Holiday movies really are a genre unto themselves. The holiday season functions not merely as a setting for the various Christmas adventures, but instead it actually dominates the narrative and thematic structures of these movies. We adopt a different set of standards and expectations for holiday movies, and as a result, our response to them is unique to any other classification of film. There are so many examples of Christmas movies that one could easily assign them to tiers of varying quality.
So much like that iconic, corpulent elf/toy magnate, we’ve constructed a naughty and nice list respectively celebrating the best and the worst of holiday cinema. Every week this month we will pair one against the other to see if, despite their divergent levels of merit, they share any commonalities. Welcome to Naughty vs. Nice:
Nice: It’s a Wonderful Life
Dir: Frank Capra
Plot: A guardian angel is sent to prevent a downtrodden family man from taking his life by showing him what the world would be like if he had never existed.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a fantastic Christmas movie that often also finds comfortable purchase high on lists of the all time greatest American films. Frank Capra had a knack for cutting straight the emotional and benevolent core of his characters. His films have been criticized as being overly sentimental, and this may be the primary example of his steadfast belief in the capacity for redemption. However, what some may read as quaint, hokey naiveté, truly plays out as crucial optimism for our national identity; especially given the United States was just emerging from World War II.
And yet that admirable optimism harbors a certain timeless quality. In fact, It’s a Wonderful Life is sort of the counter to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Instead of three spirits informing the detestable Mr. Scrooge of what has been and what will be if he does not mend his wicked ways, Clarence reveals to the amiable, but desperate George Bailey of what would never have been. It is impressed upon him that the world would be far worse off without him. In this way, Capra, like Dickens, is extrapolating the true meaning of Christmas into a more universal appraisal of one’s place within their community.
Apart from its stirring cinematography and stellar performances, what It’s a Wonderful Life does is reexamine the concept of the self to find its more intrinsic value. It poses the very audacious notion that perhaps our worth as an individual is measured by the impact we have on our surrounding world. Conversely, Jingle All the Way sees the figurative conception of the self as something that can only truly be enhanced by the acquisition of material possessions, giving the film as fleeting an impression upon cultural consciousness as is insubstantial its central plot.
Naughty: Jingle All the Way
Dir: Brian LeVant
Plot: Just days before Christmas, a busy dad hunts for the most popular toy on the market; battling the frenzy of last-minute holiday shopping in the hopes of narrowing the slowly growing void between himself and his son.
While no one would argue that 1996’s Jingle All the Way is a quality film on any level, it seems to inexplicably make the rounds on network, and sometimes even cable, television stations every December. In many ways, Jingle All the Way exists on the exact opposite end of the Christmas movie spectrum from It’s a Wonderful Life. Both of these films are about fathers who find themselves at the ends of their respective ropes during the holiday season. Both films also deal with the idea of absence. Whereas Stewart is afforded the chance to see what life would have been like were his existence entirely erased, Jingle All the Way centers on a father whose devotion to his career largely removes him from his own son’s life.
Much like Wonderful Life, Jingle All the Way delves in to what it perceives as the true reason for the season. The difference of course is that where Capra’s film sees the meaning of the holiday to be a vital reassessment of one’s place in the world and the importance of family and friends, Jingle All the Way is an unabashed celebration of the commercialization of Christmas. While some may argue the comedy in the film, as Arnold sinks to lower and lower tactics to obtain the hot ticket toy item for this son for Christmas, is actually an indictment of materialism, with its inept writing and lackluster performances, the only thing Jingle All the Way succeeds in satirizing is itself.
The interesting thing about comparing these two films is how they handle the subject of greed. Capra loved to tackle stories about the common man contending with the basic vices often usually broadstroke associated with mankind. The villain of It’s a Wonderful Life is the greedy Mr. Potter who is willing to jeopardize the financial security of an entire town, not to mention frame its favored citizen, just to increase his already considerable wealth. It is the clearest of condemnations of avarice. Jingle All the Way on the other hand treats greed as a natural and all-consuming motivation for mankind. Is it more realistic in that regard? Perhaps, but its refusal to strive for anything more than pessimistic and reductive observations about humanity is at the heart of Jingle’s innumerable shortcomings.
That and, you know, Sinbad.
[Photo Credit: RKO Pictures; 20th Century Fox]