“You all know who I am. We meet once a year.”
No, this isn’t the movie about Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun. That’s A Christmas Story, with an “A” in the title. This movie is simply Christmas Story, a re-imagining of the origins of good ol’ Santa Claus.
Sometime in the distant past, in a remote, snowy village, young Nicholas (Jonas Rinne) loses his parents in a tragic accident. The villagers decide to share responsibility with raising the boy. Every year, Nicholas makes Christmas presents for his many adopted siblings around the village, silently leaving the gifts on their doorsteps on Christmas Eve. As he gets older, Nicholas is put in the care of the cold-hearted Isaak (Kari Vaananen), a cruel taskmaster. Nicholas soon learns, however, that Isaak is a master craftsman. It turns out Isaak isn’t such a bad guy, and become Nicholas’s teacher. In adulthood, Nicholas (Hannu-Pekka Bjorkman) grows a great big bushy beard, and never loses his desire to bring joy anonymously to children on Christmas. His plans get more and more elaborate, spreading out to all the neighboring villages. As he bonds with a young girl who learns his secret, Nicholas reveals to her an even grander plan for his favorite holiday.
Every couple of years, somebody comes along with yet another take on the origin of Santa Claus. My personal favorite is the Rankin Bass special Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but there are a lot of others, like when that old homeless guy transformed into a new Santa in Ernest Saves Christmas. This version, despite its fantasy-setting visuals, is a more down-to-Earth take on how ol’ Bowl-Full-of-Jelly got his start. We’re not told where or when the story takes place, and everything certainly looks magical and Shire-like, but the emphasis is on a simple origin. There’s a master craftsman lurking around on Christmas Eve leaving presents for the kids. Who is he? Why is he doing it? By confining the story one small village rather than the entire planet Earth, the filmmakers can explore who this guy is without having to explain weird crap like flying around the world in one night or carrying six billion presents in one sleigh.
If you were one of those internet dork-a-dorks who complained about Tom Bombadil being left out of the Lord of the Rings movie, you might enjoy this movie. All throughout, I was reminded of the Shire, with its lush green expanses (during the rare springtime scenes, at least) and gentle characters espousing folksy wisdom. There’s also a strong Dickensian influence, especially once Nicholas starts his training with Isaak, who seems so cruel at first, but eventually reveals his humanity under his crusty, bitter exterior.
Christmas Story is somewhat refreshing in how it does away with the usual Christmas movie clichés. There are no screwball action scenes shoehorned into the middle of the movie, such as escaping a runaway sleigh or a chase through a toy factory. There are no God-awful musical numbers created with the hopes of establishing a future seminal classic. At no point does Christmas have to be “saved.” Instead, the movie sticks to the story at hand. The downside to this is that Christmas Story might move too slowly for some viewers. It’s more interesting in tugging at the heartstrings than it is generating thrills and laughs. That simplicity of storytelling can be a good thing if you’re getting sick of stuff like Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause, or it could be a bad thing if you’re in the mood for stuff like Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause.
Theology alert! Theology alert! The word “Christmas” gets thrown around with enthusiasm throughout this movie, but there’s no talk of Christ or the Nativity. If that infuriates you, for any reason, then maybe this movie isn’t for you.
For this review, DVD Verdict received an advanced screener disc, which will likely not be identical to ones found on store shelves. You should hope not, because the picture is very soft, and the colors just don’t jump off the screen like they should. Yes, a softer, hazier picture could have to do with the filmmaker wanting an old-timey feel to the movie, but I still say the color is still a little too washed out. Also, English is obviously not the movie’s original language, but your only option is the dub with no subtitles in any language. There’s only the trailer for extras.
Christmas Story is a quiet, quaint holiday film—a different take on the Santa Claus legend. I doubt it’ll become a holiday standard in years to come, but you never know. If nothing else, it’s an alternative to the same-old, same-old that gets watched every December.