Holiday Movie Offerings Range from ‘Must-Try’ to ‘Worth Skipping’

Holiday movies have dropped on streaming platforms, so here’s a look at two options, plus a seasonal classic.

Review: ‘Spirited’ could be your new feel-good holiday favorite

“Spirited” is a light holiday musical buoyed by charismatic performances and memorable music.

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell star in “Spirited,” streaming on Apple TV+. (Photo Courtesy/Apple TV+)

Directed by Sean Anders, whose past work includes other comedies like “Horrible Bosses” and “Instant Family,”  the Apple TV+ film employs the familiar framework of “A Christmas Carol” while putting a fresh spin on the tale.

Will Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, who along with Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) and the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and Yet-To-Come (Tracy Morgan) works to redeem a human soul every Christmas. Ryan Reynolds’ selfish businessman Clint Briggs becomes the focus of the team’s haunt for the year. After some convincing from Ferrell’s character, the haunt begins.

Ferrell and Reynolds are both clearly having a blast, and their energy and chemistry together go a long way to carry the movie. Octavia Spencer is delightful if underutilized as Kimberly, Briggs’ assistant, whose budding relationship with Present serves as the emotional core of the movie.

The musical numbers, penned by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, stand out as some of the best scenes in the film.  Though Ferrell and Reynolds aren’t the strongest vocalists, they bring a lot of effort and energy to their singing. The choreography and backing vocals really make the numbers pop. 

Pasek and Paul are known for their work on films like “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman” as well as Broadway shows including “Dear Evan Hansen.” They add a number of catchy songs to their repertoire with “That Christmas Morning Feelin’” and “Bringin’ Back Christmas” as highlights from this film’s soundtrack.

Some of the humor falls flat, particularly when given to side characters like Lily Sullivan’s HR Ghost and Brigg’s abusive mother Wendy, played by Jen Tullock, who don’t engender the same goodwill as the principal cast. An early joke about internet search histories stands out as a real groaner.

The plot is somewhat predictable, partly thanks to the way “A Christmas Carol” is embedded in popular culture, but some twists near the end were legitimately surprising. With the holiday season in full swing, “Spirited” is worth your time if you’re seeking a new feel-good Christmas movie. —Stuart Steele

Review: Guardians Don’t Change Blah Feeling Toward Christmas Specials

I’m a bit of a Grinch about holiday specials. Christmas is my favorite holiday, but something about seasonal specials just doesn’t sit right with me. Is it the music? The abundance of “Christmas cheer” and glee? Marvel Studio’s “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” had some moments that kept me entertained, but overall wasn’t enjoyable.

“The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” is on Disney+. (Photo/Jessica Miglio and Courtesy of Disney/Marvel)

The new Disney+ offering was charming, sort of funny, and not too outlandish, and it had that James Gunn feel to it (dry humor with rich characters). With the over-saturation of content, a single holiday special — instead of a full series — is not too much for casual or hardcore Marvel fans. You can watch, sit down and enjoy. But do you need to? Easy answer: jolly good no.

The special opens with a charming animation explaining how Yondu (Michael Rooker) ruined Christmas for the impulsively reckless Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). The story touches Pom Klementieff’s Mantis so much that she decides to bring Christmas joy to Quill’s heart. With the help of Drax (Dave Bautista), they set off to find a gift they believe Peter would love: Kevin Bacon. Yeah, I know … but it makes sense. Bacon was mentioned by Quill in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” film as a “great hero” and repeatedly referenced in a running gag. From the emotional punch of wanting to bring Christmas to Quill’s life, Mantis — a side character within the universe — is given more complexity and purpose. 

The special itself is wacky enough. There’s a musical performance by some Ravagers with a hilarious twist to Christmas lore. Just when you think the special couldn’t get more outlandish and goofy, it does, from Mantis and Drax going to a bar and getting drunk searching for Bacon to flipping a police car. The show has the shenanigans we’ve come to expect from the Guardians and the usual Marvel tropes, but the overall impact on the universe is lackluster. The short adventure has no real consequence other than to show a different side of characters we rarely see. It just left me saying, “OK? Now what?” —Giovanni Rossi

Review: Ralphie’s return is disappointing

“A Christmas Story Christmas” is on HBO Max. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.

“A Christmas Story Christmas,” directed by Clay Kaytis, is the most recent offshoot of the ineffable holiday classic “A Christmas Story” (1983) and the latest in a recent trend of belated sequels (“Top Gun: Maverick,” “Halloween Kills” and so on).

The most pertinent hurdle facing movies like “A Christmas Story Christmas” — available on HBO Max — is the self-cannibalizing tendency to pander nostalgia. This tendency leaves a lot of sequels acting less like continuations of a story and more like graverobbers in need of a quick buck. With how much nostalgia there is to be farmed from its beloved original, there’s a lot of temptation for Kaytis — who also directed “The Angry Birds Movie” and “The Christmas Chronicles” — to lean on the crutches of nostalgia.

And he fudged it up.

Instead of watching a film that is of-quality in its own right, viewers are subjected to 98 minutes of nods — headbangs, rather — to the original. An adult Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) opens a dusty, attic-bound box that contains the iconic pink bunny suit; Ralphie has outlandish day-dreams, which were whimsical for a kid to have but downright unsettling for a 51-year-old man; there are many moments like these which all feel pitifully on-the-nose.

Billingsley seems to still be kicking the 39 years’ worth of cobwebs from his portrayal of Ralphie. His performance is glaringly stilted compared with the rest of the cast and reeks of artificiality. 

If you gave me a choice between watching “A Christmas Story Christmas” again or sucking on a bar of soap, I’d take the soap. —Justin Morris

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” stars Chevy Chase. (Photo/Katie Beth Williams)

Review: ‘Christmas Vacation’

Local theaters have special showings of movies throughout the year, such as ‘”National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in December.

________

“Christmas Vacation” is a perfectly stupid holiday classic rewatch. 

My family and I started replaying some of our must-see Christmas movies over Thanksgiving break to get in the holiday spirit. Top of the list and by far the most quoted film in this household? ‘”National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is not exactly likable, as is the case with most of Chase’s characters, but there’s no denying his comedic timing, with hilarious humor that is only somewhat borderline uncomfortable to watch with the family.

The quick-witted quips and silly mishaps of the Griswold family, determined to have the “hap-hap-happiest Christmas” as Clark puts it, relieve some of the all-too-recognizable tension stirring during the holiday season, inviting viewers to relax and watch an absolutely laughable train wreck of another family gathering instead of stress about their own. 

Out of all the National Lampoon “Vacation” films and spin-offs, “Christmas Vacation” is easily the best, not trying too hard to make terribly unfunny jokes or sell another wholesome Christmas movie. And yet, the 1989 comedy classic retains a nostalgic quality worth watching over the holidays. —Katie Beth Williams

 

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