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Christmas movies usually come in one of three flavours: incredibly sappy and sweet; terribly depressing; or a combination of both. One Magic Christmas definitely falls into the latter category, ranking up there with It’s a Wonderful Life for heartbreaking Christmas fare.

The film stars Mary Steenburgen as Ginny Grainger, a woman who’s forgotten what Christmas is about. Her husband, Jack (Gary Basaraba), has lost his job and their family is being forced out of their company home. With little money and no holiday spirit, Ginny needs a reminder of what’s important. Her daughter, Abbie (Elisabeth Harnois), meets an angel named Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton), who claims he can help Ginny remember how much she once loved Christmas, but he’ll need Abbie’s assistance. Here is where things take a dark turn. Getting Ginny to remember what’s important isn’t as simple as a few flashy tricks, and the way Gideon goes about things seems a bit unreasonable for a Christmas movie, but that’s how things go in the Great White North.

Finding a Canadian Christmas movie can be a bit of a challenge, so selecting one worth discussing was a difficult task. Toronto Film Scene writers Andrew Parker and Will Brownridge donned their Santa hats and grabbed some tissues to examine this effort and decide if it’s not only Essential Canadian Cinema, but one of the great Canadian Christmas movies.

Will: It’s no secret that I’m a huge Christmas movie fan, so it’s no surprise I enjoyed One Magic Christmas. Before I begin digging into the very depressing choices this film makes, I have to point out how narratively it’s the Ebenezer Scrooge story told in reverse order. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future visit him, which is essentially what happens to Mary Steenburgen’s Ginny Grainger. For Ginny, it happens in the reverse order. Her Christmas Future begins when her husband dies, which takes her into Christmas Present, where she has to deal with the aftermath. Christmas Past arrives in the form of an old letter to Santa Ginny wrote. The end result is the same, as it’s a Christmas movie, but the journey is a tale that’s been told time and time again. The strange thing is how dark One Magic Christmas is. I wondered if this was something you considered, Andrew, as Scrooge is the classic Christmas story so many attempt to appropriate.

Andrew: First, I attempted to exploit your love of Christmas films once I learned you’d never seen this semi-notorious, Canadian-produced, Disney-distributed, holiday heart warmer, in the hopes you would be depressed out of your mind and it would therefore fit perfectly into this month’s theme. Apparently that backfired on more than one level. I disliked this one quite a bit as a child, but I have to admit it’s much better than I gave it credit for. Maybe that’s because I can appreciate darker fare and slow-burn films more now. It kind of won me over, so the Christmas spirit triumphs again! I get the Scrooge thing, but more than that I see shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, a film many consider one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, but overlook its relentless bleakness. Ginny Grainger isn’t exactly a Scrooge type; she just hates Christmas and unrealistic life expectations. At her job as a grocery store cashier, she offers to front a poor woman some cash when she doesn’t have enough food stamps. She buys her kids one present each, which is all she can afford, and something in her eyes lights up at the prospect of being able to provide anything on the family’s meagre budget. She’s not a miserly coot — the holidays just make her uneasy.

Those comparisons to It’s a Wonderful Life extend to the setting of the film as well. The town of Medford clearly sounds suspiciously similar to Bedford Falls. It features a protagonist under stress, with a husband out of work. There’s a douchey boss character, one that wants to make sure the Graingers are out of the company-owned home by New Year’s Day. There’s even a bit with a bank — the part with the big twist — just to underscore the similarities.

A still of Mary Steenburgen in One Magic Christmas

Mary Steenburgen stars as Ginny Grainger, a woman who must find the true meaning of Christmas in One Magic Christmas.

Will: The only Christmas films I can’t stand are the ones they churn out on channels like Lifetime, where a woman needs to find a man for Christmas. There must be thousands. It’s true that Ginny isn’t exactly a Scrooge archetype, but her journey is similar and it’s her renewal of the Christmas spirit that saves the day in the end, much like Scrooge’s redemption. I see the It’s a Wonderful Life comparisons, mainly because of the very depressing nature of both. One Magic Christmas takes top spot though, as it’s Ginny who’s put in the dismal situation, where in It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) places himself there. It’s a bit easier to swallow when the main character is the cause of their burden.

It’s the darker parts of One Magic Christmas that make it such an odd film though. It’s not unusual to have bleaker Christmas fare, demonstrated by the fact that It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic, but this film pushes the envelope. Even if you ignore what happens to Ginny and her family, One Magic Christmas makes Santa and his workshop in the North Pole one of the most depressing and heartbreaking takes on the imaginary land. Santa doesn’t come off as very cheery to begin with, and his workshop isn’t run by a group of elves, but dead people. Sure, they have essentially become Christmas angels, but there’s something slightly depressing about the design of the workshop and the idea that you spend eternity making toys for kids. It doesn’t look fun or magical, but grimy, sweaty and sad. Also, if Santa’s workshop is where some go in when they die, I would assume they were the ones had the most Christmas spirit and enjoyed giving and sharing. Doesn’t that leave one major character out of the mix when Ginny’s daughter, Abbie, visits? I’m sure I’m stretching things a bit, but didn’t this version of the North Pole come across as one of the most depressing ever seen in film?

Andrew: Santa is straight up exhausted here, but if it was Christmas Eve and I had the most important job in the world, I would be pretty zonked, too. You’re talking to me the night before I have a deadline to hit — not a pretty sight. When I was a child, I always thought that final third, which takes place largely in the sweatshops of the North Pole, was the best part. I got to see Santa! Finally, something actually Christmas-y! When I watch it now, I think the least of that whole trip to the North Pole. It looks cheap and I have the feeling that late director Phillip Borsos toned down the whimsy to fit the bleaker feel. Given the first two acts — the film has nothing if not the perfect three-act structure — having a sudden blast of candy canes, talking snowmen and happy, dancing elves wasn’t going to cut it. Though I am amazed that Disney didn’t ask for reshoots on that section when they picked it up. That’s still the only part of the film that annoys me. Abbie is cute enough in that section, and throughout the whole movie, but Santa doesn’t cut it here.

Getting back to the It’s a Wonderful Life comparisons, I see the differences you’re talking about between Ginny and George Bailey, but they’re both people under incredible amounts of stress. Not everything leading to George wishing he were never born was his fault. Some of it was out of his hands. In some ways, Ginny is the anti-George: someone afraid that too much idealism will lead to crushing heartbreak. We get a few hints as to why— she was raised poor, she grew up living in a hotel her dad was the manager of — but it’s never spelled out. Both characters are way too hard on themselves. Ginny, at the start of One Magic Christmas, and George around the halfway point of It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s all pretty overwhelming. And let’s not forget the biggest point of comparison to It’s a Wonderful Life: the appearance of a Christmas Angel sent to help Ginny reclaim her holiday spirit. The archangel Gideon (played in all-black by Alien’s Harry Dean Stanton) is one of my favourite things about the film, but he puts many off. This is one of my favourite Stanton performances; it’s warm, which the actor isn’t noted for. What do you think of Stanton here?

Still of Harry Dean Stanton in One Magic Christmas

Harry Dean Stanton stars as Christmas angel Gideon in One Magic Christmas.

Will: Stanton is great, but a little creepy. He’s just kind of stalking around, talking to kids who don’t know him, dressed in black, with that hat, like he’s the wool version of the killer in I Know What You Did Last Summer. To continue with the It’s a Wonderful Life comparisons, Gideon is almost the opposite of Henry Travers’ Clarence. Clarence isn’t hiding his angelic origins, even if it makes him look crazy, while Gideon won’t reveal his nature to any of the adults. In the same way that a glittery candy cane workshop for Santa wouldn’t fit the tone of the film, an angel like Clarence wouldn’t either. Imagine he were to come bounding through the fields, smiling wildly and announcing he’s come to save you in the name of Christmas? That might be even more terrifying in a film like this.

I never watched this film as a kid, but I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the trip to the North Pole then and I wasn’t overly impressed with it today. In fact, everything that happens between Ginny losing her Christmas spirit out in the street when her husband goes for a walk, until the moment she returns and the Christmas lights come back on wasn’t exactly enjoyable, in that typical Christmas movie kind of way. It’s almost as if it’s two different movies smashed together.

The beginning of seeing Ginny living with the various stresses of life, dealing with the fact they have to move, her loss of Christmas spirit and her attempts to try and make the best of the holiday (when she purchases those few presents for the kids) are very typical of a holiday film. The return of her Christmas spirit, and the fixing of the various mistakes, along with those final super-Christmas-y film moments, creates one type of film. Between that is some of the most depressing holiday viewing ever. Even when they travel to the North Pole, things are dark. The rest of the film isn’t that bleak. As you said, Ginny isn’t a miserly coot, so the things that happen to her seem excessive. Is that really how a Christmas angel is going to help a woman find her holiday spirit? Abbie convincing her mother of Christmas, angels and Santa Claus, which she does, obviously, would have made for a wonderfully cheery Christmas film. Why the need to take on the darker tone of films like It’s a Wonderful Life? Do you think it’s a conscious choice by the filmmaker? It seems like someone went and said, ‘Hey, can we get more It’s a Wonderful Life here?’ and they were forced to inject the darker moments!

Andrew: I like to think that they got Stanton because, for some reason, Johnny Cash turned the part down. He looks like the Undertaker, but he sounds entirely different. He’s kind of like the shovel guy from Home Alone, only we’re supposed to like Gideon instead of being wary of him. Also, he breaks up that game of shinny in the street (in one of the most markedly Canadian moments of the film) by deflecting a puck through a window. It’s kind of a jerk move, and he likely got the kid who took that slap shot in a lot of trouble. I have a theory about the darkness of this film, and why it’s so desperate to trump Frank Capra’s “misery followed by a happy ending” approach. One Magic Christmas definitely feels like a product of its time and, in many ways, it’s an answer to what was then happening in North America. The gulf between the rich and poor was just beginning to widen, and at least in America, it was a terrible time to be poor. Ronald Reagan often talked about the “silent majority,” but he was really speaking to the elite, not to people like the Graingers. It sucked being poor in Middle America or even in Middle Canada then. It still sucks today.

Most Christmas movies — with the notable exception of It’s a Wonderful Life — are often sketched out by dwelling on poverty for too long. It’s very easy to tell a story where a person or family learn that Christmas isn’t about material objects, but more about the joy the season brings. It’s another thing to try and tell the tale of people having a harsh life, especially in the ’80s, an era of unearned, unbridled American optimism, which was almost unheard of. It’s one of the only examples where a film can be labelled liberal and Christian simultaneously. The Graingers are poor, but even they recognize those who have it worse than they do. I love that now that I can understand what the movie’s going for. I can also imagine young kids absolutely hating this film.

Will: It was nice to see that although the Graingers are poor, they’re still concerned about those around them. It might also be the best representation of the middleclass as it stands now. The Graingers aren’t poor, which is made apparent by the fact that they’re doing things for others that have less, but they’re certainly not rich. I can’t think of a better representation. Their family life is very familiar to my own — there’s some extra money for things on the side, but most of the time you just pay your bills and make sure everybody is fed. It certainly goes against the notion of life in the ’80s, but wouldn’t that be one of the amazingly Canadian things about it? Canadians have a knack for looking at things in a different way and One Magic Christmas is a perfect example. It’s an oddity among so many other Christmas films, and it goes against the general thinking of the time. If that’s not the Canadian way of doing things, I don’t know what is.

Is One Magic Christmas Essential Canadian Cinema?

Will: There’s an aspect of One Magic Christmas that just feels Canadian. It comes across as a tale that could only be told in Canada, where a Christmas movie can still mean something beyond bright lights, carols and presents under the tree. I’m not sure that makes it essential though; it’s straddling the line. The darkness makes it a very strange and depressing film, and I prefer my Christmas crying to come from happier moments, which you find at the end of this film, and not the depressing moments in the middle. I’d rank many other Christmas films over this one, but for Canadian cinema, especially when it comes to holiday films, this is Essential Canadian Cinema.

Andrew: I definitely didn’t think I was going to enjoy revisiting this, but my heart grew a few sizes. I like how Canada might have produced the most depressing Christmas movie of all-time. Now that I’m older and I know where it’s coming from, I appreciate it more. I think it’s aged well, and it’s likely better received today than in the ’80s. There are plenty of movies I would watch again by the Yule log ahead of this, but it’s great for what it is. If that isn’t the definition of Essential Canadian Cinema (and most holiday movies in general), I don’t know what is.