Extended Thoughts on ‘One Magic Christmas’
Directed by Phillip Borsos
Written by Phillip Borsos, Barry Healey, Thomas Meehan
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Harry Dean Stanton, Elisabeth Harnois, Gary Basaraba
I suppose it’s perfectly fitting that religion became a topic of discussion on our most recent episode, seeing as the movie we were discussing was set at Christmas, one of the most religious times of year. I alluded to this on the podcast, but I was not raised in any kind of religious setting. If secularism has become the prevailing attitude during the 21st-century holiday season, as is so often espoused by hand-wringing media pundits, it sprang forth from homes like the one I grew up in. Like Mike’s mom, my mother was raised Catholic and taught by nuns. She grew up in the working-class suburbs of Buffalo, New York, one of six children living under the rule of two strict, God-fearing parents. To my knowledge, as soon as my mom graduated high school, she ran as fast as she could from organized religion. My father was raised Jewish in the middle of Brooklyn, and though he was bar mitzvahed at age 13, he lapsed as well. His was a far more gradual shift, from what I understand.
But by the time I was born, and my parents were approaching age 30, they weren’t religious. When I was a kid, we celebrated the holidays without any thematic overtones. We always bought a Christmas tree to place in our living room, with red and blue and green and yellow lights twinkling during the month of December. We’d also celebrate Hanukkah, placing a worn but sturdy gold menorah on a banister dividing the edge of our living room with our dining room. I have fond if slightly hazy memories of helping my dad light the Hanukkah candles, and being able to see the flickering flames mingle with the patterned tree lights. For a long time, I didn’t really grasp the true origins of Hanukkah; the only gift-giving took place on the morning of December 25, as I grabbed the presents residing under and on top of pine needles. Though we lived in a small house—at least, that’s how I see it in my memories, as a fairly cramped abode—it was big enough for us to have a safe, happy, and fulfilling holiday season.
I don’t often get nostalgic for the past, as I’ve elucidated in innumerable columns, but at the holiday season, I tend to envy the idealized Christmas presented in films from or about the 1940s and 1950s, set in the American Midwest. I don’t know when I acknowledged this consciously, but ever since A Christmas Story became the king of all Christmas movies, at least according to TBS and TNT, I’ve imagined myself as little, bespectacled Ralphie. It’s not just that he gets the Red Ryder BB gun he’s wanted for the whole movie—as much as I love my parents and often enjoyed their gifts, I probably asked for too much each year and always wound up let down—it’s the environment in which he lives. The small-town setting wasn’t too dissimilar from my native city, North Tonawanda, New York. Still, the way that director Bob Clark captured the low-key positivity suffused in that place, even though none of the characters were immensely wealthy, felt familiar. Every Christmas was (and is still) an excuse to hearken back to the way things were in those postcard-esque depictions of America at the holidays. Here was a film that didn’t need to eschew realism while indulging in flights of fancy.
I mention all of this to explain why I look at Christmas movies in a fundamentally different way than Mike does. He believes the best Christmas movies start at a point of bleakness. And even in A Christmas Story, you could see bleakness of a certain kind. The iconic scene where Ralphie meets a department-store Santa certainly doesn’t enforce the trope that the jolly old elf is actually that jovial. And while I won’t disagree that It’s A Wonderful Life is immensely dark, inspired by the bitterness and resentment pervading the hearts of American men and women after World War II, I wouldn’t categorize it as one of my favorite films of the holiday. Memorable and beloved, sure, but not a film I frequently revisit. (As I consider this, I wonder if I’ve seen the movie in the last 10 years.) And now that Mike gave voice to the idea, I have a feeling that it’s the bleakness inherent in the story that turns me off.
I don’t want to make it sound like I refuse dark elements in my holiday-specific stories. I’ve mentioned in the past how much I love Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, arguably a grim tale. The only difference I can offer between that and the story of good old George Bailey—again, I haven’t seen It’s A Wonderful Life in a long time, so it’s perfectly possible that this is me grasping at straws—is that the former doesn’t wallow as much in the darker aspects of the main character’s journey of salvation. Perhaps also watching or reading about an almost comically evil man become good is more palatable than a nice man being beaten down by the world in spite of his innate goodness. Who’s a more interesting character to follow: Ebenezer Scrooge or Bob Cratchit? (Feel free to replace them with Mr. Potter and George Bailey. Bit of a stretch, but not that much.) In both cases, we know that the lead character will be won over by the spirit of the season, and that their lives will be changed immensely thanks to some form of magic. Whatever problems I have with It’s a Wonderful Life, I wouldn’t levy any criticism at the final scene, a truly cathartic sequence of cinema. The same goes for the final passage in A Christmas Carol, where, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the real Scrooge emerges, so giddy that his laughter turns to tears.
It’s that catharsis that keeps us going through the darkest of Christmas stories. When we go to a Disney movie, for example, we know in our bones that only so many terrible things will befall the lead characters, no matter how convinced we are emotionally of the opposite. Here’s a good example, since this column has quickly turned into me oversharing with you. When I saw Toy Story 3 in 2010, it came as Pixar was in the midst of a run of creative excellence, having preceded the third film in this superlative series with Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up. The latter two films, especially, also shared something else in common: they were unabashedly and unexpectedly heartbreaking. Moments in both films served to lay audiences low and either grab for tissues or pray that no one around them could see the tears streaking down their cheeks. For me, however, nothing topped the power of the last 20 minutes of Toy Story 3, a film that is a perfect capper on the story of Woody and Buzz Lightyear. (I am aware that this may no longer be a very popular opinion, but dissenters are clearly dead inside. I shall brook no argument on this point!)
As soon as Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toys are riding up the conveyor belt in the landfill to face their ultimate doom, I became aware of…let’s say there was a surprising amount of dust in the theater. Seconds later, when the toys were on a literal downward angle to being destroyed and Rex, the spineless but lovable dinosaur toy brought to life so cheerily by Wallace Shawn, slipped first, I let out an audible gasp. Oh my God, THEY’RE GOING TO KILL REX. HOW COULD THEY? This was my emotional side, so overwhelming that it took me a few seconds to realize that I was kind of shaking, trying to hold in my tears. I don’t cry often at movies, and was consciously taken aback at this visceral reaction. They won’t kill Rex, they can’t. It’s a Disney movie. People would riot. This was my logical side. That was quickly shouted down as I watched all of the toys head closer to the burning pit at the bottom of the landfill, holding hands as they faced death together. It’s an immensely powerful moment, something that transcends the fact that I was getting emotional over fictional characters who were also inanimate objects given personality. Yet here I was, in the top row of the IMAX theater, trying not to let my wife see what an emotional wreck her husband had become.
Of course, the toys didn’t die, because that logical side of my brain was right: it’s a Disney movie. They’re not going to die. The liberating moment came not only in finding out how Woody, Buzz, and friends survived—resulting in one of the greatest cinematic payoffs I’ve ever seen—but in seeing what became of them after their journey to the day-care center. Watching the toys’ original owner, Andy, literally hand them to a happy, adorable little girl who would be as much of a friend to them as he ever was…well, if I’d been crying a bit during the landfill scene, I was just about sobbing at the end. The film doesn’t have the same impact on me now, but I still well up in the last 20 minutes. The way that the filmmakers are able to totally and completely give the audience this nearly healing moment at the end of the film is truly impressive, a remarkable achievement unto itself.
I’d argue that this emotional release is important in the right kind of movie. And Christmas movies are the right kind of movie. I don’t automatically demand such an intense moment in each Christmas movie I watch, but I expect at least a minor one, especially in movies that clearly pay homage to It’s A Wonderful Life, which brings me to One Magic Christmas. (Yes, I finally reached the topic. Aren’t you proud of me?) I may not fully agree with Mike that bleakness is at the heart of every great Christmas film or story, but if that’s the case, shouldn’t we expect that core foundational element to be washed away by the end? Scrooge is a miser at the beginning of his story, but by the close, he’s repented and is not only materially wealthy, but he’s rich in spirit. George Bailey starts out at the end of his rope, but in the last scene, he not only appreciates how important he is to his family, friends, and town, but he’s rewarded financially for it. Dark feelings are perhaps more overwhelming as the holiday season approaches; it’s a common enough idea put forth in movies. However, it’s infrequent that whoever’s feeling blue doesn’t become the recipient of many reasons to be permanently cheerful in those movies.
Am I against a bleaker version of a Christmas story? No. Am I against a movie not willing to embrace its characters and the audience in a warm blanket of a happy ending? No. So what’s wrong with One Magic Christmas? The film’s commitment to reality goes too far. And frankly, it’s inconsistent. I’d love to know the impetus that director and co-writer Phillip Borsos had in creating a film where magic exists, but only to a certain extent. When a character dies, we’re told by a Christmas angel and Santa Claus himself that they do not have the power to bring said character back to life. However, the rekindling of the Christmas spirit can revive the dead man. So…it’s magic. Frankly, it’s passive-aggressive magic. If a person regaining the Christmas spirit could bring a man back to life, then we’d have a lot of dead people roaming the streets today. No, it’s Gideon the Christmas angel and Kris Kringle using their magic through a conduit, unwilling to take ownership.
This may not be the same kind of magic that allows Gideon the angel to protect the two children at the center of the film from being struck by a hockey puck, but it’s magic all the same. Why not allow magic to intrude on the end of the film, which offers the Grainger family, husband Jack, wife Ginny, and kids Cal and Abbie, a happy enough ending, but one tinged with immeasurable sadness? Why not let the Grainger family off the hook? On the one hand, it would be too unrealistic, but then, so are A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life. And so is One Magic Christmas. The problem, truly, with this 1985 family drama is not that it makes the Grainger life too realistic, it’s that the town where they live is portrayed too realistically, moving into melodrama.
Mary Steenburgen, as Ginny, and Elisabeth Harnois, as Abbie, are the only hints in this entire film of glamour. Steenburgen, already an Oscar winner, remains a luminous and talented actress even if she’s mostly relegated to playing the bland motherly character in Will Ferrell movies. Harnois has grown up to appear in various films and TV shows, and is equally beautiful. But everyone else in the town in One Magic Christmas just looks like a person you might walk by on the street and pay no mind. Gary Basaraba, much thinner now than he was on Boomtown, a show that probably few people remember despite its ambitious streak, looks like an average dad. Hell, even Harry Dean Stanton—not actually playing a citizen, but still—looks like just a guy. Granted, he’s very creepy even though Gideon is pure-hearted and helpful. Stanton’s always been memorable because you can see the life he’s lived in his craggy, weather-beaten face. The small town at the center of this film is as desolate, dying, and terribly sad to watch for 90 minutes. It’s not just Ginny who needs an injection of Christmas spirit, it’s everyone aside from her husband and kids.
So you could argue that One Magic Christmas ending on a slightly upbeat, but not extremely happy, note is par for the course. Ginny’s once again a Christmas believer—and considering that she’s literally encountered Santa Claus, she damn well better be—and her standing as a good wife and mother is solid. She’s also giving her husband a $5,000 check so that he can invest in a bike shop he wants to open. All’s well that ends well, right? Yeah, not so much. As Mike pointed out—and I’m glad he did because otherwise, I assumed I’d forgotten a scene—the Grainger family has to move out of their house on January 1. Frankly, this whole part of the movie is treated as an afterthought, which is a problem unto itself. The basic concept is that Jack, who’s been out of work since the summer, got the house they live in based on that now-nonexistent job. I can’t think of a lot of jobs in a lower-middle-class town that afford you a company house, as opposed to a company car or phone, but whatever. Because of the perk gone sour, the Graingers will be out on the street in a week. Ginny works as a grocery-store cashier, and Jack just tinkers in his basement with bicycles. This aspect of their lives has not changed by the end of the film. We are, I think, meant to assume that the bike-shop idea will work in Jack’s favor, but in a week’s time? Doubtful.
Also at the end of One Magic Christmas, Ginny finds that her boss at the grocery store isn’t a huge jerk, in that he gives her an extra day off to spend with her family at the holidays. Great! But it’s still a job at a grocery store. She’s not raking in big bucks. And, even worse, the check she’s giving Jack represents their entire life savings. The gesture is romantic and sincere, and one that needs to be made for the domestic arc to be resolved, I’ll grant you. However, a family that’s about to become homeless, pinning their hopes on a wing and a prayer in a town that’s expressly built to crush that wing and quash that prayer, is not a good way to end a Christmas movie. Frankly, I’d argue that even if you like your Christmas films with a twist of bleakness, the best don’t end on a dour note. Even the demented holiday films, the Bad Santas, end on a happy note relative to their worlds. One Magic Christmas ending on such a bittersweet note, emphasis on bitter, feels false to me.
Maybe the problem is that you can’t make a Christmas movie, a season associated with such baldly emotional and sentimental uplift, and have it be distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and still be successful. I don’t refuse to accept a downbeat ending from a Disney movie, but I don’t expect one either. More to the point, in a movie where magic exists, for it to not be used to better a person’s life or a town’s existence makes no sense. I wonder if the genesis of this film took it down an even darker direction, one that was less about magic. If not, there’s no point in incorporating such supernatural elements when they’re shuttled off to the side. Teasing an audience only works if there’s a payoff. One Magic Christmas doesn’t give us the right kind of payoff. Letting us see how Ginny has become a better and happier person is fine. But making personal improvement the crux of your Christmas story is missing the forest for the trees. Perhaps a religious background would make me a little more willing to accept such a small victory in a film set at this holy time of year. I can only guess, though; what I bring to the film is hope for something greater, hope for something that doesn’t arrive.