Christmas is coming!
This time of year always makes me happy. Already I’ve eaten a few mince pies, gotten my Christmas presents wrapped (while discovering the simple genius of gridlines on the inside of the wrapping paper), and attended a Christmas work party. I’m looking forward to everything about the day itself, including the television – the usual helping of Doctor Who and the final installment of Downton Abbey.
Meanwhile, I’m already getting on with watching some Christmas films.
Yesterday, it was The Polar Express, a visually beautiful film which manages to include both plenty of Christmas heart and some thrilling roller-coaster action scenes. The film centres around a boy who wants to continue believing in Santa but is reaching the age where logic is getting in the way: his feelings are quite relatable and understandable, though unfortunately the rest of us weren’t taken to the North Pole on a magic train and shown that Santa is real after all. I really like this film’s depiction of the North Pole: not just how beautiful the scenery is, but how the elves organise the presents and designate naughty and nice children (“Put him on the Check Twice list for next year!”), and how Santa’s big departure is treated like a cross between a Disneyland parade and a rock concert.
In the last couple of weeks, meanwhile, I took time to watch a few classics that I had somehow not seen before.
Scrooge – This film, which stars Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, is one of the most critically acclaimed adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and I could certainly see why. It’s paced perfectly, and every scene has significance – even a brief scene of Scrooge eating a meal, and deciding not to have more gravy because it would cost a few extra pennies. Perhaps the best thing about it is that the ‘Christmas Past’ sequence significantly expands upon the book, showing us more of how Scrooge progressed in business and became more obsessed with money. Sim himself is excellent, capturing the coldness of Scrooge in the earlier stages while showing his transformation believably: protesting that he is too old to change anyway, before finally giving in and acting like a madman in his glee.
A Christmas Carol (1984) – George C Scott takes the role of Scrooge in this adaptation, which I found to be good but not great overall. It remains faithful to the story and therefore hits the same good notes, but the acting and presentation feel quite bland compared to other adaptations. Scott in particular feels a bit generic, capturing the miserly nature of Scrooge but not the coldness or real nastiness.
A Christmas Story – Another well-regarded holiday film that I absolutely loved. It’s one of those films which, watching as an adult, really reminds you of what it was like to be a kid, especially around Christmas when we were mostly concerned with what presents we’d be getting. The narration by adult Ralphie works especially well, giving eloquent and funny insight into his behaviour as a nine-year-old, in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to put into such words back then. I laughed a lot at the whole film, especially Ralphie’s over-the-top daydreams. While the film doesn’t have much of a plotline besides Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun, that hardly matters: the family’s realistic, non-idealised interactions and how they prepare for Christmas are something many people will really connect with.
There are so many Christmas films out there that I can’t keep track of all the ones I’ve already seen, but some have left more of an impression than others. Here are a few which I know other people like, but I’ve personally never been a fan of:
Elf – I liked Will Ferrell’s more serious performance in Stranger Than Fiction, but his performance in Elf is pretty much how I find him in all his other movies: intensely, aggravatingly annoying.
The Grinch – My dad once walked into the room while this film was on, considered it for a few moments, and then said, “This is a nightmare, isn’t it?” Presumably he was referring to the design of the Whos: their upturned noses and rodent teeth place them heavily in the Uncanny Valley. I find them very unsettling to look at, so even if everything else about the film was particularly good (which it isn’t), I probably wouldn’t like it. Some animated projects just aren’t meant to be adapted into live-action.
The Snowman – while it is well made, the haunting music and animation style just weren’t my thing when I first saw it as a child, though the song ‘Walking in the Air’ has grown on me.
But these are the films I absolutely must watch every Christmas:
A Christmas Carol (1999) – This adaptation, with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge and Richard E Grant as Bob Cratchit, is extremely faithful to the source material and doesn’t expand upon it to any significant degree script-wise. But while the acting, pacing, set design and music are all excellent, what I really like about it is how it captures the spirit of Christmas. The Fezziwig party provides a true atmosphere of fun and frivolity, but the ‘Christmas Present’ sequence is even better. The scene with the Cratchit family’s Christmas is the best I’ve seen in any adaptation: they act like a real family as they talk amongst themselves and truly enjoy their dinner despite how meager it is. We also get a sequence of various people working on a ship, in a lighthouse, and in a coal mine, all singing ‘Silent Night’ and taking comfort in each other’s company. This film always serves to remind me what Christmas should really be about.
Home Alone 1 and 2 – What can I say? I thought these films were hilarious when I was younger (Home Alone 2 was one of the first films I saw in the cinema), and I still do now. Watching two grown men repeatedly suffering injuries that should kill them is perhaps funnier than it should be, but ultimately it’s portrayed as cartoon violence. Plus there’s plenty of humour outside of the famous trap sequences: I still particularly enjoy the ‘Angels with Filthy Souls’ scenes in both films, and the shower scene in the second one. Besides that, I love the family themes, the Christmas soundtracks, and the charm and humour of young Macaulay Culkin.
The Muppet Christmas Carol – While I can’t remember for certain, this was probably the first version of A Christmas Carol I saw, and it still has high nostalgic value for me. It expertly blends the traditional humour and attitude of the Muppets with the original story, even incorporating many quotes from the book, courtesy of Gonzo portraying Charles Dickens. The songs are extremely memorable and serve the story very well. Michael Caine gives a straight-faced performance as Scrooge. And its portrayals of the three spirits – the ethereal, child-like Christmas Past, the jolly, absent-minded Christmas Present and the tall, ominous Christmas Yet To Come – are still among the best of all Christmas Carol adaptations.