Santa Girl (2019)
available on Netflix
By Jordan Stokes
Listen: most of these movies want to be Sweet Home Alabama. That’s the schtick. That’s the model. Sandblast away all the tinsel and nutmeg, and that’s what you’re left with. Big city career girl (or guy) reconnects with, or connects with, or meets cute with, or receives an organ transplant from, a down-to-earth small town guy (or girl) with simple values and a heart as big and as free as the skies of the plains states, where America grows its corn.
Every now and then, though, you run into a movie that wants to be Elf.
One such is Santa Girl, which dares to ask “what would happen if Santa had a daughter who wanted a human life?” And then, upon realizing that the answer to that question is “nothing interesting,” proceeds to squash that story under a series of largely unexplored conceits.
Conceit the first: Santa, played by a slumming Barry Bostwick, is a corporate executive who has lost track of the true meaning of Christmas because he’s so worried about keeping SantaCorp afloat. (No solution to this problem is ever presented. Hell, the problem is barely presented. It’s a reason for Santa to be cold to his daughter, that’s all.)
Conceit the second: the universe where this takes place is something like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Legend of the Guardians, where every folk belief manifests as a kingdom ruled by a personification of that story. We get to see Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and Jack Frost. The ramifications of this are never really explored. (It seems pretty clear that they needed a villain, and built the world around that.)
Either one of these could have been a movie. It’s conceivable that they could even be combined into one successful movie, somehow? Here, though, Santa is trying to marry his daughter off to Jack Frost Jr., the scion of the Frost clan, because this is going to save his business somehow. (I guess they have all that… coldness… money? Or something?) Jack Frost Sr., who is made up like the Jotuns from Marvel’s Thor in case you needed a hint who the villain is, wants to make sure that the marriage goes through, so that he can stage a hostile takeover of SantaCorp. Or he wants to make sure that it doesn’t go through, because the ridiculous contract that he got Santa to sign means that he gets to have SantaCorp lock stock and barrel if Santa backs out of the deal. (If you think about this for a minute, it’s literally indifferent to him which of these things happen—which makes his behavior elsewhere in the movie hard to explain.) And poor little Cassie Claus just wants to strike out on her own and have a human life at human college. Santa decides to let her have one year as long as she promises to come home and get married when she’s done — and as long as she takes along a servant/bodyguard named Pep the Elf. (Which means that this movie is kind of also trying to be Coming to America, if you think about it.)
But again, the movie that this really wants to be is Elf. You’ve got this person who was raised on the North Pole, who comes to hang out in our cynical world. She eats nothing but sweets and she doesn’t know what irony is. Shenanigans ensue! Only not really, because the thing that they don’t teach you in school is that shenanigans don’t just ensue, you have to WRITE the fucking shenanigans, and they didn’t. Cassie bumbles around college, getting mocked for her naiveté, flirting with two different boys, eating too much cake in the dining hall, and going to class exactly twice. Most of that takes place during a montage.
There’s more to the plot, I suppose. One of the boys turns out to be Jack Frost Jr., in disguise, sent by his awful father to make sure that the marriage goes through. (Which, again: why??) She eventually ends up with the other guy, of course, who manages to get Santa out of Jack Frost Sr.’s contract because he’s pre-law. Frost ends up falling into a wedding cake. I honestly can’t force myself to care about the plot—but to be fair, neither did the writers.
But let us now take a moment to praise McKayla Witt, who plays Pep the Elf. This is kind of a wild call to make, this early in her career, but I’m gonna say it anyway: McKayla Witt is an Actor Who Works. Remember: we don’t assign that title based on people’s willingness to appear in literally any film. It manifests as that, if you’re Nicolas Cage, or Tilda Swinton. But what makes someone an actor who works is a certain dedication to the craft: the ability to take a thankless role, or a bizarre line of dialogue, and address yourself to it with full commitment and sincerity. It’s not that Nicolas Cage just appears in all these movies! It’s that he Nic Cages the hell out of every single one of them. Well, McKayla Witt brings that same level of commitment to her extremely thankless part in this. I ask you: could even a Cage or a Swinton have managed to wrap their mouths around this dialogue?
Pep: Look, I’m a simple elf. I make my toys, I eat my candy, I love to frolic.
Cassie’s doofy human love interest: Frolic?
Pep: Elves frolic! But I know this: you have to follow your heart. And if you like her the way I think you do, you have to tell her.
McKayla Witt delivers that line with full. Commitment. And all while wearing prosthetic elf ears. It’s actually weirdly moving, although not for the reasons that it’s meant to be.
Several of the characters are full-blown magical creatures, and Cassie has magical powers of her own. But she only uses them for a running gag where she teleports to class, surprising a fat student who sits next to her so that he spills his soda. This feels like it shouldn’t count.
Cassie sort of gets a moment with her father towards the end? But the only relationship in the film that feels real is the gradually deepening friendship between Cassie and Pep (who once again is the clear MVP in all this).
“Hey so guys in my script there was a post-it note that said “romantic tension TK” right next to another post-it note that said “shenanigans TK,” is my character supposed to, like, feel anything? Or like do anything?”
McKayla Witt: ★★★★★
This is currently the maximum level of McKayla Witt that it is possible to obtain. (Her only other acting credit, per IMDB, is an episode of Station 19, where she played “Teen.”) Mark my words: one of these days, I am going to turn on the TV and see her in a real movie, and it is going to warm the cockles of my heart. “Hey, it’s Pep the freaking Elf!” I’ll say. “She made it! She really made it! Look at her, handing Sandra Bullock that coffee.”
Time for Us to Come Home for Christmas (2020)
By Peter Fenzel
Lacey Chabert, the chaste queen of clean-cut seasonal fare, plays hardworking, golden-hearted single attorney Sarah, settling the affairs of her recently departed mother through the holiday season. She thinks her big city law firm has gifted her a stay at a distant, rustic inn to recover. But each of the inn’s guests, each with their secrets, has received an invitation of unknown provenance. Who wants them together on Christmas? Why? In this tale from Hallmark Movies & Mysteries…
They all get murdered?
…writer Marcy Holland (of Ozark Sharks, Mississippi River Shark, Trailer Park Shark, and Santa Jaws) reimagines the classic Agatha Christie mystery And Then There Were None, which changed its name once for being too racist, then changed its name again for being too racist, and here has changed its name and storyline for being insufficiently stocked with Christmas Cheer and ornament-decorating scenes.
So they all get murdered by sharks?
A tall, handsome bachelor who needs a kind someone to open his heart runs the inn. His friendly sister tries to set him up with the girls around town, but he needs to find love on his own. He moved back to his family’s hideaway when he found life on Wall Street unfulfilling; who knows where his life will lead? It’s just like every other Christmas romance of its type, with a big twist.
They all get murdered?
The inn’s guests discover photos of their lost loved ones scattered across wall displays. The musician’s dead wife. The lawyer’s dead mom. The older divorcee’s ex-boyfriend, whom she always loved. And for the frazzled dad, himself as a child. All these departed figures stand together in a single photo from a Christmas long ago, at this very inn…
All murdered? All of them? They get?
Through it, a white-haired woman in a thick, grand red coat glides. The inn’s old owner gently laughs: “Oh! Oh! Oh!” And the lobby cuckoo clock has been turned off its regular time. But on the day after Christmas, the attorney is leaving for another big city… forever. Or is she? She sings a song she’s always known, from a lost Christmas record… that was only pressed a hundred times… but how is a copy of the record…. right… here? In this inn?
Total murder, right?
And with that banana bunch of Swords of Damocles dangling above our cadre of the lost, the movie’s brisk 80 minutes conclude, amid confessions of love and family healing.
So no murder, no. None at all? Just the usual stuff?
I’m certain as the angel on top of the tree that if the movie had merely 15 more minutes of running time, we’d have found our first guest with a reindeer antler hooked roundf his neck or a candy cane to the heart, and the story would write itself from there. But no. It’s a murder mystery with no murder.
You said there was a twist!
Oh yeah, when the big city lawyer and the handsome innkeeper confess their feelings to each other in the snow at the end, and the lawyer decides not to move to Seattle after all, they don’t kiss.
They go inside and kiss there. Exactly once.
Two stars for a huge number of spooky coincidences.
There is a lot of family in this movie, but it is almost entirely centered on grief. Like, really sad grief.
I didn’t find the romance in this movie either exciting from a fantasy perspective or notable from a chemistry perspective. Both leads are good, but they belong with other people. Also, with so many characters in the movie, somebody else should have also found love somewhere.
Zero murders; zero stars.
NOTE: In addition to the multiple horror movies she wrote about Mid-American freshwater shark attacks and a wide variety of TV movies, Marcy Holland has written several similar holiday movies for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. One of them, which came out last year, was called Time for You to Come Home for Christmas. This one is called Time for Us to Come Home for Christmas. Despite the nearly identical titles, similar themes and Hallmark affiliation, the movies appear to be unrelated.
Jingle Jangle (2020)
By Matthew Belinkie
There’s a lot to like about Jingle Jangle. It’s set in a Christmas fairy tale world that starts with Dickensian England, adds a touch of steampunk, and makes all the costumes blindingly colorful. The mostly African-American cast is top notch, including Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as a genius inventor, Keegan-Michael Key as his former assistant-turned rival, Phylicia Rashad, and Anika Noni Rose (who voiced Tiana in The Princess and the Frog and won a Tony for Caroline, or Change). It’s a full-on musical with 10 original songs (sample title: “Square Root of Possible”), co-written by EGOT recipient John Legend and choreographed in frenetic style by the guy behind The Greatest Showman.
So why does the whole thing feel a little underwhelming?
I think part of it is Whitaker himself. He plays Jeronicus Jangle, once the greatest toymaker who ever lived but broken by the twin catastrophes of losing his book of inventions and losing his wife (although honestly, the movie kinda makes it seem like the former was a bigger deal). I don’t know whether he was misdirected, but Whitaker just seems kind of listless through most of the proceedings, especially juxtaposed with the other cast members who are bringing manic Broadway energy to every number. I think A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas proved that you can be a cranky misanthrope with lots of scenery-chewing energy. It also doesn’t help that, unlike Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman, Whitaker just isn’t a great singer (and he doesn’t even attempt to dance, probably for the best).
But I think the biggest problem is that for a movie that’s supposed to be about the wonder and joy of creativity (one of the producers described it as “black Willy Wonka”) there’s a strange lack of invention on display. In an early scene we see a young Jangle build a fully alive and aware clockwork matador (played with suave gusto by none other than Ricky Martin), which is maybe a little TOO good an invention. He’s a toymaker, not Tony Stark, you know? Then in the present day, the only invention we see is a cute little robot reminiscent of Short Circuit, and Jangle doesn’t even build it onscreen—it’s just sitting around from decades ago waiting for Jangle’s precocious visiting granddaughter to bring it to life with the sheer power of her belief.
This movie is sorely lacking that Willy Wonka or Harry Potter feeling of discovery crammed into every scene, and without that we’re left with a pretty standard “cranky man has his heart melted by a cute little girl” movie. But now that Jangle has got his groove back, I’d be curious about a sequel where his inventiveness is shown, not told.
(By the way, I just wanted to mention that the only white person in the main cast is the extremely white Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame, who plays a banker who is literally planning to evict Jangle on Christmas Day. You can’t give him until the 26th, Grantham? Even Carson would give him until the 26th.)
This movie ends with all the main characters literally flying for no discernible reason. This is not how toys work, guys.
This is a story that spans FIVE generations (!) and insists that not only is family the most important thing, if you neglect family you wind up with nothing.
Jeronicus’s mail-lady is thirsty af, leading to a couple antique but still cute “oh look, mistletoe” bits.
La Navidad Loca: ★★★★★
Seriously, Ricky Martin is delightful as a renegade toy who becomes the devil on the reluctant villain’s shoulder (literally).
A Nashville Christmas Carol (2020)
By Matthew Wrather
Vivienne, a workaholic television producer (Jessy Schram, a platinum blonde who looks like Anna Camp or Brittany Snow) in Nashville, TN, has just a couple days to pull together her country music Christmas Special. Naturally, she’s going to work nonstop through the holiday, but she is visited by the ghost of her mentor (Wynonna Judd (!!!)), who warns Vivienne to quit it with the type-A nonsense so as not to end up lonely dead as she did. She will be visited by spirits through the night who will make her understand the true meaning of Christmas.
Through the intervention of the Spirit of Christmas Past (Kix Brooks) and the Spirit of Christmas present (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), Viv comes to understand the roots of her workaholism, her controlling attitude toward her sister, and her alienation from her childhood best friend who just so happens to be managing one of the singers on her show and who is of course her soulmate. Various inconsequential professional obstacles involving a tired old star and a dewy new one result in a Christmas duet which makes the show the best ever. Vivienne ends the movie with a boyfriend, a promotion, and a renewed appreciation for what her Nashville home means to her.
But guys, there’s a problem. There’s only two spirits. There’s no Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come. (Because the future is what you make it!) And this is a storytelling problem, because without a Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come there’s no stakes. Vivienne seems stressed and a little career-obsessed but basically fine, and Wynonna Judd looks top peaceful to have suffered any serious consequences in the afterlife. (Read the Jacob Marley sections in Dickens’s original if you’re in the mood to have your hair stand on end.) Christmas Past tell us how we got this way; Christmas Present gives us insight into others; and Christmas Yet To Come takes us beyond the span of our lifetime warns starkly that our inaction will have stark consequences after our death.
It seems ghoulish to belabor this point when Christmas Day 2020 brought the actual Nashville, TN such a horrifying reminder of life’s fragility and the tragic consequences of our lapses into inhumanity. But in a life where death is one of few certainties, a recognition of our mortality is the minimum basis for empathy. In the novella, Dickens describes Scrooge’s lack of moral imagination as a failure to see that we are all “fellow passengers to the grave.” Country music itself is imbued with the tragic sense, and is not shy about addressing ultimate matters in direct terms.
That said, given how 2020 has actually transpired, let’s not dwell on this observation, and instead take A Nashville Christmas Carol as a celebration of a city, its music, and its people—who could probably use a little Christmas cheer. God bless them. And God Bless Us, Every One.
Wynonna Judd herself is a Christmas miracle, and the ease with which Viv accepts that she’s being taken on a magical journey (none of the tiresome, “Wait, what’s happening? Where am I? Why can’t they hear me talk?”), is a blessed relief.
An absent mom led Vivienne to sacrifice her own childhood so her sister Georgia could have one. But Georgia’s present-day subplot is perplexing. Viv decides to let her continue to work as her assistant instead of starting Law School “in the spring” (?), and this is somehow indicates she Understands What Matters.
Solid “my childhood best friend was my soulmate all along” plot.
Christmas classics sung by country music stars. It’s overproduced, like a lot of what comes out of Nashville, but these folks have talent and charisma to burn.