Christmas Movies Part II:
The original Home Alone (1990) was such a raging commercial success, birthing two increasingly agregious sequels, launching a significant career for its stomach-turningly "cute" star, that most of us with a lick of sense deplored it at once.
Some Scroogier Glances
What a crappy mean-spirited cheap-shot notion of "humor" setting people on fire, busting their skulls with gallon cans of paint, cutting the soles of their feet to ribbons, ha-ha-ha all the way home. And who else is surprised Macaulay Culkin didn't die in an alley with a needle in his arm by the time he was twenty?
But it was on a few nights ago & I watched it again after ghastly many years. It's still the same piece of crap it always was, but one would think it would've dated. It really does have a timeless tone to it, & doesn't seem as old as it is.
So if your idea of "comedy" is hurting people, this is the classic. No-IQ criminals (Joe Pesci & Daniel Stern) get bested by an eight year old little boy accidentally left home alone over Christmas vactation, & it really couldn't be any funnier than it is.
Plus, Pesci in the wake of this film wasted my time with enough appallingly bad movies (such as rightly deep-sixed his once-promising career), it's almost karmic to see him punished!
Sometimes I find myself watching a film only because I cannot believe it not only got made, but has proven itself capable of winning the hearts of naifs across American, who seem never to notice the purely commercial intent.
Perfect for intensely reigious households, I was a little in awe of the aggressively Christian banality of Prancer (1989). I felt a little slimed just by letting myself be moved by it, as very little grows naturally out of characters & situations; it's pure manipulation.
Playing into every little girl's desire for a pony, this film gives little Jessica (Rebecca Harris) -- daughter of a bankrupt, angry, & depressed Michigan farmer (Sam Elliott) -- one of Santa's reindeer as her personal pet. Or so she believes the beast to be.
It's up to Jessica, who found the tame, injured reindeer, to protect it from being exploited for a Christmas display (one would think being in this movie would quality) or done in by rifles & the butcher's block, & incidentally to restore her daddy's faith, & maybe even save the Scrooge-like witchy Cloris Leachman from her sensible disdain for having children destroy her flowers.
But hey, just like a kitten wearing dolly dresses or bunnies wearing sunglasses, a little girl with her pet reindeer is bound to get more than a few heart-tugs from just about anyone. So it can't be said it fails at what it set out to do.
In fact, as treacle goes, the father is pretty abusive from his position of pain, & I gather some people who grew up remembering their fathers less than fondly found some forgiveness through this pipedream version of a father who could well be mental ill.
He has zero interest in seeing his daughter in the Christmas pageant, ponders shooting the reindeer in the head while his screaming daughter watches, & is on principle unable to talk to either of his two children as if either one were halfway worthwhile as human being though he does think his son is useful as free farm labor, while his daughter being useless should be sent away.
If you don't hate your dad & still need excuses to forgive him, it will probably be puzzling why he waits until almost the very end to become a sensitive fellow. Others will just miss this altogether, as the ugly pieces of the film are so smothered in cutie-cute-cute.
Treacley films usually require a Tiny Tim ingredient & Jessica's story has plenty of turmoil mixed in with pretend tea-parties with her mom's photograph & sled-rides right into the scary witch's garden, the witch screaming "I'll get even with you! I'll catch you! I'll catch you!"
The film is not a fantasy until the end, & that coda seems patched on as an afterthought. As a child's film there's nothing wrong with any of it, of course, but one might lament that manipulative little kiddy flicks so often skip the responsibility to slip higher aesthetic standard to the kids while they're at it.
Little boys have the absolutely amazing A Christmas Story (1983) or even The Red Balloon (1956), such as will hold up for repeat viewings for a lifetime. Too damned bad little girls have to settle for Prancer as better than nothing.
If you want to be jerked around by a tearjerker, this could be the one. If you know in advance there's no art in it, it won't disappoint. And if you love the hell out of it, woohoo for you, there's a sequel!
In the sequel Prancer Returns (2001), a boy finds an animatronic reindeer, allegedly the son of Prancer from the first movie, resulting in comedy antics & heroic-boy events & none of the emotion of the original.
This straight-to-video turd is liable to be better liked by little boys, of course, & is more generally worth watching only so you'll have a greater appreciation for the original, which looks much better compared to this cornpone redo.
That woman with a man's name who played the mother in the rural television series The Waltons was Michael Learned, a matronly beauty of sufficient talent that she might've been famous for more than one tv show if there'd been more roles for middleaged actresses & she could've gotten at least a couple films better than A Christmas Without Snow (1980).
It's another aggressively Christian film hard to stomach unless you're the sort of Christian who seriously believes the pagan winter's solitice was really when Jesus was born, & wants every unholy doomed-to-hellfire face rubbed in it even for the idlest of idle entertainment.
(As an aside, the best surmise when an "historical" Jesus might've been born would be September. Nothing in scripture supports it having been upon the winter solstice, & none of the Anti-Nicene fathers closest to the life of a presumed Christ placed his birth anywhere near the time of such a signal pagan festival. So the majority filmmakers who make Christmas tales universal rather than religiously specific have got it right; the preaching ones just lack universal brotherly love despite all pretences, as they are indeed doing it for the choir.)
The strength of the film, if it has one, is John Houseman who manages to bring some dignity & charisma to his role as the slave-driving curmudgeon of a choirmaster who is secretly goodhearted. The script doesn't invest the role with much power, but Houseman manages it even so.
Michael is also pretty decent in her performance as Zoe, despite that she's not given much of a script to work with either. She's merely caught up in a holiday soap opera of the lives of members of the choir, with a bit of morality stuck in here & there.
Zoe, whose name means Life by no coincidence, has moved to San Francisco to start life anew, after her husband divorced her. Curiously for a religious film, the character is largely uncriticized for having abandoned her teenage son in Omaha, with a grandmother who sounds a mite bad-tempered on the phone so perhaps not the best substitute parent.
She can't find a good job so settles for a lousy one, which gives her the continuing excuse for continuing not to be bothered with having the kid join her. Life is at least good in her new church, where she joins the choir, & becomes entwined in the lives of fellow choir members.
The new choirmaster wants to weed out the bad singers & force a harsh regimen on the remainder, so they can sing the not-for-amateurs Handel's Messiah come Christmas. The story is crowded with "issues" of racism, poverty, clashing egos, dating, romance, & whatnot, but never rises even an inch above triteness.
There's a little bit of good singing, especially from Daisietta Kim, an almost legendary soprano, musician, & choreographer, in what appears to be her only film, back before she got all crinkled & was just awfully good looking. The film is otherwise not all that watchable. I can imagine that anyone who was ever involved in their church choir would love it, but without such special interest, it falls rather flat.
The Finnish animated feature Niko: Lentajan poika (2008) was dubbed into English for the American market as The Flight Before Christmas, though known internationally & at film festivals as The Way to the Stars.
Cartoons dub a lot better than live action so there's no apparent loss from watching it in English. It's competent enough computer animation, allegedly 3-D though I seem to have lost my depth perception through most of it.
And I did not find the character designs appealing. It imitates American computer-generated cartoons & despite being set in Lapland, conveys nothing of an ethnic or national origin far from Disney or Pixar.
Apparently even in the Finnish language original, it was packed with Americanisms & trying pretty hard not to be noticeably Finnish. Too bad, as America produces enough second-rate generic-looking feature-length CGI cartoons, & it would've been nice to see something entirely different for a change.
The major character of the flying squirrel Julius (indifferently voiced by Norm MacDonald) is a generic butterball unconvincing in flight. Real flying squirrels are cute as little devils & strange they artists who designed this one couldn't come up with something better; Julius would look more appropiriate pitching some off-brand of breakfast cereal.
A side character, Wilma (Emma Roberts), is amost impossible to tell is supposed to be an ermine or white weasel. Beyond the marginally comical introductory scene when Wilma won't admit she's not trapped upside down on purpose, she contributes nothing to the story. And her design is downright ugly, besdies being derivative of the prehistoric non-specific critter Sid (John Leguizamo) from Ice Age (2002).
There's an even more unnecessary comic-relief character with almost nothing to do in the story, a pink poodle lost in the woods who joins the wolf pack. She's perhaps the ugliest of the ugly character designs, & after a fairly elaborate pair of introductory scenes, the story gives her nothing to do; the writers just had not a clue what to do with extra characters.
The reindeer at least, young & adult alike, are reasonably well designed, though young Niko himself is a little too reliant on giant dewy eyes for phony effect, like a junkstore Keene portrait of a puppy.
There are a couple elements that would not have filtered through to the American audience from American producers, namely the fact that Niko, the child reindeer, is the get of his mother's one-night-stand. His father, Prancer, is on Santa's Flying Reindeer Force, & lives across the mountains in Santa's Fell.
We're informed Prancer just dropped in one day at the reindeer valley to screw Oona (Sysan Slott), & never bothered to see her again.
Oona tells her son tales of his father as some kind of hero, which is nonsense, & Niko (Andrew McMahon) goes about every day trying to fly like his only dreamed-of daddy. As a bastard, he is outcast in the herd. Then when his goofing off & disobedience causes wolves to find the secret reindeer valley, he's pretty much despised thereafter, & feeling guilty & rejected sets out for Santa's Fell to find his dad.
Dad turns out to be an irresponsible sort with few excuses for abandonment. He's not a bad sort of guy, but he lives to have a good time whether it's flying about with the Reindeer Force, or sitting around in their Viking hall boozing it up with the other members of the Force. Donner & Blitzen et al as a bunch of drunks is another element that probably only the Finns thought child-appropriate & never realized American moms might take exception.
Going along with Niko on the quest is Julius the flying squirrel. He comes off as a sidekick for most of the story, then about twenty minutes from the end, it seems like someone decided very last-minute to make him a father figure.
As Niko's foster-father, Juliu8s has been his relentless supporter believing he'd eventually fly; a finer role model & protector for Niko than his absent father; & loves him deeply. If there is any moral lesson in this mediocre cartoon, it's that foster fathers matter a lot. And anyone who is a foster father jealous as all hell of their kid's biological dad, they might really appreciate sitting down with the kid & watching this together, happy to see a "real" dad portrayed as happy-go-lucky lout undeserving of a son's love.
I doubt this'll be regarded anyone's childhood favorite, though a few Christmas films just as bad have proven to have staying power, so who the hell knows.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl