We’re deep into December, and I’m up to my knees in holiday movies and specials on home video.
A couple weeks ago, I did a story on the year’s new releases. The only thing I left out was the glut of sappy Hallmark/ABC Family/Lifetime films that show up every year.
Here’s a look at some of the newbies I’ve been watching. (Despite repeated requests to several PR reps, I never got a review copy of “Christmas Story 2.” I think that says it all.)
Arthur Christmas (Sony): At the top of any Christmas lovers list should be this utterly delightful animated movie from the studio behind the brilliant “Wallace & Gromit” films. Santa Claus (voiced by Jim Broadbent) is getting up there in years, and his son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who has turned the delivery process into a covert military-style operation, is ready to take over the reins.
But when his high-tech system leaves a girl without a present, and Steve and Santa are ready to call her collateral damage, Santa’s other son, klutzy Arthur (James McAvoy), teams up with Grand Santa (Bill Nighy) and expert elf gift-wrapper Bryony (Ashley Jensen) to make sure no child is left behind.
What follows is a rollicking, globe-trotting adventure filled with warmth, spirit, heart, humor, charm and the best Christmas sweater and slipper combo ever. Seriously, I want them both, especially the sweater.
I saw this film in theaters last year, and it was a joy to watch again during my vacation last week, especially with the pause option to catch background bits and other funny things I missed, such as text messages to Steve from his elf assistant, who seems to have a crush on him.
Brilliant, just brilliant.
“Elf-Man” (Anchor Bay): I almost stopped watching this movie after some dreadful acting and an unfortunate focus on reindeer poop/flatulence, but I decided to stick with it and was reasonably won over by its remaining charms. I can rattle off 10 Christmas movies that are far better than this off the top of my head, but if you and the kids are sick of watching them all over and over, you could do worse than “Elf Man.”
On Christmas Eve, a widowed scientist with a great name, Eric (Mackenzie Astin), makes a renewable energy breakthrough. Then, he has to run into town to pick up the Christmas ham from cute butcher Amy (Mirelly Taylor), and he’s promptly kidnapped by goons who somehow found out about the energy chip.
Back at home, kids Ryan and Casey (Blake Keiser and Carly Robell) worry about Dad not coming home. Casey wishes on an old elf doll, and Santa sends an elf (Jason “Wee Man” Acuña) to help track him down. After a bunch of ridiculous stuff happens, the elf becomes the superhero Elf-Man, and Christmas is saved.
But throughout all the hammy acting and implausible scenarios, Astin and Taylor make it watchable. It’s one of those feel-good family movies that’s a nice break from the deluge of Christmas dog movies.
“Muppet Christmas Carol” (Disney): For its 20th anniversary, Disney has released this holiday favorite on Blu-ray. Real actor Michael Caine plays Scrooge, but most everyone else is played by Muppets.
It’s the first Muppet film to come out after the visionary Jim Henson died, and son Brian Henson does an admirable job keeping his father’s legacy alive. It’s a hoot of a movie, with lots of warmth and humor (sound familiar?), plus plenty of Muppet antics. And great songs by Paul Williams. And since it’s based on another property, it has a timeless quality that keeps it from feeling dated.
To gussy up the release, Disney added some great Christmas carol sequences that play randomly when the movie is paused. They range from chickens clucking “Joy to the World” to penguins, um, quacking? “Deck the Halls.” Even the Swedish Chef shares a Christmas story. They’re a lot of fun.
The one downside to this release is that it doesn’t include the uncut widescreen version that includes the lovely song “When Love Is Gone.” It’s not even an extra by itself. This is a Blu-ray. It would have fit and satisfied hardcore fans like myself with little trouble.
“Kung Fu Panda Holiday” (DreamWorks): The TV special makes the jump to video, and it’s a cute story that maintains the spirit (and the voice cast) of the movies.
Po (Jack Black) must host the hoity-toity Winter Feast for all the other Kung Fu masters. It’s a dinner steeped in tradition and formality. You can see where this is going. Po would rather be helping at his father’s noodle shop as is his family tradition. Whatever will he do?
Like the movies, it’s a sweet story with a simple message wrapped up in silliness and kung fu action. It’s a trifle. But it’s a nice trifle and worth a look. Especially for the bunny with a death wish.
“Hanna-Barbera Christmas Classics Collection” (Warner Bros.): Available through the print-on-demand Warner Archive, this is a set of three specials I’d completely forgotten: “The Town Santa Forgot,” “A Christmas Story” (no, not the Ralphie version) and “Casper’s First Christmas.”
The first one is best left that way, but the other two are pleasant diversions. “Town” is a poorly animated story about a super greedy kid, and even the soothing voice of narrator Dick VanDyke can’t save it.
In “A Christmas Story,” a dog and a mouse hit the road on Christmas Eve after they discover their boy’s Christmas list was never mailed to Santa. It’s sweet, but I couldn’t get over the poor sense of place. The main characters look late 1800s, but there are some 1930s-ish cars on the road and decidedly modern backdrops. It’s weird.
The Casper story sees the friendly ghost welcoming a Hanna-Barbera crew that includes Yogi Bear, Boo-Boo, Huckleberry Hound, Snagglepuss, Quick Draw McGraw, Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy — characters you don’t see too often anymore. They all get lost on the way to the ski lodge and spend Christmas Eve in Casper’s soon-to-be-torn-down haunted house, much to the chagrin of fellow ghost Hairy Scary.
And I must end this round-up with a shout-out to one of my favorite Websites. A Cartoon Christmas digs up the latest, greatest, worst and most obscure Christmas TV specials to ever air and dissects one a day until Christmas. He’s built up quite an archive, and I look forward to clicking every day.