How Do You Make a Christmas Film a Festive Classic?

By Aaron Potter on at

Who knew “the most wonderful time of the year” would include a glut of cinematic Christmas wannabes, eh? Just when you think that your seasonal viewing is all sorted, what with the likes of Elf, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and other timeless festive flicks gracing the small screen, there’s every chance you or a family member could mistakenly find themselves faced with the festive cheese-fest that is Dean Cain’s Small Town Santa. It’s rare, but why take the risk?

Yes, made-for-TV Christmas films run rampant around this time of year, but even then, November and December’s big budget offerings often don’t fare much better either. This got us thinking: Why is it that classics like Jingle All the Way, Love Actually, and Die Hard stay embedded within popular Christmas culture while others fall by the wayside? Towering over so many forgotten cinematic cash-ins, here are three simple rules a film must follow to achieve that cultivated Christmas classic status!

Romance, comedy, heartache, and drama, 2003’s Love Actually features festive fun for everyone.

It must involve saving Christmas

While it might seem obvious to even the Scroogiest cinephile, for a movie to grow warm in the hearts of the public’s collective conscious it absolutely has to revolve around some plight or objective where the joy of Christmas is at risk, thus allowing our protagonist(s) to save it. Whether it be for the entire global population or the numerous honest party-goers visiting Nakatomi plaza expecting a festive booze-up, any decent Christmas movie worth taking into your heart needs to raise the stakes immeasurably. We can’t be dealing with small fry here – this is Christmas after all.

The Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles has all the hallmarks of a timeless festive film.

Sometimes this can be meant in literal terms, much like how the cheeky kids of this year’s Netflix treat, The Christmas Chronicles, must team up with Kurt Russell’s Santa in order to get him back to the sleigh and restore the world’s Christmas Spirit. Other times the movie could centre on saving the Christmas for a single person, as evidenced by Arnie’s attempt to gift his son the perfect present in Jingle All the Way, or obviously the many interpretations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. House trap hilarity aside, even the first two Home Alone films chart a mother’s attempt to reunite with her son in time to open presents on Christmas morning.

Believe it or not, so many movies vying to be the next Christmas classic get this wrong by choosing to centre on a teenage romance, an office Christmas party, or some other intangible objective that an audience of all ages will struggle to relate to. It’s part of the reason every new entry in Debbie Istt’s painfully British Nativity franchise are instantly blinked out of memory. Putting together a show is relatively small in scale, and is always solely geared towards younger viewers.

Not just one genre, but a mixture of many

There’s a reason why most of the movies people tend to return to in December are simply referred to as ‘Christmas’ movies, without reference to any other genre or category: it’s because any classic worth laying eyes on is made up of multiple. Love Actually, while loathed by some, is the most obvious and best example of this, interweaving many personal tales of heartache, joy, and surprise all reflected through the prism of love in the run up towards Christmas time. From Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister continually fumbling through an office attraction to Bill Nighy’s outlandish ageing rockstar, comedy, romance, and drama are all flittered between under the festive banner.

Another holiday classic in which a spectrum of genres is fully explored is Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, where themes of horror, fantasy, and adventure all enter the fray. Only in a film that chooses to use Christmas as the through line could such an eclectic mix of elements come together and stand the test of time, proving that even experimentation can’t escape the charm that comes with basing your film around everyone’s favourite holiday season.

Christmas is one of the few times all members of the family have an excuse to get together and catch up, so it makes sense that any decent festive flick worth its money should ride the fine line between all-encompassing appeal and the bland mundanity that some films catering to a broad audience can suffer from. It’s, admittedly, very hard for most Christmas movies to slip up on this point, but some do this better than others. A well-balanced mixture of genres is why movies like Elf are so often sought after right around now, while I can’t see anyone craving a bit of Christmas with the Kranks.

It should include an unexpected take on Santa

It’s no secret that any actor would find it hard to step into, let alone imitate, David Huddleston's definitive rendition of the jolly red fella as depicted in 1985’s Santa Clause The Movie. You simply won’t be able to top it no matter how hard you try, meaning that any future Christmas classic needs to work hard and think creatively to come up with a new take on the timeless character. Some classic Christmas flicks find success in characterising their Santa in the unlikeliest of ways.

While the sequel immensely missed the mark, Billy Bob Thornton’s lude and crude version of a mall store St. Nick left quite the impression in 2003’s Bad Santa. In it, Thornton plays the very antithesis of what an adult, let alone a child, would expect from the character, spouting profanity, constantly drinking, and initially extremely insensitive to how he treats others. The film, however, is perhaps best described as a black comedy with heart, taking a protagonist with such vitriol for happiness and instilling him with Christmas joy, so much so that he eventually shares it with others – just like any Santa should.

By comparison, 2014 saw a wet towel of a Christmas movie release called Get Santa. Initially, you’d think that all the puzzle pieces were there to make it a classic in the making: it’s about saving the season by rescuing Santa out of prison, it has a decent amount of heart, comedy, and charm… Sadly, Jim Broadbent’s Mr. Claus falls extremely flat – despite having previously played the part in 2011’s brilliant Arthur Christmas – therefore making the act of watching the film feel somewhat like receiving a lump of coal in your stocking.

Die Hard has a Santa, even if he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.

It’s tricky, but not impossible to concoct an original depiction of Santa Claus. Tim Allen’s charm as a down-on-his-luck dad trying to good worked for three successful entries in The Santa Claus series; Kevin from Home Alone finds consolation in both the pigeon lady and Duncan of Duncan’s Toy Chest as ethereal, mystical figures; in more literal terms, however, Richard Attenborough played the supposedly real Santa while on trial in the Miracle on 34th Street remake. And for those wondering how the original Die Hard fits into this equation – well I thought Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber made for a fine bearded man flying through the air. Ho ho ho!

Update: 23/12/18: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Dudley Moore played Santa in 1985's Santa Claus: The Movie and not David Huddleston. This has since been rectified.