Christmas season is officially here and that means chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, and firing up your favorite holiday movie. For many, a season spent without rooting for George Bailey or retreating to Whoville for the thousandth time would be like not biting into a Ballpark frank on the Fourth of July: blasphemy. But despite their lasting popularity and undeniable cultural impact, there’s been a distinct lack of fresh holiday films in the 21st century. Seriously, think about it. What was the last great holiday movie to have come out? Elf? That was 2003, buddy. Christmas with the Kranks? That was 2004. Also, that movie sucks. Big time. As you ask your friends Alexa and Siri and Google these questions, you’ll realize the selection is pitiful. So, this begs another question: where have all the great modern Christmas movies gone?
Holiday movies are useful because they’re so free of cynicism. Christmas is a time for everyone to put away all their anger and fear and instead come together to celebrate humanity’s shared bond and Christmas movies reflect, in turn, have to reflect that. And so they thrive on boundless enthusiasm and shameless sentimentality, viewing the world with a childlike innocence that promises an enticing sanctuary from the grim, mundane reality of everyday life. They force you to shut up and believe, just for a minute, that people are good — or capable of becoming so — and that the world is an okay place.
Every classic Christmas movie asks the viewer to believe in the magical spirit of Christmas, which means buying into something greater than yourself. In Miracle on 34th Street, a young girl believes in Santa even when the entire world tells her she’s being childish. Her faith is rewarded with a new house and a new dad. In The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, we’re led to believe that even a creature who plans to ruin the holiday can have an enormous change of heart. Frosty the Snowman features a snowman being brought to life via a magic hat and nobody cares to freak out about how the hell this seemingly normal article of clothing is able to literally create life. Because it’s Christmas. Christmas movies are built on a foundation of sweet simplicity of optimism, where believing in belief is enough to fix most of the world’s problems.
So many modern holiday movies forget this spirit. Look at Fred Claus, where Vince Vaughan plays the slacker brother of Paul Giamatti’s Santa, a movie you definitely forgot existed. Or Deck the Halls, which meanspiritedly pits two neighbors against one another in a house-decoration showdown. These movies fail because A) they’re hilariously half-assed attempts at holiday movies, but, more importantly, they didn’t invest in the magical escapism that makes Christmas movies appealing in the first place.
Executed well, the formulaic Christmas film works. But when a genre has the longevity and success, filmmakers often feel the need to add new wrinkles to keep them feeling predictable. Typically, reviving or sustaining a genre requires subverting the common tropes that audiences have come to recognize. It’s why a new style of horror film pops up that subverts genre standards by, say, using a shaky cam or subverting the genre altogether. But this is also why for every Paranormal Activity or Scream, there are 1,000 terrible films no one bothers seeing.
Considering this, you have the second mistake of modern holiday movies. Many attempt to subvert genre standard by cynically undermining the feel-good sentimentality of the holidays. There’s the Family Stone, which sees a family get-together grow increasingly more excruciating, and The Night Before, which sees three friends attempting to relive their pre-Christmas shenanigans in a way that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Bad Santa is the only movie in recent years that nails the cynical twist, but it’s hardly a capital C Christmas movie that makes for wholesome family viewing.
There’s a reason Elf is the one modern holiday film that sustains. It creates one character who fully embodies the holiday spirit and thrusts him into a world of cynics. It both fully embraces the genre and subverts it. Lesser movies would have made Buddy a character to be laughed at due to his naïveté and lack of common sense, but Elf makes Buddy a hero worth rooting for because his heart is always in the right place. Will Ferrell’s Buddy is a ball of wonder and energy who knows the world isn’t perfect but he also doesn’t ignore all the wonderful things around him. He’s the cheery antidote to modern society’s cynical outlook. Everyone around Buddy is constantly trying to force him to give up his optimism but his infectious Christmas cheer ends up winning over all the spirit-less losers.
Until filmmakers figure this out, we’ll all be forced to watch the same holiday films over and over again. And that’s just fine, because holiday movies are meant for that. But it would be nice to have a new one in the rotation to shake things up a bit. So, in the spirit of holiday movies, I’ll believe that a modern Christmas classic is right around the corner. And I’ll hope that one year someone does it right.