Christmas cinema evolves

Listen to this article

This holiday season I noticed something interesting; there weren’t any Christmas movies coming into theaters. This made me think, have they run out? Santa, snow, reindeer, I’m assuming Christmas movies all follow a similar formula, so maybe they’ve used up all the available ideas.

Then I thought, holiday cinema can’t be dead, maybe in a lull, but if there is one thing I’ve learned studying the arts it’s that there is always a new way to do something. I decided to do some research and break down what it is that made Christmas movies…Christmas-ey. There are similarities, but there are also clear distinctions between old and new Christmas movies, which marks an evolution of sorts. And, it really is an interesting progression.

Screen shot from the classic, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (Via YouTube)
Screen shot from the classic, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
(Via YouTube)

This evolution started with the notable cartoon classics Jack Frost (1979), Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970) and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (1964) to name a few. There are clear differences between any of the classics and something like Polar Express (2004) and A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

Modern Christmas cartoons are clearly different in the aspect of graphics due to the change in technology, changing this comparison completely. Now considered “vintage”, those classic Christmas cartoons will undoubtedly live forever, with a style and feel that can’t really be replicated.

One of the best (and now classic) films set during the Holidays: "Home Alone." (Photo via Wikipedia)
One of the best (and now classic) films set during the Holidays: “Home Alone.”
(Photo via Wikipedia)

In terms of content and plot, that’s where classic and modern Christmas movies differentiate the most. In the past, these movies were mostly cartoons and revolved a lot around Santa Claus and his helpers (elves, reindeers, etc.) but in present day, there are much greater elements to these films.

One observation I found was the decrease in cartoon Christmas movies overall. Now a days, it’s much more common for a live-action Christmas movie to come out into theaters than a cartoon, which is more likely to go straight to TV. Because of the rise in live-action Christmas movies, filmmakers have been able to bring a new sense of drama to Christmas.

Though Christmas is mostly a happy time of the year, many people do dread the obligation of seeing their families for the holidays. Many films have represented this; Home for the Holidays (1995), The Family Stone (2005), and The Family Man (2000) to name a few. This sense of family drama conveys stronger to the viewers in a live-action film rather than in a cartoon because it’s more relatable to the viewer.

Breaking away from the kid-friendly films, there are a surprisingly huge number of not so kid-friendly Christmas films. Bringing violence and horror into Christmas isn’t a common scene we all experience, so this has brought a new level of “fantasy”, so to speak, to Christmas movies.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" is now a holiday classic. (Photo provided by author)
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is now a holiday classic.
(Photo provided by author)

Some of these scary films are outdated such as Christmas Evil (1980) and Gremlins (1984), so watching the supposed “horror” now may seem like a bit of a joke, but watch a film like Santa Slay (2005) or the remake of Black Christmas (2006) and you’ll see there is another side of Christmas film-makers wanted to show.

But most likely these films were just created as a kind of contrast to Christmas, taking something that is so positive and happy and turning it into something not so. I mean, what’s more shocking to kids then making their beloved Mr. Claus evil?

Then we have the films that take place around Christmas, but aren’t necessarily considered “Christmas Movies.”  Some examples include Die Hard (1988), Lethal Weapon (1987), You’ve Got Mail (1998) Crash (2004); all of these films use elements of Christmas without making it centered around the holiday. But we still have to count these films because they shape the way we might think of Christmas after watching them, at least for that present season.

Personally, in my family, we’re geared more towards the silly Christmas movies and the dramatic ones, like National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (1989) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Whether you want a Christmas movie that’s silly, dramatic, animated, action-packed or even terrifying, there is an option for everyone, something that wasn’t exactly available at the beginning of Christmas cinema.

The best-loved Christmas movie of all time, Frank Capra’s "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. (Screen shot from YouTube video)
The best-loved Christmas movie of all time, Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.
(Screen shot from YouTube video)

No longer are the days of stop-motion Santa Claus in a 30-minute film; we’ve come quite a long way and it’s clear to me now that we are in a definite lull of Christmas movies, not an ending. After the progression we’ve seen, any plot can be made into a “Christmas-ey movie”, even if the holiday isn’t a central theme. And hey, there’s always the option of a remake, right?