Ghosts of Christmas Always (2022)

While it stops short of greatness, this Hallmark Christmas Carol/romantic comedy comes significantly closer than you'd expect. Frankly, only a weak ending keeps this from securing a full recommendation, and even then it's a close call. And coupled with the fact this thing offers quite a few surprise turns, if you generally enjoy these sorts of TV movies, you might want to stop reading and start watching before getting spoiled.

First, I need to clarify that even compared to other border cases this isn't really an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Instead, it attempts to build on movies like "Scrooged" and "It's Christmas, Carol" to further build out the sub-sub-genre of quasi-sequels set in a world where A Christmas Carol is based on a true story. I'm actually not the one choosing those examples, by the way: Ghosts of Christmas Always alludes to those movies when a character calls them out as his favorite versions of the story. I'm guessing "It's Christmas, Carol" was mentioned not just because it's Hallmark, but also because this borrows a few details around metaphysics. Or maybe the writers just really like it (like this, it is pretty good).

In this version, the main character is Katherine, the ghost of Christmas Present. Or more accurately, a ghost of Christmas Present, as there are numerous such entities existing in a massive complex from which they're given missions and sent in teams with ghosts of Past and Future to teach people lessons they need. There's a fair amount of lore around this, as well: all ghosts qualified for the role by dying at Christmas, they don't remember details of their deaths, they work in teams of three but aren't supposed to share details about their areas of expertise with the other ghosts, there's a massive set of doors leading to "The Great Unknown" that ghosts can go through when they're ready (foreshadowing!), only the people they're sent to "Scrooge" (even the Ghosts use this term as a verb) can see them, and people they visit forget encountering them and believe it's all a dream. To the movie's credit, almost all of this is explained naturally - only the Unknown Gate feels like a massive plot point when it's introduced.

Following a successful Scrooging in her old neighborhood, Katherine goes for a walk alone. She encounters Peter, the kind-hearted son of a local businessman, who inexplicably can see and hear her. She takes off and tells no one about the experience. When she receives her assignment for next year's target, she's horrified to discover it's him. Then she's even more confused, since nothing in her packet of notes seems to explain why he's an assignment at all. He loves Christmas, is extremely charitable despite his father's disapproval, values family and community... you get the idea. Granted, Katherine only has access to information about Peter's present, but her companions seem a little lost, as well, though Future seems less concerned.

When they appear to Peter the next year, he recognizes Katherine immediately, forcing her to come clean to her partners. Peter, I should note, is ecstatic when he realizes what's going on: he loves A Christmas Carol (he's the one who brings up the other movies) and - while confused - is eager both to experience the adventure and grow as a person. However, when Past tells him to come with her, he asks if Katherine can come with them. Future and Past agree to bend the rules, giving Katherine a chance to see Peter's childhood. Turns out, he was as good then as now, giving away toys to the less fortunate. He takes after his grandfather, who prioritized giving far more than Peter's father.

That said, Peter respects and likes his father, Robert, though he doesn't want to be like him. For all his grandfather's merits, the family business was on the verge of collapse when his dad took over and turned it into a profitable enterprise. While the trip to the past confirms Robert prioritized work over spending Christmas with his family, he's motivated by a desire to protect that family from the poverty he knew growing up.

When we move on to the present, we get more of the same. Peter is desperately trying to learn his lesson, while the ghosts are equally lost as to what that lesson should be, eventually settling on Peter refusing to take over his father's company and maybe reconnect with an old crush.

But in case it's not obvious, Peter's really fallen in love with Katherine, who feels the same. But with the job seemingly over, the ghosts return to the hall, where they learn...

There was a mistake. They were supposed to be sent after Robert, not his son. They're given a 12-hour extension, with the fate of the universe potentially at stake. Only because they were sent to Peter, Robert can't see or hear them, they don't have access to his past or future, nor can they show him anything. Peter's still the only one they can interact with.

Fortunately, whatever allowed Peter to remember Katherine from the prior year means he still remembers their visitation the night before. They explain the mix-up and pressure him into reconnecting with his dad and trying to help him regain his Christmas spirit. For the most part, this goes poorly, with the two men unable to see eye-to-eye.

Eventually, Past explains she needs to take them back one more time, but instead of going into Peter's past, they go to Katherine's. Turns out there never was an error, and neither Peter nor Robert were the real assignment: she was. But her past is also sort of Peter's, a few generations removed, because she was best friends with his grandmother. Katherine's accidental death was what inspired Peter's grandparents to devote their lives to charity. They also learn where his grandmother left a note Peter's able to use to get his father to reconsider.

By the end, Robert agrees to let Peter start and run a charitable branch of the company that will realize his parents' dream. Then Katherine goes through the big doors from the beginning and is resurrected on Earth. Or something? Here's where it gets a little awkward, because the movie doesn't really explain any of the obvious questions you should have, nor is Peter in the least bit surprised to see her. Was she folded into a new timeline? Did she ever die in the first place? The movie is oddly ambiguous here, like they ran out of time.

Normally, it's not really all that big a deal when one of these movies plays fast and loose with logic around how magic works and the like, but this is a special case. While the concepts are nominally fantasy, structurally and conceptually the film itself is secretly science fiction. And, barring the ending, that's awesome! The science fiction aspects of A Christmas Carol don't get nearly enough attention, despite the lasting influence it's had on the genre. I love seeing those brought to the forefront, even if they're snuck in using ghosts, angels, and Christmas magic.

The thing is, the movie itself is meticulously constructed, with an elaborate plot tied to motives and characters living in multiple times. In short, this needs to resolve like a science fiction story, not a fairytale. When all the problems get handwaved with confirmation that those in power had a plan all along, and we're not even told how going through the magic door fixes everything, we feel cheated.

It's by far the weakest aspect of the movie, which is otherwise quite good. The dialogue is solid, the casting inspired, and constant twists well executed, in part due to a series of chapter titles reminiscent of the Stave structure of the original. Conceptually, the movie impressed me quite a bit, particularly in the way it used themes and ideas drawn from Dickens in original ways. I love how Robert, for example, embodies Scrooge's line about the catch-22 around poverty and wealth. I also really like that the morals aren't black and white, but the movie still honors Dickens's message that those with resources have a responsibility to those in need.

Katherine is played by longtime TV actress, Kim Matula. I wouldn't be shocked if she picks up some much bigger roles in the near future: she's good enough to carry a major series or movie if given the chance. Ian Harding is likewise good as Peter, particularly when the movie plays up the fact he's far more innocent and enthusiastic than the literal spirits of Christmas. The other two ghosts, played by Lori Tan Chinn and Reginald VelJohnson, are wonderful, as well, as is Blair Baker in a minor role as the manager of the afterlife.

All that said, this is still a TV movie, which means the quality dips at times. But overall it's really quite good, and - like I said at the top - right on the edge of being worth a recommendation. And if the ending hadn't devolved into a mess, I'd be giving one. Even so, this thing is one of the smarter and better-executed modern transformations of A Christmas Carol I've come across.