Originally posted on The Film Experience
It wasn’t so long ago that Christmas movies were dead and buried, outside of Hallmark’s dreaded output anyway. They were no longer of much interest to major Hollywood studios and inherently verboten for indie distributors. Thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and other streamers, the genre is back and more prolific than ever. And in a year like 2020, we needed them more than ever.
More pleasant than it has any right to be, this slightly-better-than-Hallmark offering is pretty trifling regardless. Emma Roberts and Luke Bracy make for a cute couple, but they’re saddled with characters that are more irritable than adorable. The high concept premise, about men and women who hook up or partner up exclusively for holidays, has potential for comedic hijinks. Despite vets like Kristen Chenoweth and Francis Fisher providing ample support, the movie can’t help itself. It’s more interested in making its audience ooh and aah at the trite romance than laugh at the concepts. I have to admit though, the Ryan Gosling jokes made me feel seen.
NETFLIX Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Set in a fantastical village circa turn of the 20th century, a place brimming with ingenuity and diversity, where inventors are famous and toymakers the toast of the town, Jingle Jangle is an escapist adventure that will delight people of all ages, most of all anyone looking to escape 2020 (so all of us). Visual effects, production and costume design, and hairstyling are a cut above most Netflix originals. This is a made-for-TV movie on paper that almost looks like a $150 million-dollar production in execution. Director David E. Talbert should be commended for finding the right balance between jolly and melancholy in his tale of a genius and family man on the downswing of his life. Were it not for a few wayward green screens and an especially aggravating vocal performance by Ricky Martin, this might have made my top 15 of 2020. Complete with memorable musical numbers and a moving turn by Forest Whitaker, this is quite possibly a new Christmas routine going forward.
ON DEMAND Fatman
A surprisingly creative and entertaining riff on the dark side of Santa Claus, Fatman is halfway undone by an undercooked and predictable ending, as well as a perfunctory score that instantly pegs the film as a straight-to-video yawner. It’s definitely better than that, but the Nelms brothers haven’t exactly gone out of their way to dissuade you from thinking so. Mel Gibson has been reliable of late for delivering appropriately gruff, layered performances as old men wondering what happened to themselves and the world around them. Fatman is no different, and fortunately not a wannabe red pill waiting to happen. The Nelms brothers manage to comment on the declining state of American mores (there are references to young men and mass shootings) without leaning to the left or right. You would think a gritty, “realistic” take on Santa Claus would mean less fantasy, less magic, and you’d be wrong. It’s unfortunate the creativity wanes in the final stretch then, when there are such amusing scenes as the head elf explaining how a pure diet of cake, cookies, and carbs is suitable for elf health. Walton Goggins is well-cast as an assassin with a chip on his shoulder.
HULU Happiest Season
Directed by lesbian filmmaker Clea Duvall, Happiest Season is clearly a passion project, one possibly culled from personal experience. Kristen Stewart is instantly relatable as orphaned young adult Abby, a woman at odds with her long-term roommate and love Harper (Mackenzie Davis) when she invites her back home for Christmas to meet her conservative family. As it happens, Harper has yet to come out to them, leading to all manner of shenanigans and dysfunctional drama, most of it involving sibling rivalry, ex-boyfriends (Jake McDorman), ex-girlfriends (the always-funny Aubrey Plaza), and Harper’s father (Victor Garber) running for Mayor. Daniel Levy is a hoot, stealing scenes as an atypical gay best bud who cares for his friends by tracking them. Allison Brie, Mary Holland, and Mary Steenburgen round out the family, each of them doing their part to enliven a script with such a knowable ending. Bemoan all you want that a queer rom-com is following in the predictable footsteps of straight romances before it, but for my mind, cliches and a glossy veneer are a surer sign of mainstream acceptance than raw authenticity on the fringes of indie cinema. And yes, I ship Abby and Riley too.
DISNEY PLUS Godmothered
There are some movies that make no bones about their influences, what they crib from and hope to replicate. Godmothered is a clear attempt at replicating the success of Enchanted and Elf, and in that order. The plot itself is Enchanted to a tee, with a goofy, naive, fish-out-of-water female protagonist traveling from the land of cute woodland creatures and fairy godmothers to our cynical Earth of difficult parenting and kids saddled with a sad chip on their shoulder, like a deceased Mom or Dad, for instance. Tonally, Godmothered is more akin to Elf, less action-oriented (don’t forget Enchanted has sword fights and fire-breathing dragons) with Christmas tidings for kids and oddball humor for adults. There’s no Santa or “spirit of Christmas” talk, so it’s almost a Christmas movie by default. These blatant influences may mean it’s all very familiar, and you could devise a drinking game out of how often they discuss “fairy tales” and “happily ever after,” but that doesn’t stop Godmothered from being nearly as effective as those aforementioned blockbusters. Jillian Bell and Isla Fisher make a good team of good cop, bad cop sensibilities on happiness, Jane Curtin and June Squibb provide motherly pizzazz, and a predictable ending is somehow sneakily emotional if you’ve got a holiday hankering for schmaltz.
NETFLIX The Christmas Chronicles 2
This makes the original look rather subtle by comparison, and reminded me of the difference between holiday classic The Santa Clause and its grating, over-the-top sequel. Chronicles 2 is a better movie than The Santa Clause 2, but they share a similar nearly fatal flaw: an annoying villain. First of all, as a super-fan of The Office, it’s a creative tragedy that Chris Columbus didn’t cast Rain Wilson as Santa’s mischievous tinkerer Belsnickel. Instead, he opted to make the character a former elf-turned-eighteen-year-old-looking human played by Julian Dennison. He’s essentially one of those bad guys who’s baaad the whole way through, yet we’re supposed to accept a half-baked redemption wholesale in the final act. On a more positive note, getting a look-see at Santa’s, nay, Mrs. Claus’ workshop is incredibly fun, maybe for the first time getting treated to more world-building around just how the toys and candy canes are manufactured. There’s even a bit of time travel that’s emotionally rewarding, and the ornery Nordic elves are unending comedy. Unlike Godmothered, plentiful “spirit of Christmas” talk and overt pandering to the Hallmark crowd ensures this sequel is the lesser of the two, but it sure is nice to see Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn together on screen again.