It’s been quite the year for Christmas movies. I’ve seen a sleigh full of them, and most have been—well, a bit silly.
I haven’t seen a Spirited-level contender for Christmas movies yet this year, but all the holiday movies I have seen have been pretty interesting in their own ways. So let’s unwrap this year’s strange, diverse crop of Christmas movies and see what they can tell us.
Candy Cane Lane (Amazon Prime Video, PG): Chris Carver (Eddie Murphy) lives on the titular street, where decorating your house for Christmas is a cut-throat endeavor. Chris wants to win the neighborhood competition this year (and its $100,000 grand prize), and he’d practically sell his soul to do so.
Funny, given that he kinda-sorta does just that.
Chris runs across a mysterious pop-up Christmas décor shop run by Pepper, who sells him a huge, animatronic tree themed on the 12 Days of Christmas. Expensive? You bet. But Chris rips out his credit card and signs what he thinks is the receipt. In reality, it’s a contract—and if Chris fails to hold up to his side of the bargain, he’ll turn into one of Pepper’ ultra-realistic decorations.
It’s a very Faustian set-up, and Candy Cane Lane runs with them. We learn, for instance, that Pepper was once Santa Claus’s most beloved elf, but she had a habit of slapping everyone who broke the teensiest little rule on Santa’s “naughty list.” Santa demoted her, and eventually Pepper stopped working for the big guy altogether. Now, she relishes tricking people and gathering up “souls,” if you will.
All that is an echo of the relationship between Satan and God, of course. (It’s telling that the first time we meet Pepper, she wears a set of toy antlers that bear a passing resemblance to horns.) And it also gets at our own relationship with the divine, as well. We all make mistakes—mistakes that should land us on God’s own naughty list. But God, in His grace, gives us a break. He shows us grace. Just as Candy Cane Lane’s version of Santa does.
Now, Santa in Candy Cane Lane is certainly not a tit-for-tat equivalent to God. But he makes it clear that he believes in second chances—even for the likes of Pepper. I go into more detail in my Plugged In review of Candy Cane Lane, but I was surprised at how thoughtful the film was.
Dashing Through the Snow (Disney+, PG): Scroogish Eddie hates Christmas. But when he spends Christmas Eve with his holiday-loving daughter, he comes face-to-face with Santa Claus himself. And (this will not come as a surprise), good ol’ Kris Kringle could uses Eddie’s help.
Of all the Christmas flicks to be released this year, this may be the most thematically secular. Outside one Christmas carol, the film directs its own “faith” toward faith in Santa. But the film does talk a lot about giving and sacrifice. Eddie works as a crisis counselor for the police—and as such, he gives his “clients” (folks normally at just about the worst point in their lives) a little hope.
“The most important part of Daddy’s job?” Eddie tells daughter Charlotte. “It’s to never let someone who feels sad and alone keep feeling sad and alone.” That’s an admirable job, but we don’t need to be crisis counselors to embrace that particular ethos. Perhaps we should all do what we can to help people from feeling sad and alone, especially during Christmas.
Genie (Peacock, PG): Santa can’t give Bernard (Paapa Essiedu) what he needs this Christmas: A new job. Reconciliation with his wife. A fresh start. He’s botched up pretty much everything in his life. And when he gives his daughter a ratty ol’ box with a broken lid for her birthday, he’s in danger of losing her affections, too. His little girl, Eve, is clearly not thrilled with the box—even though Bernard tells her that it’s her “first antique.” So the next morning, Bernard decides to polish it up a bit.
But when he rubs the tarnished stones, he discovers the box isn’t just an old jewelry box with a stuck lid. It’s home to a genie named Flora, who looks an awful lot like Melissa McCarthy.
It’s interesting that all three of the films we’ve talked about so far—Candy Cane Lane, Dashing Through the Snow and Genie—all feature fathers that have sort of lost their way. Their priorities are skewed in one way or another, but Bernard’s life might be the most off-track of them all.
Genie doesn’t lean on Christianity to fix Bernard. It does offer plenty of jokes related to the real meaning of Christmas, though, and it seems as though Bernard is at least superficially a Christian. When Flora asks Bernard what’s up with Christmas, Bernard says that it was “Originally meant to selebrate the birth of this guy—He’s called Jesus Christ.”
“Jesus?” Flora says. “Are you talking about Mary’s kid?” Apparently, Flora knew Him back in the day—the last time she was out of the box—and she’s curious what He did to become such a big deal.
“He turned out to be the Son of God,” Bernard tells her.
“Oh,” Flora says. “I thought He was kidding.”
But I do love that, even though Genie’s ability to grant Bernard’s wishes feels almost limitless, Bernard (mostly) eschews material things and concentrates on how he can fix his relationship with his family. And ultimately, he learns that it all comes down not to what “stuff” you give, but the time you give. And in this harried holiday season, that’s important to keep in mind.
Journey to Bethlehem (in theaters, PG): Forget the saccharine, sanctified versions of the Nativity you’ve seen at church or on screen. Journey to Bethlehem—directed by TV musical impresario Adam Anders—takes the Christmas story and gives it a High School Musical vibe.
Here, the film focuses on Joseph (Milo Manheim) and Mary (Fiona Palomo) and what would appear to be their star-crossed romance. They’re both forced into marriage by their parents without even seeing the other. When they do see each other, they don’t know it—and Joseph, unfortunately, flirts with Mary on the eve of his wedding to (he thinks) someone else. And then, when Mary winds up pregnant—well, that’s just the last straw. Is it?
No, of course it isn’t. Journey to Bethlehem offers a clever, lyrical, and still respectful take on the Nativity story, and one that reminds us of the humanity of Mary and Joseph—two kids joyfully burdened with raising the Son of God. This film won’t be for everyone, but for me, it worked. I loved the freshness of the story. And when I had a chance to talk with Anders himself, he seemed like a pretty great guy.
Silent Night (in theaters, R): Brian Godluck’s life was destroyed on Christmas Eve. A gang shootout filtered into his neighborhood as his son was trying out his shiny new bike. A stray bullet killed the boy, and Brian’s never been the same. But after months of losing himself in grief and alcohol, Brian snaps out of it and finds new purpose in his life: Killing the men who killed his boy.
Obviously, revenge is not your typical Christmas-movie theme. And outside the occasional ugly sweater (blood-stained of course) or Santa outfit, this film feels about as Christmassy as a stubbed toe. Directed by legendary action guru John Woo, Silent Night is just about as frenetic and as bloody as you’d expect.
But the movie—with barely a hint of dialogue—does come with a few little nods to faith. The most impactful? The fact that Brian throws away the booze and finds new purpose in his life during Easter weekend.
Easter is, of course, the day that Christ rose from the dead—and when we were all given a opportunity to shed our own spiritual death, too, and follow Jesus into a glorious second chance.
Obviously, the second chance that Brian is given isn’t spiritual in nature—and indeed Brian’s drive to slaughter his enemies might grieve the Prince of Peace. But movie’s sense of time is telling. And without Christmas, there would be no Easter–no possibility of renewal or salvation.
So there you have it—five Christmas films with a little something extra under the cinematic tree.