With Christmas coming up in a few days, I thought I’d start writing about a few of my favorite Christmas films. I’m going to start with one that’s an unknown gem, and it’s off most peoples radars: One Magic Christmas.
This film was released in 1985 by Walt Disney Pictures. It was shot in Canada, and features some incredible photography of a town just buried in snow. The film stars Mary Steenburgen, Harry Dean Stanton playing an angel (Harry Dean Stanton playing an angel. Think about that. The guys not exactly Cary Grant!), and the wonderful Jan Rubes (who starred as the Amish farmer in “Witness” with Harrison Ford that same year) as Santa Claus. The main pitch for this film would probably be a modern day Christmas Carol meets It’s a Wonderful Life.
The way the film starts…it at first seems like a pretty quiet story about a poor family trying to make a put together a decent Christmas for their two children. The father (Gary Basaraba) has plenty of dreams of his own…a bike shop he’s always wanted...and in the face of hard times he remains the optimist for his children. The mother Ginny (Mary Steenburgen) is not so much a Scrooge, but she’s overwhelmed trying to keep the family afloat with her job as a grocery clerk, and the Christmas season just puts overwhelming pressure on her. She is constantly fighting to keep her husband grounded and the family in a reality check. While the older boy Cal (Arthur Hill) is about 10 and doesn’t believe in Santa anymore, he and his father still keep the spirit alive for his sister, 6 year old Abbie (Elizabeth Harnois), even though mom, Ginnie, insists to her husband that its time their daughter knew the reality of their situation because she knows Abbie will be disappointed when Santa won’t be able to bring her all of the things that she wants. To help bring the Christmas spirit back into Ginnie’s life again is the help of an angel (Harry Dean Stanton), a former cowboy from the 1800’s who saved a boy from drowning in a river on Christmas, but ended up drowning himself in the process, which is how he became a Christmas angel.
It’s a pretty quiet and unassuming setup. It’s also a Disney film which will throw most people off when they first see this movie. But the setup is not nausating or difficult to sit through. It moves at a quiet steady pace. The characters are firmly grounded in reality. It’s not overly sentimental. The children are not only funny, but they act like real kids which is a complete blessing compared to most child actors today, who are made to “act” like kids instead of just being allowed to be one. The little girl Abbie especially, who we follow for a good portion of the film, is a very sweet and innocent child.
But that quiet unassuming setup, I will warn you, leads to one of the darkest turning points you will ever see in a Disney film. It’s as horribly upsetting as it is brilliant. It’s not over sentimentalized drama. It’s very real, powerful, and painful at the same time. Every time I’ve watched this film (even though I know its a Disney movie and everything turns out all right in the end) the pivitol turning point of the film always hits me hard. No one in the studios today would have the courage to do what they do in this film. And when this came out it got a G-rating. It’s not something I can talk about without spoiling the movie. But you will know it when it comes, and you won’t believe where this movie actually goes.
Out of the darkness however, I will say, it leads to the most wonderful thing about One Magic Christmas: Santa Claus. In my opinion, this movie has the very best Santa Claus ever put on film. He‘s the best Santa because he looks and acts like a real person. He’s old, and there are these funny things about his age, like he gets distracted when Mrs. Claus is trying to remind him about something. There are no elves in his workshop, but everyday people. His workshop feels like a real place. And while this is a subtle thing, the set for Santa’s mail room is just fantastic. The production design mixes a sense of reality to the fantasy. There‘s a great bit by a featured extra playing the mail room assistant, who is busy doing something and gets a pissy expression when Santa asks him to help with something. It’s great great stuff. Everything of course works out to a happy, fulfilling ending for a Christmas film, that’s not a huge celebration, but a quiet moment between two people. It ends on the perfect note.
I saw this movie as a kid, and as much as I always knew the dark moment in the film was coming, I have always loved this movie. Most people know that I love it when a movie turns to the dark side and does something completely unexpected and shocking. But aside from the fact that this film features one of those moments, even for its quiet moments, it’s still a really great Christmas movie. The children are at times very funny. It’s a movie that you should watch with your kids. When the actual fantasy portion of the film takes over at the North Pole, it just confirms in my mind that in the 80’s they really knew how to do fantasy right. It’s not clean or very CGI. It’s dirty and rustic. It’s flawed and broken and beaten up. But for me it captures the fantasy that exists in my own dreams in that mix between fantasy and reality. And it’s really great storytelling.
(One Magic Christmas is available on Instant Play on Netflix. See it for yourself!)