Christmas Challenge Film #10: Arthur Christmas (2011, Directed by Sarah Smith) English 6

Every few years or so, you’ll see something of a high-concept Christmas flick hit theaters. The Santa Claus (1994) is probably the most successful example. They take the conventions or the mythology behind Christmas and attempt to put a new spin on it. Arthur Christmas is such a film. I saw it seven years ago during its original release, in theaters, and rewatched it this week as part of my Christmas film challenge.Image result for arthur christmasArthur Christmas imagines the behind-the-scenes workings of Santa Claus as a family-run, multi-generational operation: Malcolm, the father, Margaret, the mother, Steven the oldest son, and Arthur the second son. There’s also the slightly loopy Grandsanta (voiced by Bill Nighy).  Malcolm (voiced by Jim Broadbent), the current “Santa Claus,” is more of a figurehead than a leader. It’s his oldest son, Steven (voiced by Hugh Laurie), who runs most of the day-to-day operations, oversees the presents, and sets up a bevvy of cutting-edge technology to make Christmas more efficient than ever before. Steven’s ready to take over as Santa Claus. Malcolm has been considering retiring for years now, and the entire family anticipates him turning things over to his oldest son, but Christmas eve comes, and Malcolm announces that he’ll continue on. Steven is irate. Worse still, it seems that some child’s present slipped through the cracks, and wasn’t delivered. The only person who shows much concern is Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy), the well-meaning, but often in the way Claus. He sets out to deliver the present with only the help of similarly looked-over elf, Bryony, and Grandsanta, who has ulterior motives.

Arthur Christmas is appealing, clever, and wonderfully animated, as is the case with all of Aardman’s productions. I do think it’s a bit iconoclastic in that Santa looks like an incompetent jerk for most of the movie. I wonder how that plays over with kids. That aside, it’s a good film, and worthy of making its way into your Christmas flick rotation.

(6-Good Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #9: Elf (2003, Directed by Jon Favreau) English 9

Some films reveal their greatness on impact, others over time. When Elf was released back in 2003, it was a big hit, well-reviewed by critics, and I certainly enjoyed it. I had no idea, however, that I would be watching it every year, for fifteen years straight. Naturally, I included it in my, now, time-crunched quest to watch 25 Christmas movies before the big day. Elf comes in at number 9. Oy vey! I have a long ways to go, and very little time left. I still believe in myself. I can do it.

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Elf was SNL alum, Will Ferrell’s first great star vehicle. He plays Buddy, an orphan human, adopted as a baby and raised by Papa Elf (inspired casting in Bob Newhart), growing up among Santa’s little helpers in the North Pole. As he becomes older, he finds it hard to fit in, and, eventually Papa Elf tells him the truth: he’s a human. His mother is dead, but his father’s alive, and lives in New York. Buddy sets out from the North Pole, and heads to New York to meet his dad, whom he learns made Santa’s naughty list and is working as a children’s book publisher. The film then becomes a holly jolly fish-out-of-water tale. Buddy, with his intense cheer, comes across to New Yorkers, as delusional. The first part of Buddy’s arrival in New York contain the film’s best scenes. Buddy’s able to find his dad (played by James Caan) in his big office, but thrown out almost immediately. Buddy begins a job working in a department store under the purview of the unfortunately named Wanda (played hilariously by Faizon Love). There he meets pretty coworker, Jovie (Deschanel), before he’s ultimately able to reconnect with his father. I especially love this section of Elf.

Elf endures as a classic because it’s funny, and it’s a sincere Christmas movie. The casting is perfect for every role; from Will Ferrell to Peter Dinklage to Faizon Love and Newhart whom I already mentioned. I look forward to watching it again next Christmas.

(9-Great Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #8: The Christmas Chronicles (2018, Directed by Clay Kaytis) English 6

Filmmaker Chris Columbus is a slave to sentimentality and not much concerned with the visual aspect of  filmmaking. Despite his limitations, he’s responsible for some fantastic films: Gremlins, Adventures in Babysitting, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland,  Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, the first two Harry Potters. His newest film, which he produces, is The Christmas Chronicles, written by Matt Lieberman, directed by Clay Kaytis. It’s a solid production, and very likely the best Christmas movie made exclusively for Netflix yet. I’ve worked my way through the streaming service’s catalog of Christmas films, and they are all decent, good-spirited adventures, but the Christmas Chronicles is the only one with any sense of broader appeal. The fun for all ages slogan is mostly true here.

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The Christmas Chronicles begins with memories of the good times the Pierce family have shared during past Christmas seasons. As we catch up to the present, we see that the father, Doug (Oliver Hudson), has died (in the line of duty as a fireman), and the rest of the family is struggling to adjust: the mom, Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley),  works full-time as a nurse, and hardly has time to spend with her kids, 10-year-old daughter, Kate, is constantly getting in fights with her older brother, Teddy, who’s become a delinquent since his father’s death. It’s not an altogether original premise, but still proves effective. When Kate catches Teddy stealing a car with a group of his new criminal friends on camera (she’s an avid filmer), she blackmails him into helping her get an image of Santa Claus on tape, to prove he’s real, as Christmas Eve approaches. They wind up causing Santa Claus (Kurt Russell) a heap of trouble, and to atone, they work to help him get Christmas back on track so that he can deliver each present on time.

The real attraction is the headliner, Kurt Russell, and he makes for a wonderful Santa Claus. He’s boisterous, rowdy, fun, and versatile enough to move between comedy and some of the later dramatic moments with ease. I’d love to see him return to this role for another adventure. The children’s story is standard in many ways, but it’s mostly an excuse to get to the film’s more creative ideas: Kurt Russell’s take on the character and the elves.

Netflix has yet to put out a masterpiece (though I haven’t seen Roma yet), and The Christmas Chronicles isn’t one, but it is an entertaining holiday film for the family. There’s a cameo at the end of the film, that is entirely predictable, but very much welcome.

 (6-Good Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-



Christmas Challenge Film #7: The Princess Switch (2018, Directed by Mike Rohl) English 5

For my seventh film on my quest to watch 25 Christmas movies before Christmas day, I watched The Princess Switch. It’s also the third Netflix original movie I’ve watched during this challenge; A Christmas Prince and Christmas Inheritance being the first two. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish which of the three is superior. They are all par for the course. Sweet, competent, bright, warm, reliable, fairy tale, happy endings, family-friendly entertainment. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. Apparently there is a sizable audience for these films, since they keep making them. A Christmas Prince even has a sequel Netflix just released. I’ll probably watch it before my challenge is through. But back to The Princess Switch. It feels very much like a direct descendant of A Christmas Prince. A nice, pretty girl, not royalty, has a whirlwind romance with a Prince of a made-up country over Christmas. In fact, there’s a scene in this film of the main characters watching A Christmas Prince.

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Vanessa Hudgens plays Margaret, a talented baker, who struggles to do anything spontaneous. After an awkward meeting with an ex-boyfriend, she caves in, and takes her best friend, Kevin’s advice: a holiday trip to Belgravia where a prestigious bakery competition is held. Margaret goes with Kevin and his daughter, Olivia, but, once there, in what is, of course, a picturesque location, she gets separated from them, and meets Duchess of Montenaro, Stacy DeNovo. I’m never going to stop asking why the people from made-up countries always have British accents, because, once again here, they do. The Duchess, also played by Hudgens, is apprehensive about her upcoming arranged marriage to the Prince, whom she’s met a handful of times. She’d prefer to be an average woman. The Parent Trap or The Prisoner of Zenda are invoked. Margaret and Stacey switch places, fall in love with their respective leading men, and a small dilemma forms, then quickly gets sorted out. It’s that kind of movie, which we already knew going in, and are likely fine with. This is a perfectly satisfying piece of entertainment that will appeal to its audience. No Christmas classic, but fine Christmas time-waster.

I decided to leave Vanessa Hudgens’ “British” accent alone, then changed my mind.

(5-Okay Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Up (2009, Directed by Pete Docter) English 6

Voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson, Delory Lindo, John Ratzenberger, Jordan Nagai

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(6-Good Film)

Affecting. Colorful. Creative.

Films featuring elderly protagonists are few and far between, and animated films featuring elderly protagonists are pretty much non-existant, outside of Pixar’s 2009 offering, Up (Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle was a young woman cursed with an old woman’s body). Up is a combination of a lot of unique, inspired ideas- a house flying across the world, balloons holding it up, a dog that can talk, a boy ranger sidekick-but at its heart, the best aspect of the film, is a regretful widower fulfilling a promise he made to his wife. The opening sequence covers our hero, Carl, and his wife, Ellie, all the way from their first meeting as precocious children to their final moments together as she dies in a hospital. It’s an incredibly moving scene, but unfortunately the rest of the film isn’t at the same level. Carl and Russell’s adventure are vivid and beautiful, but aren’t as interesting as the opening act. Their exploits in Paradise Falls drag a bit.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Theodore Rex (1995, Directed by Jonathan R. Betuel) English 3

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Juliet Landau, Richard Roundtree, Bud Cort, George Newborn (voice), Carol Kane (Voice)

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(3-Horrible Film)

Witless. Joyless. Dumb.

In a futuristic society, dinosaurs still roam the Earth. Walking, talking dinosaurs that resemble humans in their behavior, and yet, they’re treated like second-class citizens by humans who still represent the majority. After a prominent dinosaur gets murdered, a friendly T-Rex type named Theodore wants to get to the bottom of it. He partners with wild-card police detective Coltrane (Goldberg) to catch the perpetrator. Does this film sound good to you? Best case scenario, how good could a film with that plot be? Well, this is not even best case scenario. Horrendous visuals and design of characters accentuate the ridiculous plot at every turn. On top of that, there may not exist a more witless, talentless script. Instead of dialogue and banter, we get fart sounds and weird voices. It’s embarrassing that three Oscar nominated actors appear in this. My feeling is that after Jurassic Park, studios thought you could just put dinosaurs in movies, and it would sell, regardless of quality.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Christmas Challenge Film #5: Christmas Inheritance (2017, Directed by Ernie Barbarash) English 5

So, in burgeoning media super power Netflix’s grand scheme to take over entertainment, to be all things to all people, a string of made-for-TV quality Christmas movies have cropped up, beginning last year with the apparently popular Christmas Prince, and continuing this year with The Princess Switch. Among this new line, I watched Christmas Inheritance as the 5th film in my challenge to watch 25 Christmas movies before December 25th. I’m largely behind schedule, but I wanted to watch a majority of the 25 after Thanksgiving anyways. Now I’m in the spirit and ready to build towards the day.

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Christmas Inheritance came out sometime last winter, as part of Netflix’s aforementioned  push for exclusive seasonal entertainment. It stars Eliza Taylor, from CW’S The 100, as Ellen Langford, kind, but spoiled, who has a reputation as a party girl. She also has a boyfriend who’s selfish and snobbish. Her father sends her on a mission to hand deliver a letter to an old friend in Snow Falls, and gives her a test to go with it. If she can deliver the letter, complete this trip with no more than $100 in spending money, and without revealing her status as heiress to a small fortune, he will hand her the reins to his company. She accepts. Once in Snow Falls, Ellen falls in love with the small town people, notably Debbie (Andie MacDowell), who runs a local diner, the pride she gets in helping others, and the handsome leading man, Jake Collins (Jake Lacy) she meets through a chance encounter.

You’ve seen this movie before, you know the ending, and all of the notes in between. It should be impossible to give “spoilers.” You know if you like this movie just by reading the plot line. Knowing full-well what’s bound to happen before it starts, does the film interest you? For many people, Christmas Inheritance will be a perfectly satisfying holiday romance. The stars are sweet, the setting idyllic, and the story comforting. I just happen to prefer a different kind of movie fantasy. The rogue hero bringing justice to the west. Barring that, I’m not above a cheesy rom-com. There certainly are some great ones I keep coming back to. Christmas Inheritance, however, is cookie-cutter and simply fine. It’s better than sitting in a dark closet doing nothing (a low-bar, but there are hundreds of films I can’t say that about). It’s better than not watching a movie. It’s okay.

(5-Okay Film)

-Walter Tyrone Howard-