With Christmas approaching in approximately a week, we are forced to consider the meaning of the holiday in cinematic terms. There are countless movies, TV movies, and television shows about the topic, most of them ranging from bad to terrible. Browse your television listings during the month of December and you will see lesser cable stations such as Lifetime and Ion running marathons of movies you’ve never heard of, but not every horrible Christmas movie stars actors at low points of their careers, and not every one is about a work-obsessed woman or single father needing to find a partner for the holidays. Some of these movies actually feature a decent cast and a budget that allows for more than a week of filming.
In this segment of, I will look at three catastrophes that attempt to profit from holiday sentiment: 2007’s Fred Claus, 1998’s Jack Frost, and 2004’s Christmas with the Kranks. (2000’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas is just too uncomfortable to sit through.)
Fred Claus (dir. David Dobkin, 2007)
For the most part, we can understand where bad movies come from. A box office cash grab. Paychecks. A child audience. An inexperienced filmmaker. Poor editing. Studio interference. However, 2007’s Fred Claus is the type of movie that makes you wonder how it was greenlit in the first place. An utterly baffling film made even more ponderous by the high quality of stars — Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, Miranda Richardson, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Kathy Bates, and Vince Vaughn (who could have also made this list with Four Christmases). It was directed by David Dobkin, who had previously helmed the underrated Clay Pigeons with Vaughn and the highly successful Wedding Crashers also with Vaughn. Screenplay and story is credited to Dan Fogelman who wrote Cars the previous year and subsequently wrote Bolt; Tangled; and Crazy, Stupid, Love. While I’m not pretending as though this is the best behind-the-scenes pedigree, it at least consists of professionals.
Fred Claus tells of Santa Claus’ (Paul Giamatti) lesser known older brother Fred (Vince Vaughn) who is a bit of cad. In need of $50,000 by December 22 to open an OTB parlor near the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (we can assume he has all necessary permits), he agrees to help his brother run his shop for the cash. Unfortunately, this layabout comes to the North Pole at the time when efficiency expert Clyde (Kevin Spacey) is under orders from the Board that if Santa gets three strikes before Christmas, he’s getting shut down.
The first indications that something is horribly wrong occur in the first ten minutes. We begin with a prologue set long, long ago as Kathy Bates gives birth to Santa Claus and names him “Nicholas Claus.” With Nick being a goody two-shoes, the previously kind Fred grows increasingly bitter… especially after his brother becomes a saint. As the narrator explains, “now it’s a little known rule of sainthood but when you become a saint you freeze in time, eternally ageless. The rule applies to the family of the saint and spouses as well.”
Admittedly, I am not a saints scholar, but everything about that is wrong. Nicholas of St. Nicholas fame did not have Claus as his last name according to Catholic.org and Wikipedia. And saints can’t be canonized until after their death. Now maybe it seems like I’m nitpicking, but I wouldn’t criticize the logistics of The Santa Clause or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians since they don’t take pretty well established facts and make them completely false…the existence of Martians and Santa Claus and the logistics of space travel aside.
As we move into modern times, it’s hard to know for whom the movie is made. Rated PG and being about Santa Claus, one would logically assume that it’s for children, but Fred Claus is not a kid’s movie. It barely has kids in it. The only child with a somewhat extended part is an orphan boy named Sam (Bobb’e J. Thompson) befriended by Fred, but he plays a very minor role and is only used to show that Fred doesn’t despise all children. However, he does make it to the top of the naughty list by denying Santa’s existence and getting into a fight after being taken away by child protective services. (No animal torturers that year?)
The tone for the entire film is mostly depressed, angry, pessimistic, and confused, which is best evidenced by Fred himself, a repo man who steals Christmas presents for his own apartment. He is a total jerk, and more of a depressed burnout than the fun-loving slacker that the trailer makes it seem. That isn’t necessarily a problem for a movie like this. Many kids’ movies starts with a flawed protagonist, like Gordon Bombay in The Mighty Ducks, but they normally have someone who provides them with redemption. This movie doesn’t have anyone like that, and it mostly relies on Fred coming to these realizations on his own.
Also, while the Vince Vaughn movie persona — possibly alcoholic douchebag who will go on high-speed cynical rants at the drop of a hat — might work for adult films, it doesn’t fit in a family movie like this. It’s too harsh, and the film makes him too unlikeable. Before he gets to the North Pole, he steals from charity and fights off Salvation Army Santa Clauses, but the goofy cartoon sound effects detract from the “rock bottom” this should otherwise be. Additionally, he’s inattentive towards his long term and long-suffering meter maid girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz).
On a deeper level, Fred’s personality can be understood because he’s immortal. Maybe he doesn’t want to move in with Wanda because he knows that he can’t forge relationships due to the fact that he will never grow old, let alone die. I’m sure the pressures of being eternally ageless for more than 16 centuries (according to Wikipedia, St. Nicholas died in 343 AD) would weigh heavily on anyone, especially when they have no one to turn to about it — except maybe the hundreds if not thousands of other Saints, Saint-relations, and Saint-children (?) still living — but none of these concepts are broached. We get an out-of-place scene late in the movie where Fred attends a Siblings Anonymous meeting with Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton, and Frank Stallone but nothing that plays off any of Fred Claus‘ central concepts.
Santa Claus himself fares no better. Being played by Paul Giamatti, he’s curmudgeonly, neurotic, and constantly on the verge of screaming. We’re introduced to him complaining about his hair being completely white with no grey left, which kind of runs counter to the “freeze in time, eternally ageless” thing established earlier, but whatever.
The efficiency expert subplot, which one could argue is the film’s main plot, is equally confounding. Clyde, who holds a long-standing grudge towards Santa and sabotages the workshop on several occasions, works for a Board who has the power to shut down Santa Claus and also has purview over the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Who they are, where does their authority come from, and what Santa has to answer for is left unclear. Additionally, its presence is not treated as a mystery to be expanded upon in sequels nor are they “villains,” but it’s not approached with juvenile simplicity either. Making a kid’s flick about Santa needing to increase profits is as misguided as the child-centric Speed Racer revolving around a scheme to control stock prices. Also, considering Clyde’s obvious hatred towards Santa, their vetting process leaves a lot to be desired.
What might have been an okay concept if done simplistically is bogged down with details, and a pathetic attempt to poorly satirize corporate culture. Clyde shows a PowerPoint detailing how Christmas wishes have changed since the 19th century from being simple and abstract to more materialistic is just one example of a gag that is too over the head for children but not funny for adults. Clyde probably isn’t immortal since his hatred for Santa comes from the big man not delivering a Superman cape to him when he was a child. Similarly, Charlene (Banks) works as Santa’s assistant at the North Pole, dresses in skimpy Santa outfits for work, and probably isn’t ageless either. How do mortals get caught up in this world of the eternals?
Along with all of the character issues, the film fails to capture a sense of wonder. Santa’s workshop is no more — and possibly less — impressive than that in The Santa Clause from more than a decade earlier. The North Pole isn’t pretty, and the elves, including a discomforting, shrunk down Ludacris as the DJ, aren’t fun. Main elf Willie (John Michael Higgins) is a bit of a downer. The snowglobe concept where Santa (or whoever is in the room at the time) can spy on anyone in the world comes across as more lecherous than magical.
But, as expected, Fred Claus goes through the Christmas motions. Everyone finds their holiday spirit, including Fred who uses Santa’s money to fly back to the North Pole and eventually take the reins of the sleigh because Santa is too depressed to work. Yet even as Fred returns to his family, there is still a sense of sadness surrounding the movie and his character. A speech he gives, telling Sam to believe in Santa comes more from a desperation to believe in something rather than the joyous “God bless us everyone!” you’d expect from a film such as this one.
Although the movie has a rote happy ending (even Clyde joins the staff to keep everything operating smoothly after receiving a Superman cape), the film nevertheless still feels like a downer. Fred might have returned to his family, but it’s hard to imagine that his insecurities and anger are gone — probably because the film never takes the Vince Vaughn persona away from the Vince Vaughn character. Sure their relationship is fixed now, but in 50 years? 100 years? 1,000 years? Fred seems like the type who would have no problem settling down for awhile, but then his personal issues or wanderlust will most surely overtake him again.
Admittedly, I’ve devoted more words to Fred Claus than that movie probably deserves. I’ve even excised sections, such as my discussion of moments with fart sound effects, an ill-conceived love story between elf Willie and Charlene, and Wanda’s lack of surprise as to the revelation of Fred’s lineage. Very few movies perplex me as much as this one does. Lacking even the slightest happiness required for a Christmas or family film, Fred Claus ends up leaving me with a barrel of questions — both related to the existence of the film and within the film itself. For a kid’s movie, it’s not light in the slightest, but for a more grown-up film, it does not accept the darkness and depression that pervades the entire movie. The poster might show Fred riding a toy train, but that is certainly not this Christmas film’s spirit.
Jack Frost (dir. Troy Miller, 1998)
Now that we’ve discussed immortal families, time to discuss broken homes. Specifically those with a dead parent. Let’s travel back to 1998 Colorado as director Troy Miller (primarily a television director whose work includes genuinely high quality fare such as Parks and Recreation, Mr. Show with Bob and David, and Flight of the Conchords) and writer Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghost Rider) bring us Jack Frost.
This is your predictable tale of a negligent father who is not really negligent learning about the importance of family. Played by a shockingly tan Michael Keaton, an actor who has “deserved better” for the past 20 years, the eponymous Jack Frost is the lead musician for a band that carries his name and includes Mark “King Robert Baratheon” Addy and Henry Rollins as back-up. Constantly on the road but unsigned, Jack is the type of father who is utterly devoted to his family (son Charlie (Joseph Cross, most recently seen as John Hay in Spielberg’s Lincoln) and wife Gabby (Kelly Preston of Mrs. John Travolta fame)) but is portrayed as a bad dad because he doesn’t go to his son’s sports events. The love he has for his wife and son is practically flawless, but unfortunately he earns a living doing what he loves. He also seems to do pretty well considering his family has a nice house, a beautiful cabin, and HBO. Sure, the wife supplements their income as a bank teller, but that was a damned fine cabin.
After finally getting the chance to play for a record executive in Aspen (but on Christmas Eve!), he gets into a car crash and dies. This occurs a half hour (30:47 to be quasi-exact) into the film, nearly a third into its running time. Taking place this late in the movie, it might as well be considered a twist. Which is strange because his untimely death is the selling point since it allows him to become this…
Jack Frost: The Snowman. The incredibly creepy and disturbing snowman. A couple of days before one year after Jack’s death, his angry-at-the-world son builds a snowman (their previous tradition), blows on a magic harmonica, and Jack’s spirit inhabits the “body” of the snowman.
After an initial shock, Jack seems kind of cool with this and Charlie accepts it. The snowman and his son go on adventures together. Get into a snowball fight with the bad kids. Go snowboarding against a 10-year-old X-Games quality snowboarder. Learn how to play hockey. Fix a sink. And hang out in Charlie’s ridiculously beautiful ice palace that nobody knows about.
The effects are mostly bad, but considering the year and the fact that this was before every movie had to be CGI’ed to death, they’re passable. But that might also explain why the Jack Frost snowman portion of the film seems so skimpy. Spending a half hour establishing pretty basic character types was a plodding waste of time, and then having Frost begin to melt about two days after relatively few set pieces feels rushed. However, we do get such gems of dialogue as Bully: “He’s no fun to pick on since his old man died”; Jack: “You the man” Charlie: “You the man” Jack” No, I the snowman!”; and Bully: “Snow dad’s better than no dad.”
At the end, Jack and Charlie escape into the mountains and their magnificent cabin where it’s colder, and Jack probably won’t melt. After only a few hours, Jack calls Gabby and tells her to get his son, which violates his nonsensical rule against telling her about his existence. I understand that the secret element is a trope in a movie like this, but there’s no logical reason for him not revealing his presence to his wife. I’m sure she’d just be glad to have him back and say all the things she wanted to say to him. She doesn’t seem like the type who’d call in government scientists.
But because it’s only a ~97 minute movie, it’s time for Jack to go back to heaven or something. As his son pleads with him not to go, he says, “Charlie, you got to get on with your life buddy,” in a bizarrely condescending tone. Like he’s found someone most interesting to talk to, and he’s only one step away from telling the person talking his ear off to “get the hell away from me.” Though if he’s going to the afterlife, I’m sure there’s more fascinating people than Charlie Boy. But Gabby arrives just in time to see Jack in human form surrounded by a cloud of magic and disappear. And they live happily ever after, I guess.
Unlike Fred Claus, this movie is definitely more kid-friendly, even with the central premise revolving around a kid, his dead father, and everyone still mourning his dead father, and with Jack Frost the snowman being very unpleasant to look at. Despite its supernatural elements, I also don’t question how he came back to life or why or why melting would kill him but being crushed by a tree wouldn’t. Nevertheless Jack Frost is still a horrendous film with vacant characters, insipid dialogue, and a true downer of a plot. Fun can’t hide the fact that the kid’s dad’s still dead.
Christmas with the Kranks (dir. Joe Roth, 2004)
But sometimes a family member leaving is not a bad thing. The Empty Nest doesn’t always have to come about by an immortal man deciding to wander the Earth or by a father dying. Sometimes it’s just a natural part of growing up, like in Joe Roth’s piece of conformity propaganda Christmas with the Kranks.
Based on John Grisham’s novel “Skipping Christmas: or, The Attorney Who Discovered The Conspiracy to Destroy Christmas,” Christmas with the Kranks is an ideologically problematic film. Better positioned as a psychological horror film than heartwarming Christmas fun, Christmas with the Kranks is a warning against individuality and the dangers that come to those who dare to go against the grain.
The unfortunately last-named Kranks are Luther (Tim Allen), Nora (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Blair (Julie Gonzalo). When daughter Blair decides to join the Peace Corps for Christmas, Luther, waking up to the financial and emotional tortures of the season, convinces his wife to abandon traditional Christmas and take a cruise leaving on Christmas Day. This means they don’t host a lavish Christmas Eve party for the neighbors, buy Christmas trees, decorate their house, or do any of the other reindeer games that apparently take up most of the month.
Admittedly, some of their moves are a bit odd. You can still make charitable donations to the police or Boy Scouts without giving into the entire Christmas thing. Luther didn’t need to write a letter to his co-workers explaining that he was skipping Christmas, because none of them presumably lives in his community, and I can’t imagine any of them caring. However, the neighbors take this as an affront and engage in a concentrated effort to make the Kranks’ lives a living hell. Led by dictator Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Aykroyd), the entire neighborhood attacks these people for not putting up their Christmas lights or a giant snowman to adorn their roof. Neighborhood kids (and adults) chant “free Frosty” and hammer signs into their lawn, people make harassing phone calls, carolers are hired to endlessly croon to them, and they’re vilified in the local newspaper for daring to take a cruise instead of spending thousands of dollars to be part of unpleasant festivities. It makes you wonder about diversity in the neighborhood and how many people of non-Christian religions have been run out of town for not participating. As the leader of the carolers asks derisively regarding the darkened Kranks home, “Are those folks Jewish? Or Buddhist or anything?”
While the film tries to make the back and forth between the Kranks and the townspeople seem goofy, it’s actually kind of frightening. Nora, who doesn’t have the commitment to Luther’s plans that she should, admits that she lives in fear. At one point, Luther and Nora are forced to hide in their basement until people go away. In another scene, policemen tell Luther they’d treat him better if he bought one of their fundraising Christmas calendars. All the neighbors have binoculars by the windows to spy on everyone else. Maybe this could have made more sense in a really close-knit community as a condemnation of Americana, but Kranksville is very close to a bustling metropolis. Luther himself works in a big building in a big city, so it’s not like they’re isolated in some strange pre-war town.
Yet despite all this, at the end, the neighbors are treated as the good guys. Blair announces she’s coming home with her new fiancé, and the Kranks scramble to produce a Christmas she remembers instead of trusting that their 23-year-old daughter would understand that people change and that announcing your changed plans less than two days before Christmas is rude. But no, she’s probably as brainwashed as everyone else in Kranksville.
Upon hearing about the change in plans, Vic summons all the neighbors and commands them all to give up their holiday plans and food and booze to help the Kranks put on the best holiday party they can. (ABC’s alien comedy The Neighbors, created by Dan Fogelman, pulled this off better several weeks back.) Not because the Kranks deserve it, and Vic describes Luther as “spoiled selfish baby,” but to keep Blair in their creepy, milquetoast, conformist fold. As Vic puts it, “why should the daughter pay for the sins of the father?” Even Nora turns against Luther at the party, disgustingly calling him selfish for wanting to still go on the cruise.
As expected, the movie ends with a “happy” ending, but it’s actually the most unsettling of the three films. No matter how hard it tries to make things lighthearted and goofy, the undercurrent of Twilight Zone-y evil in this town cannot be ignored. Luther’s wife betrays him, his neighbors belittle him and “adopt” his adult daughter, and he’s forced to give up his last visage of individuality (the cruise tickets) or be forced into presumably societal exile.
Unfortunately, we don’t get one of those awesome High Noon moments where Gary Cooper throws his star in the dirt. What we get is giving up, accepting your fate, and understanding that you’ll be stuck wasting money doing the same shtick every year until the day you die. Even the oddly included Santa in a flying VW and CGI animated Frosty at the end can’t eliminate the overall hopelessness of Christmas with the Kranks. Then again, maybe it understands the season better than we’d like to admit.