Bah humbug 

Updating the criteria for Christmas classics

During network television’s primetime slot on the last Sunday before Christmas, a primo period of programming tailored to family bonding in front of the boob tube, NBC offered up an edited version of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And, you know, it made perfect sense: nothing nowadays sends the holiday message better than Chevy Chase hitting on a buxom lingerie saleswoman, a Christmas Eve kidnapping and an airborne sleigh launched across the night sky by an RV sewage explosion. The point is that this hilarious 1989 romp has become a new holiday classic—a raunchy little twisting of time-honored holiday clichés, landing safely on the sort of warm fuzzy ending that makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie.

There’s change afoot in the definition of a holiday classic, and newer releases are clamoring to assume the mantle once held by White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life. Here is a sampling of the latest efforts angling to anoint the next Bing Crosby, Natalie Wood or Jimmy Stewart. Or, maybe more accurately, just the next Chevy Chase.

Bad Santa (2003)
This sinful binge was made to blow every sacred holiday tradition out of the water—and, for that matter, to get Santa blown by a nymphomaniacal bartender. Billy Bob Thornton’s alcoholic mall Santa has a materialistic midget/elf for a wingman, and the two seek out suburban shopping centers and then heist the stores’ goods on Christmas Eve. Along the way, Thornton finds what may be his true love, a true friend in a pudgy sandwich-making grade-schooler, and, somewhere between hitting on teenagers during his lunch break and getting gunned down clasping a plush pink elephant, the meaning of Christmas. If this ever gets aired on NBC the week before Dec. 25, the apocalypse is truly upon us.

Surviving Christmas (2004)
Ben Affleck and James Gandolfini star in this cheap holiday film, which will make you want to guzzle screwdrivers like Thornton in Bad Santa. But don’t take my word for it—it was released nationally in October, before Thanksgiving, and lasted just six days in Missoula theaters. Affleck plays a stonehearted advertising exec who, faced with spending the holidays alone, hires Gandolfini and his dysfunctional family as surrogates. It’s not funny, but, shocker, Affleck is quite good at playing a prick.

The Santa Clause (1994)
Ever wonder what Tim Allen has been doing to keep busy since “Home Improvement” went off the air? No, neither did I. But here he becomes the man of the sleigh after killing the previous Kris Kringle—so, if you didn’t already dislike Allen, now you can blame him for sending Santa plunging to his death at the start of this Disney film. After donning the Santa suit himself, Allen uncontrollably gains pounds like Kirstie Alley and is charged with saving the holidays. Personally, I’d rather trust our holiday fate to a drunk Thornton than a fat Allen.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Nothing says Christmas classic like taking one of the most treasured stories of the holidays—originally spun from Dr. Seuss’ children’s book into a timeless 1966 animated television special—and creating a lifeless live-action version starring Jim Carrey. Absolutely nothing about this effort was salvageable, absolutely nothing at all. Nothing was funny, not even when the Grinch took the fall. Not the tacky sets, not the Who girl and her colorful barrettes. Not the thick green makeup that Carrey wore, not the reported $20 million he earned—that whore. This film just stinks, stinks like bad tofu; it’s a shame a new generation was asked to swallow this poo.

Polar Express (2004)
Once again, Hollywood attempts to take a popular children’s book and morph it into a blockbuster. This time Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrated masterpiece is digitalized using 3-D motion capture techniques—real actors are made to look like animations. The aesthetics of the film are true to those in the book and the action sequences are often mesmerizing (the film was simultaneously released in IMAX theaters). But the story—a train takes children, including one who doesn’t quite believe in Santa, to the North Pole on Christmas Eve—inexplicably stalls once the locomotive reaches its destination. Nonetheless, considering the contemporary company it keeps, this is a good-natured effort.

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Tim Allen must be stopped. He’s ruining Christmas—and the very idea of a palatable Christmas movie. Here he teams with a frumpy Jamie Lee Curtis in what is quite possibly one of the worst films ever made. Kranks never really decides what it wants to do or be, but the story is built on Allen and Curtis’ decision to skip the holidays—and incur the wrath of their neighbors—when their daughter is away working with the Peace Corps. When the daughter announces on Christmas Eve that she’s coming home, chaos (yawn) ensues. The closest this film comes to a highlight is when David Lander (aka “Squiggy”) cameos, sneaking a peak at Curtis in a tanning booth.

Elf (2003)
This may be the only worthy candidate to assume the mantle of a true holiday classic. Will Ferrell stars as Buddy, a human who’s been adopted by Santa and raised among elves at the North Pole. When Ferrell returns to New York City to find his real dad (James Caan, perfectly cast), he’s more than a little confused by the bastardization of holiday traditions—“You smell like beef and cheese,” he screams at a mall Santa, “you don’t smell like Santa at all.” Ferrell is at his best, the script is funny and sweet, and, jiminy Christmas, one of these modern pretenders finally hits the mark as a modern-day holiday classic.

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