Support the news
'Tis the season for family. And this being New England, you never know when the next arctic blast will descend upon us and seal us all inside. Should that happen — or if you're just in the mood — and the warm fire’s aglow, here's a list of films that will get the whole crew off their iDevices (and maybe even feed meaningful conversation at the dinner table).
The list has an eye on feature films, not to discount those great short pieces of animation from the '60s, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and the "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" The selections are ordered from most family-friendly to more mature content for families with older children, or without them.
'The Muppet Christmas Carol' (1992)
The classic, 1843 Charles Dickens yarn, "A Christmas Carol," about confronting the past and finding a heart is probably best known for its dark 1938 and 1951 film adaptations, (with the latter starring Alastair Sim as a perfect Scrooge). While those two films fall into a more "mature content" category and are likely too dated to appeal to youth today, the 1992 Muppet re-envisioning is a cross-generational winner. It infuses puppetry magic into the timeless Dickens weave, with Michael Caine holding center stage as king crank haunted by the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. The bittersweet side note to the fluffy fun is that it’s directed by Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson, who founded the Muppets and passed away in 1990, two years before the film's release.
Another family-worthy take on the tale is the animated 1962 “Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol,” where the nearsighted curmudgeon gets to play the infamous Victorian-era grouch. Also, Bill Murray’s 1988 “Scrooged” is a gamely comedic go and suitable for families with preteens and older in their nest.
OK, it's not quite a Christmas or holiday-specific film, but its Nordic, wintry ambiance and endless snow and ice put it here. Plus, what could be more infectious than young lasses running around the tree singing “Let it Go”? (Well, for the first 20 times you hear it, anyhow.) The tale of sisterly love and the extremes they’re willing to go through for each other resonates, and Olaf, the goofy snowman, provides enough comic relief to pull the whole family in.
Another animated alternative is the less exuberant “Polar Express” (2004) based on Chris Van Allsburg’s popular night before Christmas tale that builds around themes of believing and acceptance of others unlike you.
'A Christmas Story' (1983)
Based on the memoirs of storyteller and humorist Jean Shepherd, this coming-of-age comedy brims with heart and grit as it plumbs the adolescent underbelly of Christmas. Its protagonist, Ralphie, (Peter Billingsley, who would go on to produce “Iron Man” and “Elf”) wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas, but his parents (played by Darren McGavin of “Kolchak: the Night Stalker” fame and Melinda Dillon) resoundingly rebuke such a desire with a “you'll shoot an eye out” mantra that becomes the absurd white elephant of the film. The cheeky comedy may be set in the '40s, but it tackles such timeless adolescent anxieties as bullying and fitting in, and watch out for that big bar of soap should you dare cuss.
My 7-year-old daughter’s pick for this list, primarily because she likes the idea of chocolate syrup on spaghetti, which is what Buddy, the elf portrayed by Will Ferrell, casually eats for breakfast. Since this is a Ferrell project, you’d expect sophomoric slapstick, but there’s little of that, actually. It’s a heartfelt, age-appropriate tale of acceptance and finding your way. The roots are your classic “fish out of water” construct, with Buddy first as a giant human living among elves in the North Pole, and later, an elf (he remains dressed as such) in New York City when reunited with his father (James Caan), who was unaware he had a son out there in the world. It’s not high art, but what cements the film is Buddy’s amiable naiveté and the power of belief against naysayers.
'Home Alone' (1990)
The ultimate kid fantasy. You’ve got the house all to yourself. What’s not to like, right? Even if your parents inadvertently left you home alone as they’re boarding a plane to Paris, and meanwhile, there are two half-wits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) trying to break in. It's all good fun, because you’re something of mini-MacGyver and can keep the bad guys at bay with various boobytraps. The 8-year-old Kevin — Macaulay Culkin, who is now one of those notorious childhood stars — fills the bill with sass, fire and an extra dash of uber cute. Directed by Christopher Columbus and written by John Hughes (“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “Uncle Buck") the romp de suburb, much like “Elf,” becomes a surprisingly more nimble crowd-pleaser than one might think possible. The violence — and there’s plenty of it — is just cartoonish enough for kids Kevin’s age and up. And the underlying message of self-empowerment and family doesn’t get lost in the slapstick hijinks.
'The Nightmare Before Christmas' (1993)
From the mind of Tim Burton (“Batman” and “Edward Scissorhands”) comes this tale of holiday jealousy gone off the tracks as Halloween tries to annex Christmas by kidnapping Santa Claus. One of the first feature-length, stop-animation films, the visual accomplishment remains a jaw-dropping spectacular some 20 years out amid the current sea of computer-generated animation. The gothic and ghoulish sets are indelibly Burton. But, it is director and veteran animator, Henry Selick, who brings it all to life. Selick’s other credits include such cherished gems for kids as “Coraline” (2009) and “James and the Giant Peach” (1996). “Nightmare" is a tad scary for the younger set, but while it’s creepy in posture, it’s tender in turn.
'Star Wars' (Series)
Now that Disney has taken over the franchise, it seems we’re destined to get a new release in the "Star Wars" series every mid-December — “Rogue One” just opened and the yet-to-be-titled “Star Wars VIII” chapter is slated for this time next year — so what better time to catch up with this series that remains popular with all generations? “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) to date is the darkest and most fully conceived chapter, but it’s the original 1977 thriller — the one they now call “A New Hope,” but was simply just “Star Wars” back when it defined the term "blockbuster" — that’s most appropriate for family viewing. At its core, it is essentially a fairy tale — transposed from Akira Kurosawa’s perfect samurai fable, “The Hidden Fortress” (1958) — with knights, princesses and light sabers.
'It’s A Wonderful Life' (1946)
Nominated for five Oscars (winning none), Frank Capra’s timeless classic captures the resilience of the American spirit and the power of staying the course. What better way to see how much your life matters than to be able to view two realities: the way things are and the way things might have been. George Bailey (James Stewart, perfect as the everyman with the weight of the world on his shoulders) runs a failing savings and loan and is about to cash in his chips (on life) when he’s pulled from his self-imposed fate by an angel (Henry Travers) who shows him how Bedford Falls would be without him — run over by the miserly Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, curmudgeonly mean-spirited from the confines of a wheelchair) and the good people of the town living far less happy lives. The power of revelation and community coming together is righteously bittersweet and joyous, and perfectly so on Christmas Eve. There should not be a dry eye about the room.
Another Hollywood classic that's family worthy, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) makes for a great classic Hollywood alternative in which Santa Claus gets put on trial. Edmund Gwenn won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as the Saint Nick up on the stand. The excellent cast includes Maureen O’Hara and a young Natalie Wood.
'Bad Santa' (2003)
For when the kids have gone to bed and you’re having that second glass of eggnog, or you want to prove to your high school senior or home from college co-ed who thinks you’re square and out of touch that you know how to have a naughty laugh or two. The debauchery in this gritty anti-holiday romp — a very dark comedy/crime caper — and Billy Bob Thornton’s tour de force as the booze-fueled Kris Kringle mall rat might all be an angry all-for-naught if it weren’t for him taking the side of a pudgy pre-teen (Brett Kelly) with a sweet disposition and a bullying problem. The combination of naughty nastiness and unwavering gullible naiveté is sheer magic.
Another option is “Trading Places” (1983), which also makes for a solid, adult family comedy — and with less sex and swearing. The comic pairing of Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd is equally inspired with the two SNL alums playing perfectly off each other as a small-time street con and an investment banker who have their roles flipped by one-percenters, enacting a social experiment for laughs. The core matter of the economic gap, that has widened in the 30-plus years since the film’s making, is all too hauntingly relevant given the political climate today.
'Die Hard' (1988)
This film is not just for the post-football game crew, though it may at first glance seem like just another male-bonding action flick. It also holds a tale of perseverance, love and redemption (for a more mature audience). The overall composition is something of a genius strike with a hard-boiled, yet plot-savvy script, boundless chemistry among the eclectic cast and biting comic undertones. Bruce Willis’ NYC cop makes for the perfect lone wolf after jetting to LA to reconnect with his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and finds that the Christmas party he’s supposed to pick her up at has been hijacked by terrorists and has become a hostage situation. What better way to say, 'I love you and Merry Christmas,' than taking out a few baddies? Willis slides seamlessly into the maverick cop role and is perfectly offset by a droll Alan Rickman as the cagy criminal mastermind, making this shootout at the Nakatomi Tower pure holiday bliss with bullets.
Support the news