What happened to (good) Christmas movies?

They don’t make them like they used to — as archaic as that expression makes me sound. Heck, they don’t even make them at all, practically. Last year, I featured my five favorite Christmas movies, but none of them, naturally, come after 1996.

I’m not really complaining about this. Almost every “Christmas movie” that has come out in the 21st Century has been nothing short of garbage, so why ask for more? But if a movie about Christmas came out to good reviews it would make a killing, at least in comparison to its budget. Hollywood has spent so much time trying to make bank on Christmas spirit with half-assed family films that moviegoers have steered clear of most of them. There’s no real profit in it anymore. So instead we get “Little Fockers” come Yuletide. Hollywood, we want — nay, demand — good Christmas movies back.

The 21st Century has delivered a few true Christmas films come the Holiday season and many feel-good family affairs. There was nothing for Christmas fans this year. Last year, “It’s Complicated” offered the gooier family stuff and Disney’s stop-motion Robert Zemeckis film “A Christmas Carol” was the more Christmas-y film. It performed well, but was lost come Christmas time given the early November release so many Christmas films receive.

In 2008, “Marley & Me” won the Christmas box office (gooey family stuff marketed to seem Christmas-y when it wasn’t) while the Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon-starring “Four Christmases” was the proverbial “Christmas comedy.” Those two bankable stars brought in a $120-million domestic gross, but scored a very bad 25% Rotten Tomatoes score with critics. That was the second year in a row that Vaughn tried Christmas on for size. The year before, “Fred Claus” debuted Nov. 9 2007. The film was ripped by critics (21%) and made below $100 million worldwide. “This Christmas” was offered in advance of the Thanksgiving weekend, but catered to the Black family market.

In 2006 we saw the last actual “glut” of Christmas movies. “Deck the Halls,” starring Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick as neighbors in a house-lighting war, made under $50 million worldwide. Debuting in early November, of course, was “The Santa Clause 3,” which pitted Tim Allen as the Santa Claus against Martin Short’s Jack Frost. The unnecessary three-quel earned a 14% score and despite more than $80 million domestically, the film barely cracked $100 million worldwide. That’s another thing — Christmas movies virtually fail overseas entirely, which is much of why they’ve disappeared.

There was also “The Nativity Story,” in 2006, which aimed to capture that Christian audience that made “The Passion of the Christ” such a success in hopes of capturing the more religious spirit of the Holiday season. The film tanked with $46 million worldwide.

The earlier portion of the last decade has a few more bright spots. “The Polar Express” made $306 million worldwide in 2004 and enjoyed several reprise IMAX screenings the next couple years seeing as films were still not utilizing IMAX at that point in time. In 2002, “Elf,” easily the decade’s most popular Christmas movie, made $220 million worldwide (not very much of it was overseas, but a huge pull for a small movie). Certainly the novelty of Will Ferrell’s humor helped with the success of the film at the time.

Nevertheless, Jon Favreau’s “Elf” found a new way to capture the Christmas spirit in the form of a comically large man who believes he’s an elf and found his real human father in the big city. That’s all it takes — repackaging the Christmas message of giving and acceptance, which will last until the end of civilization, into something new and fresh. “Elf” cost just $33 million. Safe to say New Line made money on that one.

2000, however, might have provided the last real Christmas splash in the live-action version of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” from Ron Howard starring Jim Carrey. $353 million worldwide, albeit the story is classic and had a built-in audience. Simply put, those films don’t come around all that often. Few classics could be remade without being scorned.

So we’ve been on a downward slide since “The Polar Express” pretty much. How to get back on track? Christmas movies appear too American to succeed overseas, which studios have gradually become more and more concerned with considering most other countries that do good movie business are fairing better that the U.S. If they could tap back into that market, perhaps with something a little more adventurous and a bit less comedy, there could be a resurgence.

In fact, next year brings us “Arthur Christmas,” an animated film that “reveals” Santa’s high-tech operation to deliver all those presents on Christmas Eve and how his dysfunctional son Arthur must save the day. The film is being made by Aardman Animations, Nick Park’s company (the “Wallace & Grommit” movies) and as such features a style of animation not stop-motion but like it as well as a largely British cast, which should enhance its appeal overseas. A Thanksgiving release next year favors its success come the holidays. In fact, the marketing campaign has already begun to ensure this Christmas film’s success in 11 months.

Christmas movies are the kind we take joy in revisiting every year, which means there can’t be enough of them to at least vary up the kind of crud that shows up on TV every December. Modern times and audience tastes should not inherently mean the extinction of this unique and special sub-genre.

But more importantly,

Merry Christmas from Movie Muse!

1 Comment

  1. Michael Moramarco says:

    Hey, are we not considering “Love Actually” a Christmas movie? Because… that movie kicks ass.

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