Therefore, rather than have both this month’s mini-review round-up run overly-long as well as next months capsule review log, I figured it’d be good to siphon off the holiday-themed offerings, as not only will I try and do more of these this year, but there are enough special reviews coming next month and one post should suffice for them. If any films are new and holiday they will link from the other posts to text here.
For a reference to what my ratings mean, go here.
A Chrismoose Carol
This is one of the films I picked up after getting a region-free player. I saw a trailer for it and it just seemed like the kind of thing too silly not to give a shot. What’s refreshing is that the film is playing comedy throughout. Yes, there are overtures of schmaltz and warm-fuzziness, it is a Christmas film after all, but it’s eminently more watchable and enjoyable than I ever thought it would be – and really should have any right to be. Part of this has to do with just a different perspective. Heaven forbid an American film try and get away with a Santa getting drunk and distracted, yet still trying to make a positive film, much less having it actually be Santa and not a mall employee or a psychopath. What the film deals mostly with is a thankfully practical and rather well-crafted Moose character (It seemed rather Falkor-like, I wonder if there is any connection to NES) and adds its own spin, and a rather cloistered tale that is neither a retread or earth-shattering in its repercussions as “disaster” is being avoided. A funny anecdote is that when I was younger I’d always insist on writing the original title of the film. However, seeing Es ist ein Elch entsprungen plastered on the box and being unable to record it to memory made me learn the English title, as silly and punny as it is.
Home Alone: Holiday Heist
Now, I for one have written on this franchise on this site on a few occasions, once in theory and once when news broke. Similar to the way in which some can engage in auteur criticism, I feel that series and/or franchises can burrow out their own niche and create their own sort of scale. After all, when judging a film for what it’s trying to be the fact that it’s an installment in, or a continuation of, a series factors in.
When I wrote on Home Alone continuing and/or rebooting the idea I was leveraging was the fact that this is now a conceptual series. The series of films is predicated on a kid or kids being caught at home, without their parents, having to defend their house, and ultimately themselves. It almost always had to be that way. Disregarding the fact that in part two Kevin is not home, the fact that he is separated from his family anew is a major challenge to suspension of disbelief. So it was always likely to, and thankfully has, become a series wherein its concept-driven. Thus, whatever the other challenges brought up to each installment how Kevin gets lost again, is no longer a concern. Horror franchises with iconic killers have that issue of trying to bring back their seemingly dead, yet ultimately immortal lead – this is a major encumbrance lifted.
When I wrote about it as a news item it was to confirm that one of my wild postulations was really coming to fruition. I do have a tendency to err on the side of positivity over cynicism more often than not, but I had a few reasons to be optimistic. Based on the casting and story news that came out it seemed like the upcoming film would return closer to the core of what these films are. The series went out on a limb in part three and broke said limb off in part four. This looked like a very promising restart based on early indicators.
So? Now, it’s aired, and I’ve seen it, what did I make of it? The short version of it is that there was room for this film to be much more than a decent, enjoyable restart had there been some shifts in focus, both story and production-wise. Having said that after the precipitous slope the franchise was on, this is welcome and refreshing course correction for the most part. It’s just that the potential existed for it to surpass even my modestly lofty expectations.
The best elements of the film are: the booby-trapping motif is introduced prior to the reality of burglary dawning on the characters, the in-jokes regarding the series are plenty good, the performances of Christian Martyn (whose turn in this archetype I’d rank as best barring Culkin) and Jodelle Ferland (whose inclusion and progression adds an interesting dynamic to the film), the dichotomy of Finn’s character and its slight, steady arching; and the presence of the seemingly random neighbor-kid (Peter DaCunha) who does occasionally add humor and plot functionality.
Where the film misses opportunities in narrative is that it tries too hard to shoehorn what it feels are mandatory elements of a Home Alone film such as a misunderstood stranger who befriends the lead and doesn’t have a place to go for Christmas. Yes, there are anticipated elements, but each narrative has its own set of dynamics and fitting molds or formulas at times restricts the tale at hand.
An example of not wanting to fit a mold is giving the crooks a lot more backstory and justification than is really necessary. The emphasis on name recognition for the triad of crooks (Malcolm McDowell, Debi Mazar and Eddie Steeples) I feel is detrimental to the film because they get over-exposed and over-wrought and the parents are under-written and under-represented.
The dialogue misfires quite a few times which is a shame when there are some good situations introduced, but there are the occasional good cinematic touches, which goes beyond the production design, there is the rotoscopic montage of the booby trap prep and some of the set-ups for the crooks are visually intriguing.
I enjoyed this film but what wass perhaps most surprising is that there were opportunities for it to be more than just a pleasant pastime and be a legitimately, unassailably solid upgrade to the sequels that had come to this series that could even serve as a springboard. Shortcomings are almost inevitable in any film, it just seems that they came in unexpected areas here and some harder elements were well-executed and some given less priority. However, it ultimately serves its purpose as a redemptive feature for the series, but could’ve been much more.
The Little Drummer Boy Book II
This is the first of four Rankin/Bass specials that are included in a new release from Warner Archive, which collects four lesser-known Christmas-themed releases from the most famous, prolific producers in this niche. Firstly, in terms of restoration this film is in much better shape than the version of the original that I have. What is fairly refreshing story-wise is that it literally picks up immediately following the first special, and tells the tale of how the news of the fulfilled prophecy is to be spread, and what obstacles must be overcome. The music (the choir-work in this one uncredited) is chillingly good. The narrative is a bit thinner, the songs a bit more filler than the original, but it is a worthy follow-up with some surprises in store. It’s also fantastic that Greer Garson is once again the storyteller.
The Leprechauns’ Christmas Gold
This film continues my going through Warner Archive’s great new Christmas special set by the masters of the subgenre. Here again they have Romeo Muller back to script the tale, and it’s a good thing they do because his acumen is about all that makes this tale float. What’s good about it is that it gives me a little more banshee-related info than I had prior, but it is a most odd tale indeed. The elements mixed in of leprechauns, banshees and wayward sailors are those or darker tales and mystical tomes, but the tone is the same as their other works, yet the Christmas element is more secular than ever, if not downright pagan. This is not a moral judgment, it just makes the balancing of tone harder but the tale manages. It’s an enjoyable, odd little entry in their canon.
The Stingiest Man in Town
This is yet another rendition of Charles Dickens’ eternal classic A Christmas Carol. Not only is it another adaptation, but it’s also another musical version. Even removing non-diegetic elements that bother me like comparing it to other adaptations or how the characters are really caricatures of the actors playing them, there are many things just off about this version. The songs are inconsistent at best both in lyrical and vocal quality, as is, surprisingly enough, the voice acting; though that could have something to do with direction. The story is also oddly structured inasmuch as there is a lot of denouement. Scrooge has seen the error of his ways and the tale just lingers; removing the impact of the change in his heart. I could go on, but these are the main objections I have.
Part of the appeal of this Warner Archive set was that I had never, or thought I had never, seen all the specials on this disc. No other film in this set gave me the feeling of déjà vu as this one. However, I cannot say of that is for real, and even if it is, I cannot guarantee I saw the whole film even if I did see it before. Out of all of these, this is the best example of the Rankin/Bass style the songs and lyrics, and vocal stylings are all top notch. It takes the Pinocchio lore and not only tells a Christmas tale with it but tells only part of the story. It’s an hour-long special that not only fits the allotted running time, but thrives because of it. There is also plenty of humor and wonderful sets. This may not be a household name special but it it on par with the best.
Help for the Holidays
Here’s another holiday-themed film not only with an Elf element, but also with the now ubiquitous conquering-the-loss-of-Christmas-spirit problem. While the end result is predictable enough, as is some of the early path, there are enough wrinkles and well-timed moves to keep it rather enjoyable in the middle. The issues, and ultimately downfall are due to a few narrative inconsistencies, the unintentional casting of a creepy Santa and the redundant uninspired score which assails your ear throughout the entirety of the film.