious in movies meant for small children, but you would be amazed at how many Christmas movies just do not get it. I have already written at length about The Nightmare That Was Tim Burton’s Childhood, and one of my strongest objections was its flagrant violation of this simple rule. Santa brings me toys. He has reliably brought me toys for almost fifty years. I am a good boy. Why on God’s green earth would we want any evil to befall SANTA?
2. The Villain Must Be a Person—Not an Evil Corporation. This trope is becoming something of a cliché in children’s films, which is odd if you consider that the most vivid baddies in family films are always individuals: The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, The “Kid Catcher” in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Disney’s host of memorable villains, like Cruella DeVille, Ursula, Maleficent, Jafar, and Michael Eisner. Not an “Evil Corporation That Wants to Chop Down All the Trees in the Forest” in the bunch.
3. People Must Not Fall Down on Ice, Get Knocked Over, or Faint for a Cheap Laugh. Many comedies fall back on this snoozy old trope for a dependable chuckle, and Christmas “comedies” are no exception.
4. For The Love of God, Spend Some $$$ on Special Effects! When depicting the “wonder of the season,” a little WONDER IS IN ORDER. Any movie involving Santa must somehow convincingly portray a flying sleigh and eight magical reindeer. BY GRANDPAPPY’S BALLS—DO NOT GO CHEAP ON US NOW. It cannot be that difficult; George Melies did it in 1905 with nothing but half a can of paint and a piece of black velvet.
Here are some of the worst offenders, and the Rules they flagrantly violate:
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
The creativity and scope of this inexplicable film are best summarized in the Cole Porter-quality lyrics of its title song. Dig:
Hooray for Santy Claus
Yay yay for Santy Claus
He's fat and round, but jumpin' jiminy
He can climb down any chiminy!
When we hear sleigh bells ring
Our hearts go ting-a-ling
'Cause there'll be presents under the tree
Hooray for Santy Claus!
Now all year long at the North Pole
He's busy making toys
But he knows just what you're doin'
So you better be good girls and boys!
Hang up that mistletoe
Soon you'll hear Ho Ho Ho
On Christmas Day, you'll wake up and you'll say
Hooray for Santy Claus!
Yay yay! Yay yay!
Yay yay! HOORAY!!!
Here, watch it for yourself. Try to stay awake. In fact, this might be just the thing to show the young ’uns when they are too excited to go to sleep on Christmas Eve! You are going to need plenty of time to put together that tot-sized table and chairs that require ten thousand real screws.
VIOLATES RULES 1, 2, 3, & 4, PLUS ALL RULES OF PHYSICS AND TASTE. ALSO, BORING.
Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
I vividly remember when I first saw this movie – the way a child remembers a bad dream well into adulthood. It was one of those movie-going experiences that is so bad you start to question your own reality, question every life choice that preceded your decision to go to the movie theatre that day and see that film. A cynical exercise from the producers of Superman to cash in on the holidays, it resembles nothing so much as a fake movie one might see in a real movie about how cynical and horrible Hollywood is and how this is the movie they make in that movie. Dudley Moore, riding a seven-nanosecond wave of popularity, plays Santa’s head elf Patch, who feels underappreciated and joins forces with John Lithgow, an evil businessman. Their lame-ass plan? Feed little children magic lollipops that will enable them (the children) to fly.
This is a big-budget film from a major corporation designed to show kids that major corporations are bad. WTF?
I am not making this up. The cynicism that drips from this steaming Yule log is enough to kill your grandmother. VIOLATES RULES 2, 3 & 4.
Jingle All The Way (1996)
Regardless of the fact that some goddamned cable channel is now shoving this freak fest down our collective throat by showing it twenty-four hours a day (a la A Christmas Story on TBS), this film fails on every level. It seems to decry the commercialization of Christmas, yet it was clearly engineered to sell a toy. It aspires to be a black comedy, yet it wants to fill us with warmth and holiday cheer. It thinks that it is funny, yet it stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. In fact, the former Governor acts so moronic, one critic wondered how it was that his character was able to run a successful business in the reality of the film.
Oh, this is the one that could have been, the film that could have turned all my holiday angst into black comic gold. For I, dearest reader, have been there: the child wants the popular toy and IT IS NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. This film could have captured that mania that overtakes fathers, causing us to drive around all night to seven different toy stores and scour “By It Now!” sales on eBay, credit cards in hand, rather than manning up and facing their kid’s disappointment Christmas morning.
Of course, THAT film would really be something. It would NOT star the above-mentioned half talents, nor be directed by Brian Levant (Viva Rock Vegas, Snow Dogs, Are We There Yet?), nor have a script by Randy Kornfield (Eight-Legged Freaks [story credit]) with an uncredited polish by Chris Columbus (Christmas With The Kranks). No, my Jingle All The Way would be written by David Mamet, directed by Werner Herzog, star Michael Fassbender and Sam Rockwell and be produced by Satan.
VIOLATES RULES 2 & 4.
Better Yet: Babes in Toyland (1934), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Carol (1951), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965 - TV), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 - TV) A Christmas Story (1983), Die Hard (1988), Scrooged (1988) and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).