The Magical Christmas Tree (2021)

It's always hard approaching movies which were clearly made on a virtually non-existent budget, and this one's harder than usual. The Magical Christmas Tree feels limited by resources in ways that severely hamper the experience. At the same time, there are some really good aspects to the film that stand out. More than that, it offers a unique premise and highly unusual kind of representation within the universe of Christmas media.

Which leads me to this very targeted recommendation: if the idea of a fantasy romantic Christmas comedy built around non-binary characters sounds like something you've been waiting for, there's a good chance you're going to love this despite its shortcomings. I'll add some of the movie's strongest assets reinforce that feature. The lead, Socks Whitmore, delivers a solid comedic performance as Pace. Ky Mullen does a decent job as well as their love interest, an elf named Buddy, but now I'm drifting into the premise, so let's back up.

The movie opens in a Los Angeles office, run by a Scrooge-like boss who's getting ready to evict a bunch of orphans right before Christmas. He even has a handful of lines of dialogue lifted directly from A Christmas Carol (probably a step too far, but the movie's not trying for subtlety here). We meet Pace along with several of their coworkers - including a perpetually optimistic woman who loves the holidays who we later learn is coping with her husband leaving, a Muslim woman just trying to get through a season that means nothing to her beyond a couple days off, a lazy guy who hangs out in his cubicle all day, and a man who seems the most invested in actually keeping the place running.

We cut to the next day almost immediately, and - having undergone a ghostly visitation and/or a psychological meltdown (or perhaps both) - the boss is suddenly obsessed with Christmas. In a misguided effort to be nice, he instructs everyone to stop working and assigns them tasks to put on the best Christmas party he's capable of imagining. The two women are told to buy and roast a turkey in the breakroom, and Pace is instructed to find and chop down a Christmas tree.

Pace heads into the mountains where they eventually encounter an elf named Buddy tasked with protecting the forest. Just to be clear, Buddy is not a Christmas elf (though the movie implies these exist) - instead, they (elves don't have gender) are closer to an elf from Dungeons & Dragons or Tolkien. Because Pace is there to get a tree and Buddy is there to protect the trees, they're initially at odds, though they start to warm to each other as the movie progresses and they discover they've got a lot in common. By the end, Pace decides not to cut down a tree, they profess their love for each other, and Buddy returns with Pace.

Throughout all that, the movie also cuts back to the women trying to prepare a Christmas turkey in the office microwave, as well as the boss becoming more and more unstable. This is mostly comic relief, not that the romance is all that serious in tone. The jokes, I should note, are another of the movie's assets. Not everything lands, but there are quite a few solid punchlines throughout. In addition, the premise of the B-plots is a really good one: a reformed Scrooge making the lives of those around him difficult due to an inevitable overcorrection is kind of great, all the more so because whatever visitation precipitated the transformation occurs entirely offscreen.

So, if there are some strong performances from the leads and generally good humor, why is the overall tenor of this review so middling? Well....

While the jokes are well-written, the overall movie is not. Or perhaps it was, but crucial scenes weren't finished or got cut in editing. I'm not entirely sure what happened here, but the end result is a movie that feels oddly and somewhat distractingly unfinished. You know how my synopsis kind of breezes over the section in which Buddy and Pace's relationship develops? The movie does as well, and what is there is muddled and awkward.

Buddy's backstory, in particular, makes very little sense. The movie seems to be trying to say they were born an elf, adopted by human parents as an infant, raised but never really accepted, then (somehow) became the supernatural guardian of that forest the previous summer. That was my reading of a somewhat bizarre rant the character goes on at one point, though it's worth noting several of those details aren't explicitly stated. 

More importantly, the movie seems to be missing a point where any of this is used to develop a bond between Buddy and Pace. That sort of occurs, but the actual beat is never on screen. That's also true of some of the B-plots. We're missing moments of development to explain character transformations and relationship developments. The significant stuff is rushed while the movie skips around from one joke or monologue to the next. There's just not enough holding it together.

Then there are the issues directly tied to resource constraints. The most glaring of which is the location the forest scenes (which represent a significant portion of the movie) are filmed in. From the point-of-view of the story, the woods are supposed to be magical, or at least special. But it looks for all the world like a city park in January. The dominant color is brown, not green, which kind of breaks the illusion.

The editing doesn't do this any favors by intercutting what I'm guessing is stock footage of woodland animals throughout (there's a sort of meta-joke about this technique where at one point they use a shot of a cow that's sort of conceptually clever but doesn't read right in the moment). The difference between the look of the establishing footage and the actual movie is a jarring reminder that the movie just doesn't look right.

I feel bad dinging this for things like these, because I'm guessing they were out of the filmmakers' hands. Given money and time, I suspect they'd have turned in a full-length movie (this was about an hour) that contained complete arcs for its characters and with sets that didn't undercut the story. But, fair or not, this is the version that exists.

And, again, I do like the lead performances (Whitmore's in particular). A lot of the jokes really are funny. I like the premise of telling the story of bystanders in A Christmas Carol retelling. Using a fantasy creature to represent the sense of alienation of being raised in a gender-binary society where you don't belong is a great idea, as well.

And if all that sounds really appealing to you, this might be worth checking out. Just know the downside here is that the movie doesn't manage to come together structurally, and those budget limitations are really obvious.

For what it's worth, this is better than the other low-budget Christmas movie that incorporated epic fantasy elements I've seen. As I said at the start, this is a hard review to approach, because I found myself rooting for this movie to succeed and disappointed when it didn't. There are a lot of really good ideas here. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.