While a great Christmas movie has the power to remind you of everything you love about the season – and maybe even gives you ideas to incorporate into your own celebrations – a lousy one has the power to do just the opposite.
In my holiday film guide Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas, I try to focus on the ones that will give you visions of sugarplums, but the following titles will leave you feeling like you woke up to a stocking full of coal.
The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1966)
You know those movies about how Christmas isn’t just about gifts? In The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, the idea is that if Santa Claus doesn’t make it rain, the whole holiday will be cancelled. This dismal kiddie musical is clearly designed to be adorable and enchanting, but there’s something about the combination of a low budget, the ladies’ wigs on the elves, a smarmy script, and an inexperienced director at the helm (in this case, South Pacific star Rossano Brazzi) that makes the whole enterprise come off as skeevy and inappropriate. (And that’s not even counting the unfortunate-in-retrospect song “We’ve Got a Date with Children,” sung by Santa himself.)
Mean rich guy Phineas T. Prune (Brazzi) buys the North Pole to force Santa Claus (Alberto Rabagliati) out of his workshop, and only kindly lawyer Sam Whipple (1950s kids’ TV host Paul Tripp) and the children of the world can restore the holiday. Appropriate fare for irony-minded adults, but will probably warp actual children.
Deck the Halls (2006)
Matthew Broderick plays a stick-up-his-chimney WASP who oversees the postcard-perfect holiday celebrations in his idyllic New England town. All is merry and bright until vulgarian Danny DeVito moves in next door and starts setting up a lawn display that can literally be seen from space. Clearly, lessons are meant to be learned, and good cheer to be spread, by this loud, dopey comedy, but the two male leads are so utterly abrasive – while Kristin Davis and Kristin Chenoweth, as their wives, are shunted off to the margins to cross their arms and shake their heads – that you find yourself wishing for a Krampus-style blizzard and blackout to dim all the lights and to freeze all these dimwits.
The Family Stone (2005)
The dysfunctional-family Christmas comedy is one of my favorite sub-genres; nothing cuts through the sweetness of the season like watching the strained relations in The Ref or A Christmas Tale snipe at each other around the tree. But to get this kind of movie right, you have to believe in the characters and also hold out a glimmer of hope that their fractured familial bonds might be worth preserving. Neither is the case in this ham-fisted ensemble piece about a shrill woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) meeting the obnoxious family of her fiancé (Dermot Mulroney). Even worse, this is one of those movies that tries to garner unearned poignancy by killing someone off at Christmastime. The results are phonier, and harder to swallow, than sugar-free fruitcake.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
The original animated TV special, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is a perfect little gem, from the Boris Karloff narration to the memorable songs to its ultimate message about what really matters at Christmastime. Following the death of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, Hollywood got its mitts on his work, with the results ranging from the pretty-good (The Lorax) to the downright dreadful (The Cat in the Hat). On the awful end of the scale comes this bloated Ron Howard adaptation of the Grinch story, one where the Whos are rendered as visually hideous while the script also turns them all (save one) into greedy, grasping materialists, thus undoing the whole point of the story. And did we really need a backstory explaining why the Grinch (Jim Carrey, who’s at least having a ball) got so Grinchy? Stick to the Chuck Jones version.
Jingle All the Way (1996)
Not content to have violated the classic Christmas in Connecticut by directing a clunky and overbearing remake, Arnold Schwarzenegger plunged an additional sprig of holly into the heart of the holiday with this loud and stupid farce about an oblivious dad springing into action at the last minute in order to get his son the season’s hot toy. It’s a movie that revels in terrible behavior while at the same time pretending to be horrified by the lengths at which people will go to acquire the doodad of the moment, and while that’s a potentially entertaining idea for a movie, the bombastic overkill of the production drowns out most of the laughter.
Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (2014)
It would be one thing if child-star-turned-evangelistic-talking-head Cameron had trotted out the usual Jesus-is-the-reason-for-the-season bromides for this clumsily filmed treatise masquerading as a feature film, but this truly bizarre product goes in another direction entirely. Instead, Cameron is here to tell you why trees and presents and butter are not only awesome but also celebrated in the Bible. (Seriously, there’s a section in which he suggests wrapped gifts under the tree recreates the skyline of Bethlehem.) If you’re a fan of straw-man arguments, lengthy discussions inside mini-vans and unprompted white-people hip-hop dance numbers, this might be for you, but otherwise, Saving Christmas is a turd in the holiday punch bowl.
The Nutcracker in 3D (2010)
Sure, Tchaikovsky’s ballet has been beloved by audiences for over a century, but what it really needs is hip-hop orchestrations and holocaust metaphors. That seems to be the guiding influence of this nightmarish kid movie, despite the participation of lots of people who should have known better, from director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train) to lyricist Tim Rice and even Nathan Lane, who turns up as a dotty young Albert Einstein. (Don’t ask.) The story’s mice have been turned into Nazi rats – John Turturro gets to sport both pointy ears and an Andy Warhol wig – and the dancing isn’t nearly as lovely or as central as you might hope, in 3D or otherwise. (The home-video version is entitled The Nutcracker: The Untold Story, which I mention only so you can better avoid it.)