Modern Christmas movies embrace cynicism, eschew warmth
Posted November 27, 2016
Before the movie actually began, the one we paid to see, my wife and I endured the usual string of “trailers” or “previews of coming attractions” or “Reader’s Digest condensed versions of the movies,” and we noticed that for several of these decidedly less-than-jolly upcoming titles, the final line on the screen was “Christmas 2016.”
In fact, it became a little joke between us. An ad would come up for an upcoming movie that is loaded with violence and mayhem, and my wife would lean over and whisper with a slight drip of sarcasm, “Yay, another Christmas film!”
Then there would be a trailer with a holiday-themed movie that is obviously very raunchy and dark, and, aghast, she would mutter, “Merry Christmas.”
Dare I use the phrase that is certain to push me into an elderly get-off-my-lawn stereotype? Why not: They just don’t make ’em like they used to.
And it’s certainly true that when Hollywood describes something as a Christmas movie, it means a movie opening during the Christmas season more often than it means a movie set during Christmastime.
Even looking over the roster of Christmas shows on Netflix this year is disconcerting, a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly, with titles labeled family-friendly that should definitely be scrutinized by parents.
Included among this year’s offerings are TV movies (or maybe they’re straight-to-video movies) that no one has ever heard of, such as “The Christmas Card” and “12 Dates of Christmas.” I don’t think the Lifetime or Hallmark cable channels have anything to worry about.
They are along with a few somewhat older films that are always rolled out this time of year, such as “Ernest Saves Christmas” and “Christmas with the Kranks,” for the truly desperate Christmas-movie watcher.
As well as flicks that are, shall we say, not exactly filled with the holiday spirit, such as “The Ref” and “Scrooged,” for the anti-Christmas audience.
But to be fair, Netflix is also offering “Miracle on 34th Street” (albeit the 1994 remake) and “White Christmas” (yes, that “White Christmas”). I guess it says something about me that these are the only two on the entire list of 50-plus titles that even tempt me.
Evidence to the contrary, this is not intended as an endorsement for Netflix, but rather as an example of what’s out there this time of year.
In movie theaters this year, four new films are set during the holidays: the currently playing “Almost Christmas,” which fulfills the annual need for a comedy about a dysfunctional family reuniting over the holidays to squabble, bicker and ultimately go all squishy, and three upcoming raunchy farces that are, unfortunately, more typical of what passes for Christmas movies in the 21st century: “Bad Santa 2, “Office Christmas Party” and “Why Him?”
When “White Christmas” played during the holiday season of 1954, it was so popular that it became the year’s No. 1 box-office hit, according to Variety, the show-biz trade paper.
And, of course, that Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye musical quickly became a perennial, showing up every year around this time.
Other vintage titles that flood cable channels and streaming sites each November and December are “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original 1947 version), “The Bishop’s Wife,” “Christmas in Connecticut,” “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (aka “Babes in Toyland”), “You’ve Got Mail,” “Prancer,” “The Santa Clause” (and its sequels), “While You Were Sleeping,” “Santa Claus: The Movie,” “Home Alone,” “A Christmas Story” and a million or so versions of “A Christmas Carol.” And to give the 21st century its due, also “Elf” and “The Polar Express.”
So it’s only natural that Hollywood would want to keep making Christmas-themed movies in hopes of having another hit that will turn into a perennial favorite (or at least a perennial moneymaker).
But big-screen filmmakers are far too cynical to understand what made all of the above films so beloved, what made them so funny, entertaining and warm. Especially the warm part, an element that seems to elude most modern filmmakers.
There will be a lot of big movies between now and the end of December. Big in scope, big in budget, big in star names and big in anticipation — from another Star Wars entry to a couple of cartoon features to various star vehicles for Will Smith, Jennifer Lawrence, Brad Pitt, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Winslet and even Warren Beatty.
How many of those films will be warm is anyone’s guess, but if you stay in the low single digits, you’ll have yourself a pretty safe bet.
And how many of the new Christmas-themed movies will be warm? Let’s just say that no chestnuts roasting over an open fire will be able to quell the chill.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.