By Christopher Campbell | Spout December 22, 2010 at 5:03AM
We all have favorite Christmas movies that we watch every year. For me, "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas" is the most necessary. And I'll watch bits of "A Christmas Story" and "Scrooged" if they're on TV (and both are on TV a lot this time of year). Thanks to the holidays, there are a number of films we've all seen too many times. Like "Elf." Do we really need to have seen that more than we've seen any other Will Ferrell movie? But because it's a Christmas movie it gets played and seen every year at this time. And probably only at this time.
There's a funny thing about films set at Christmas, particularly those that really involve the holiday. They can't be watched the rest of the year without it seeming weird. Imagine watching "A Christmas Story" or "A Charlie Brown Christmas" in July. Even stranger, in late January. But then, they can't be avoided at all during the holiday season. How many other movies or kinds of movies have such a certain guarantee they'll be seen? Think of your 10 favorite movies of all time. Do you watch them all at least once a year? Are any of them Christmas movies?
Such questions got me wondering about films that don't need to be Christmas movies. Some, because they are set at Christmas, they have that guaranteed play, if only in December. But they deserve to be appreciated at any time of the year and can't really be. Other titles come to mind as unnecessarily set at Christmas for franchise reasons and have less or nothing to do with the time-of-viewing matter. Consider all five of these movies that would be better if not set at Christmas after the jump.
You could say that without the Christmas themes and setting, this would be just another ensemble rom-com, like "He's Just Not That Into You" or "Valentine's Day." Or, maybe with the holiday theme and setting it's now too aligned with "Valentine's Day," its upcoming spin-off "New Year's Eve" and whatever further holiday-specific romantic comedies are developed as a result of their success. I actually think it's much better than that, yet I also don't need my fiancee telling me it's a must-see this week simply because it's a Christmas movie. It should just be a must-see rom-com. Why can't we watch it in April?
"Die Hard 2"
Okay, so let's suspend disbelief and accept that John McClane finds himself in the middle of another terrorist situation. But did it have to be at Christmastime again? I guess the setting fits the narrative, as far as it involves his wife, Holly, flying in for the holidays and in general involves a lot of other people flying due to it being the holidays. Also, the winter weather works in favor of the plot as an additional threat to airliners. The holiday and weather actually figure into the source novel, "58 Minutes," as well. I guess the Christmas stuff isn't too prominent, and while everyone thinks of the first "Die Hard" as a Christmas movie, nobody ever mentions this second installment. Maybe I just wish, after the 4th of July setting of "Live Free or Die Hard" that each sequel took place around a different holiday. "Die Hard 2" could have been set around Valentine's Day and still featured a snowmobile chase.
"Home Alone 2: Lost in New York"
I have the same issue with this sequel as I do with "Die Hard 2." It's bad enough to just repeat the basic plot only in a different setting. But even the themes, centered around the holiday, are recycled. Couldn't Kevin have still wound up lost in New York while his family went somewhere on summer vacation? Couldn't The Wet Bandits have tried to steal from the Museum of Natural History? (then we might have avoided the "Night at the Museum" movies, as a bonus.) The first "Home Alone" is a holiday staple, but the sequel just seems to be aired around this time as ignorable filler material. Then again, it could be as ignored as the non-Christmas sequel to "A Christmas Story," whatever it's called now.
"The Muppet Christmas Carol"
I don't mean to imply that this very movie could have a non-Christmas setting. It's "A Christmas Carol," after all. I just wish Jim Henson Productions had gone with an original story for its latest Muppet movie rather than having to adapt the characters to fit the Dickens classic. It's not very good, and the Muppets don't need to be applied to material like this, especially not as supporting characters, and this movie only led the way for adaptations like "Muppet Treasure Island" and "Muppet Wizard of Oz." Besides, Henson had already done plenty of original Christmas stuff with Muppets (including those in "Emmet Otter") and have done others since. Holiday specials, fine, but theatrical feature films with the characters could be about anything. So why not have more fun with them? Take any original script floating around Hollywood and throw Kermit, Piggy and the rest into it. Have them sing some songs by Paul Williams. It will be better than "The Muppet Christmas Carol."
"It's a Wonderful Life"
"I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea." - Frank Capra
This is the one that started me on this list. And yet I'm still conflicted about its inclusion. I mainly started having an issue with the film once I became a fan of Capra's other works. Whenever I think of his career overall I consider "It's a Wonderful Life" sort of on the outside. Maybe even more so than the "Why We Fight" series. Much of this has to do with its acceptance outside of general classic Hollywood film, which has to do with its holiday movie status. There's not much need for it to be set at Christmas, and with such a setting it actually comes off as a minor rip-off of the concept behind "A Christmas Carol" (the fact that Lionel Barrymore was known for playing Scrooge on the radio adds to the reminder of the Dickens). Never mind that it is based on a short story originally published as a Christmas card (Philip Van Doren Stern's "The Greatest Gift"), I wish it hadn't turned into something people primarily think of in terms of the holiday. Why couldn't it be as unassociated with the holiday as "Meet John Doe," which also involves suicide plans on Christmas Eve? We don't have to and can only watch "Arsenic and Old Lace" on Halloween.
Yet here's the rub: the fact that "It's a Wonderful Life" is set at Christmas has made it into necessary viewing by all Americans and may in turn have been the gateway for young people to get into classic cinema, Capra, James Stewart, etc. No one escapes childhood without having seen this movie. If it didn't have the connection to Christmas, it could be as disregarded as Capra's better bank-trouble movie, "American Madness," and his underrated fairy tale, "Lady for a Day" -- which would likely be very popular if it were set during the holidays. So in a way the film is better off, reception-wise, for having been set at Christmas, at least since it began airing on television during the holidays 30 years ago. But the fact that I can't enjoy it any other time of the year makes it a lesser film for me.
Now, let's take a look at what "It's a Wonderful Life" would look like instead as a Hanukkah film, thanks to "SNL":