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M.J. Daugherty Written by M.J. Daugherty
Dec. 7, 2005 | 7:50 PM

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by M.J. Daugherty

Ah, the holidays - that wonderful season when families all over the world come together for some quality time, like it or not.  For many parents, nothing provides holiday cheer better than a DVD to put everyone in the spirit of the season.  We all have a favorite holiday movie or special from our own childhood: Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or one of the other Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials.  Yet, as wonderful as these classics are, there comes a point where we also want something fresh.  For parents, finding a new holiday DVD that they will enjoy as much as their kids will can be a challenge.  With that in mind, here are my picks for holiday DVDs that will appeal to parents, children, and the child in all of us. 

THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004, 99 min., G)

The capture-motion animation of this beautiful film is impressive indeed, but it is the imagination and creativity of the storytelling that makes it more than just a special effects movie.  Based on, and borrowing the visual style of the children’s book of the same name, The Polar Express tells the surreal story of a little boy’s journey to the North Pole on a magical train.  Of course, in this world in which anything can happen, nothing is completely safe, either.  The boy’s journey is fraught with adventures, and the creepiness of the stop-motion characters only serves to underscore the fine line between dream and nightmare.  Many children’s films these days shy away from the mildly scary elements found in classic family films of the past (The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,  to name only a few examples).  Fortunately, this is one movie that embraces both the dark and the light, and ultimately, allows the audience to enjoy the ride with the breaks off. 

THE SMALL ONE (1978, 26 min.,G)

It may be a short, but this animated gem packs such a huge emotional punch that I get choked up just thinking about it.  This was Don Bluth’s last project for Disney before he left to found his own company, and it shows all the hallmarks of his style: simple animation, straightforward but clever storytelling, and a generous helping of “Kleenex moments.”  The message has a religious undertone, but speaks to a theme with which everyone can empathize: searching for love and acceptance.  The story revolves around a young boy in Biblical-era Judea who is forced to sell his favorite donkey after the animal is unable to carry his share of the workload; however, the boy is determined to find him a good home with someone who will love him for his other qualities - his gentleness, friendliness, and pluck.  Sadly, the people they meet are cruel, but just when all hope seems lost, they find the home they’ve been looking for through a touching plot twist.  This short can be found on Disney’s Classic Cartoon Favorites, Vol. 9: Classic Holiday Stories DVD, along with another holiday favorite, Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

MRS. SANTA CLAUS (1996, 90 min., G)

This made for TV movie musical is a charming reminder that family films can be entertaining and also have something to say about the world.  With songs by Jerry Herman, choreography by Rob Marshall, and Angela Lansbury heading a talented cast (including the late and much missed Michael Jeter), one could argue that they all could have stood there and read the phone book, and it would have been good.  Fortunately, there’s a plot to go with all that talent, too.  When Mrs. Claus crash lands in turn of the century Manhattan after Santa dismisses her attempts to improve his delivery route, she discovers a world that finally gives her a chance to be her own person, and she becomes involved with the women’s rights movement, protests the exploitation of child labor, and helps her multi-cultural neighbors to see eye to eye.  Some people fault this musical for overstepping its bounds and trying to teach the audience a lesson in social consciousness.  I, however, think that’s what makes this movie so special.  Just because it?s the holidays, it doesn’t mean we have to shut off our brains.         

THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992, 89 min., G) and
CHRISTMAS EVE ON SESAME STREET (1978, 60 min., not rated)

Simply put, the Muppets rock the holidays like no one else.  I’ve lost count of how many holiday movies and specials have come from the folks at Henson, but they’re all great.  These are two of my favorites.  In the first movie, Kermit and friends shake up an otherwise traditional adaptation of Dickens’ classic novel with their usual brand of heartfelt warmth and surreal humor that audiences of all ages will get.  Plus, it stars Michael Caine, who apparently can’t give anything short of a finely nuanced performance, even when acting opposite a piece of felt.  As for my second pick, the first Sesame Street holiday special won an Emmy the year it was originally broadcast, and over twenty-five years later, it still holds enough timeless heart and humor to captivate young viewers and bring back childhood memories for grown ups - especially for those who are old enough to remember (and still miss) Mr. Hooper.  It’s classic Sesame Street at its finest. 

THE ROBBIE THE REINDEER SHORTS (1999 & 2002, 30 min. each, not rated)

For anyone who can appreciate the effects behind the old Rankin/Bass holiday specials, but finds the stories a little too syrupy sweet, come these awesomely intelligent claymation shorts from the BBC.  Written by Four Weddings and a Funeral screenwriter Richard Curtis and the TV comedy team of Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil, Hooves of Fire and The Legend of the Lost Tribe follow the adventures of Robbie, the son of Rudolph, as he seeks to earn a place on Santa’s team, and later, when he must rescue the other reindeers from a nefarious scheme hatched by the evil Blitzen.  The U.S. DVD features two separate vocal tracks: one with the original British cast, and second version with voice talents that will be more recognizable to American audiences.  Each version is equally great, and amazingly, different enough that they are both worth watching.   


What’s not to love about a movie in which the leader of Halloweentown decides to kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas?  Tim Burton’s first stop-motion film also gives a nod to the Rankin/Bass specials, and then completely destroys them in one foul swoop as the well-meaning ghouls behind Halloween misunderstand everything about Christmas and unleash their chaos on an unsuspecting world.  It’s twisted and subversive, but completely delightful at the same time.  If you’ve had your fill of the overly sweet world of most animated holiday movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a sure fire antidote.

ELF (2003, 95 min., PG)

This is one of my favorite holiday movies, and fortunately, it also happens to be one that the whole family can appreciate.  This creative and intelligent comedy stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a man who has been raised by Santa’s elves, and who journeys to modern-day New York to look for his biological father.  The broad elements of this comedy are tempered by a genuine sweetness and heart as Buddy’s spirit slowly begins to change the cynical people who he meets in the city.  It?s a rare film that combines childlike humor with grown up comedy, and delivers it all with a great big bow of holiday cheer.   

A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983, 93 min., PG)

It has become a long-standing tradition in my family to watch this movie every Christmas eve.  Apparently, we aren’t alone in this.  A Christmas Story has become a holiday classic, thanks in part to TBS running it every year in a 24 hour marathon.  While this isn’t for families with very young children (unless you want them to run out and lick a flagpole), older kids will fully appreciate the trials and tribulations of Ralphie’s hysterical quest for the ultimate Christmas present, and grown-ups can enjoy the ironic humor of his “You’ll shoot your eye out” world.  No, it isn’t P.C., and yes, it completely deserves its PG rating, but it is probably the funniest holiday movie ever made.  If you’re tired of all the schmaltz, this movie is a guaranteed cure to put you back in good spirits?and, oh yeah, the kids will love it too. 

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