Northpole (2014)

As far as I can tell, Northpole was an attempt by Hallmark to create a family-friendly holiday franchise in the vein of Disney. The fact you've almost certainly never heard of it offers a pretty good summary for how that went. They actually did make a sequel the following year: maybe we'll get to that one of these days.

This actually isn't our first experience with the brand. To accompany the movie, Hallmark made a number of tie-in products, most of which we bought and reviewed (I'll talk about some of those later). This is part of the reason I think Hallmark was trying to turn this into something big: they clearly invested in this idea.

Let's talk about what that idea actually was. In the context of the movie, Northpole is a magical city where Santa and his elves live. It's powered by magic snow, which falls from the northern lights, which in turn are powered by happiness. Or something. Look, the idea is that Northpole creates toys so kids will be happy, so Northpole will be powered to make more toys. It's simple economics. Only things are getting more complicated, because the Christmas spirit just isn't what it used to be. One very enterprising young elf, Clementine, takes it upon herself to investigate, even though everyone tells her not to. Well, everyone except Santa, who seems fine with an elf kid tackling an existential threat to their way of life.

Set all that aside for a moment, because most of the story's not set in the magical, CG land of Northpole, but is instead centered around Kevin, a kid who loves Christmas and just moved to a new town with his single mom, Chelsea, a reporter investigating why the town's century-old Christmas tree lighting ceremony has been canceled.

Turns out Kevin's a special kid, as his magic ornament light thing is glowing brighter than anyone else's. So Clementine sends him a box containing a Northpole Communicator, so they can talk. This one looks a tad nicer than the one I bought in Walgreens in 2014, but we honestly had to pause the movie to confirm they hadn't just used the damn toy as a prop. I should note the Communicator really didn't need to be here. Clementine just shows up at Kevin's house soon after, so I'm pretty sure it was added for the sole purpose of being merchandized. Spoiler: this will be a running theme.

At any rate, Kevin and Clementine start trying to brainstorm ways to save Christmas, while Chelsea continues digging into the mystery of the canceled tree lighting ceremony. Her investigation points towards a developer arranging a secretive deal with the mayor's office that neither will discuss openly. She gives them ample opportunity to answer straight questions, and they both dodge.

Kevin and Clementine eventually settle on saving the tree lighting ceremony to generate Christmas cheer to save the holidays. They investigate the real estate developer and find a Christmas letter he wrote to Santa asking for a gift for a friend, implying he's a good person. Kevin gives the note to his mom, who doesn't believe it's real because why the hell would she?

One important side note: Clementine is able to track Kevin using a Northpole "Find Me Santa" Snowflake. I actually think we bought one of those, too, but we never reviewed it. More corporate synergy!

Also, Kevin's teacher, Ryan, is around for some of this, because there's no way Hallmark's leaving his mom single. Ryan tries to convince Chelsea to be tolerant of her kid's crazy rants about elves and Northpole and Christmas magic. They have pseudo-religious discussions about believing in shit you can't see, stopping just short of dropping the word, "God," because the people who wrote this lack shame.

Speaking of lacking shame, the magic snow at Northpole can be turned into magic happiness snowballs, which elves throw at each other to transfer that happiness to whoever's hit. Does this impact the plot? No, but you can buy your very own Northpole Magic Snowball for $5 or $10. Assuming you have a time machine.

Where was I? Oh yes, Baskin-Robbins. The characters eat Baskin-Robbins ice cream at least twice. It's less synergistic, but still obvious shameless product placement.

Back to the plot. Eventually, Chelsea writes her article, in which she claims the developer and mayor's office are conspiring to turn the town park into a condo development. This embarrasses the developer and the mayor's office, so they deny her son a permit to gather people together at the Christmas tree park. Later, Chelsea figures out that the developer had a past with the park connecting back to that letter from Santa that Kevin and Clementine stole from Northpole's archives. This convinces her she was wrong, and that the developer was actually a nice guy, so she goes to see him.

Turns out the secret deal was going to involve him buying the park, paying for renovations, then donating it back to the town. Chelsea apologizes and promises to get a retraction published, and we all learn a valuable lesson: always trust wealthy industrialists and government officials, even when they refuse to answer questions and avoid oversight.

I'll speed through the last act nonsense where she resigns after her paper won't print a retraction, since they end up doing it later and rehiring her. The important part is she publishes a final editorial, which goes viral, gets everyone in town to the tree lighting (which happens without a permit, because this shit was made for libertarians), and also saves Christmas.

All that's secondary to the real question, however: how will they turn on the lights to the tree? Fortunately, Clementine's got them covered: she brought along a Treeluminator, which looks even more like the toy version than the Communicator. That said... in the interest of full disclosure... I still use that Treeluminator at Christmas. It's kind of great?

Fuck you, Hallmark. I like that Treeluminator, but that makes me hate you even more. 

So Christmas is saved, Kevin's mom and teacher kiss, and everyone's happy or something. The developer's good name is saved, and - less importantly - Christmas is, as well. 

Let's talk quality. You might be surprised to hear this isn't awful. Actually... hold on. This isn't technically awful. The effects work is solid, some of the fantasy designs are inspired, more than half the actors are good, and for a TV movie, the dialogue, directing, and editing are all pretty well done. I've got issues with this - many, many issues, in fact - but credit where it's due: they put some effort into this and produced something that looks and feels closer to a "real movie" than TV garbage.

Note that a "real movie" isn't the same as a "good movie." First, the themes are trite bullshit. The "Believe" nonsense is the same crap dozens of other specials and movies have pulled for decades. They're playing off the "Yes, Virginia" editorial, while missing the point entirely. The actual editorial is about wonder and fantasy, not God. Reducing it to a rote endorsement of blind faith does a disservice to Francis Pharcellus Church and to anyone unfortunate enough to be watching.

Likewise, the idea you should trust those with money and power is one of the worst lessons I've ever seen injected into a kid's movie. I realize they were likely aiming for more of a "don't leap to conclusions" thing, but given the framing... that's not how it comes off.

It's certainly not a theme, but I'm also not a fan of the whole "Christmas magic economics" trope, where Santa's operation is fueled by the joy they create, as that kind of implies they're not doing it for selfless reasons. If you're feeding off the happiness of kids, you're not a benevolent spirit of generosity: you're a psychic vampire. Again, this isn't technically an issue, but I hate it and encourage you to hate it, as well.

Of course, the real problem here is tone. To be fair, this comes closer to working than most similar movies. It's trying to go for an '80s kid adventure feel, and it almost gets there. The thing is, the ideas they're using are too stupid to work at face value, and the movie doesn't even seem to try and mine humor out of them. The whole Northern Lights happiness energy thing is ridiculous: they should have just run with that and allowed it to be a joke. Instead, they treat it like serious lore. Same with the rest of the Northpole stuff: by building it into a metaphor around belief, they're demanding it be taken seriously, and... it's just not interesting or developed enough to work.

Pacing and story are also problems, though granted that's probably more an adult issue than anything that will bother kids. But I'm not inclined to give something this overtly focused on merchandising a pass for anything. It's not for kids: it's for marketing executives and shareholders. And since this franchise faded away, I'm guessing they weren't any happier with this than I was.

Then there are the characters who don't work. I mentioned before I thought most of the cast was pretty good, but there are some pretty major exceptions. I feel bad saying this about someone who was a kid when this was made, but the weakest link by far is Clementine. For what it's worth, I blame the director, not the actress. They had her play the role with a cloying, almost never-ending smile. I get what they were going for, but it doesn't work. Likewise, the actor playing Santa comes across as bored and angry whenever he's on set. I have no idea what the story is there, but he's awful in the role.

I don't imagine this needs to be said, but you don't need to track this down. In some ways, it's better than I'd expected, but not in any of the ways that matter. This was competently made, but the premise, story, tone, and themes aren't anywhere near the level they need to be.