One Magic Christmas (1985)

I've got a lot to say about this movie - about its themes, plot, and its use of classic holiday tropes - and I'm going to cover a lot of ground. But before I get into all that, I want to take a moment, step back, and summarize this as a whole.

This movie is bullshit.

I know that raises more questions than it answers. So let's roll up our sleeves and dig in to explore the depths of the bullshit that define the experience of watching "One Magic Christmas," a 1985 attempt by Disney to push out a Christmas classic by transparently tossing cliché after cliché against the screen and hoping it somehow coalesces into something worthwhile.

To be fair, not everything in this movie is bad - some of the component pieces are actually pretty good. But that's true of bullshit, too. Cows eat a lot of different vegetation, including some lovely flowers. In the end, though, that doesn't change what's left over.

The movie's plot is absurdly convoluted, largely because it doesn't seem to have a grasp on who its main character is. Structurally, the protagonist should be Ginny (played by Mary Steenburgen), a loving mother who doesn't have much Christmas spirit. She's not aggressively anti-Christmas, mind you, she's just kind of in a bad mood. Obviously, this can't stand, so Nicholas (in moon form) sends a cowboy Christmas angel to set things right.

Okay, I made that sound dumb, but honestly, the Christmas angel is kind of rad. His name's Gideon, and he's played by Harry Dean Stanton, who spends most of the movie acting as if he's quietly carrying some horrible weight or curse. None of this seems to be from the script, but his character feels like he's got a backstory a billion times more interesting than the movie he's in.

The angel befriends Ginny's daughter, Abbie, who's young enough to believe in Santa. Early in the movie, Gideon reveals himself to her and prevents her from mailing a letter to Santa, insisting she should ask her mother to send it. Remember this, because it's literally what the plot hinges on. And not because there's anything substantive in that letter, mind you - they just want her to send the letter as a symbolic endorsement of the holiday.

That's why Gideon murders Ginny's husband.

I'm exaggerating, but honestly not much. We'll get to that. First, we've got to talk about Abbie, because the movie seems to think she might be the main character. She gets a lot of screen time, and she's the one who gets an adventure of sorts. But she doesn't really change as a character. She just sort of wants people to be happy and for her mom to like Christmas more.

Ginny's husband, Jack, wants to open a bike repair store with his best friend, Casey Jones (well, the actor who'd play Casey Jones in the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). She also has a son, who's just kind of a jackass. Basically, the movie treads water for a while as nothing substantial happens and we're expected to care whether or not Ginny mails a stupid letter.

Then, around the midpoint, there's suddenly a plot. We're talking Rube Goldberg, too, and it all gets set up and sprung over the course of a couple minutes. We're also introduced to Harry Dickens, and I swear to you that's the character's actual name. (He actually shows up briefly early in the movie, hassling Ginny at her cashier job over the price of some minor item, but it seems like a moment about her job, not his character, until he suddenly reappears later.)

Harry is down on his luck and desperate to get a few bucks for the holidays. Ginny overhears him trying to sell his car, which is clearly falling apart. She doesn't think much of it at the time. But when he's unable to get the money he needs, he heads to the bank.

Jack, meanwhile, is in the bank for other reasons, as is Gideon. Meanwhile, the kids are outside in the car, which is comedically double-parked in front of Harry's vehicle. Harry pulls a gun, grabs a hostage, then things go bad. Jack ends up shot and dies in front of Ginny, who's almost immediately informed the gunman just stole her car with kids still inside.

Let's back up a bit, because there are a couple key points I skipped. First, Gideon kind of foreshadowed all this earlier - the movie implies he knew this was going to happen. But more importantly, the movie has already demonstrated he has the power to prevent things like this (he saved Abbie from being hit by a car earlier). In short, this happened, because he let it happen. Again, he's got bigger fish to fry - Ginny isn't sufficiently enthusiastic about Christmas.

Harry winds up driving off a bridge, leaving Ginny to think to her kids died, as well. This isn't the case - she's soon informed they were found safe up the road (Gideon decided to intervene... this time). The kids are taken home and seem mildly annoyed their dad's dead, so Abbie heads out to find Gideon, reasoning he can fix this with his angel powers.

But this is beyond him. Instead, he brings her to the North Pole, so she can meet Santa Claus and ask him to resurrect her dead father - because apparently this is something someone believed should be in a movie. Santa apologizes and explains he can't bring Jack back to life; the only one who can do that is Ginny. He gives Abbie a letter her mom wrote to Santa when she was young, then he flies away in a glowing orb (there was a period in the mid-'80s when movies thought Santa's sleigh should look like a flying saucer - just go with it), and had Gideon take her home.

Abbie gives her mom the letter, and Ginny suddenly believes in Christmas magic or something. So she pulls her daughter's letter out of the drawer she stuck it in, takes it to the mailbox, and sends it. Gideon shows up, and Jack appears as Christmas Eve resets. Only Ginny remembers the darkest timeline.

Ginny then does everything in a more festive way, including supporting Jack's stupid dream of opening a bike shop, taking Christmas Eve off from her job, and giving some other kid a bike. Also, she gives Harry fifty bucks, so he doesn't try to rob the bank. Considering she watched him murder her husband and almost get her kids killed in the other timeline, I'm not sure I buy this - she could have just tipped off the cops and left him to his fate. I guess Christmas spirit is one hell of a drug.

At any rate, everyone is now happy, and Ginny has learned the true meaning of the holidays: you must bow before the majesty of Christmas, less it murder your loved ones in retribution.

So. That's a hell of a thing to pass off as family entertainment.

I said earlier the movie had some good elements, and I maintain that's true. Steenburgen and Stanton are both great here. They're trying to salvage this mess, and if there'd been a little more substance to the story or theme, I think they might have been successful. In addition, some of the fantasy elements are good. Santa's workshop has a sort of Victorian vibe, and there's something refreshingly off about its workers. Instead of elves, it's staffed with the spirits of people who loved Christmas, a detail I can only assume had a different implication in some earlier iteration of the script (i.e.: I suspect Jack wasn't always coming back).

In fact, there are some indications this might have undergone late reshoots to transform the narrative. Even if you set aside the fact the movie seems confused about whether the main character is Ginny or Abbie, the scene where Abbie meets Santa is oddly wedged in. Gideon brings her but doesn't go inside. It feels like they couldn't line him up for the shoot with Santa, so they awkwardly wrote him out.

And, yes, this is supposed to be the part of the review I discuss what the movie did right, but like the metaphor I used to kick off this review, even the good stuff winds up smelling bad.

It's a movie without a core premise. Is it an updated Christmas Carol about a mother who needs to see the holidays through her kids' eyes? Is it a fantasy about an angel rekindling his own love of the holidays by helping others? A retread of It's a Wonderful Life featuring a nightmare timeline where a woman loses everything, only to have it returned through holiday magic? Or is it just a story about a kid meeting Santa to get help with her family?

It winds up trying to be all of these without committing to any. It never even decides who the POV character is or what we're supposed to take away from the story. And the closest thing we get to a theme is "Christmas is good, because magic." And even that's contingent on a woman being psychologically tortured through supernatural interference until she finally breaks and embraces the Yuletide powers that targeted her in the first place.

Honestly, you could recut this into a hell of a horror movie.

I'm tempted to give this a "so bad it's good" pass - I laughed at more dramatic scenes than I can count. But I don't think the bad stuff is consistently interesting or entertaining enough to justify that. There are a handful of good ideas and elements, but nowhere near enough to overlook the larger structural problems. It's less than the sum of its parts, and frankly that sum wasn't all that impressive to begin with.