Readers of my Looking Back column know I have a soft spot for the early/mid-1980’s films released by the Walt Disney Company. Before Michael Eisner came in and fully reinstated Disney to its prior glory, with “The Little Mermaid” and the subsequent animated classics in the wings, the company was making and distributing some offbeat films. Call it The TRON Years. When else would the company have put out movies ranging from “Trench Coat,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and “The Watcher in the Woods”? Like those live action films, even their animated offerings were getting rather dark, like “The Fox and the Hound” and “The Black Cauldron.” In 1985, the year The Mouse House distributed the misunderstand, unsettling (and years ahead of its time) “Return to Oz,” they also released “One Magic Christmas.” Perhaps a better title would have been “One Tragic Christmas” but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mary Steenburgen stars as a mother of two who struggles to balance work at a local grocery store, raising her kids and finding the will to encourage her husband’s dream of opening a bike shop. In her own words, their family is poor and struggling to pay bills, make rent and afford Christmas gifts. Lucky for her, a Christmas angel is prowling the neighborhood…in fact, “prowling’ is the appropriate word, as he’s played by Harry Dean Stanton, looking like a living illustration of every “Don’t Talk to Strangers” sticker. Adorned in a massive fedora and black trench coat, Stanton is playing a “good guy” and, to be fair, he exudes warmth late in the film. Yet, with his introductory appearances, stalking around a neighborhood full of children, playing a harmonica, and sleeping/peeping in a tree, he’s truly creepy. This “angel” is so gloomy, in fact, he looks more suited for “Wings of Desire” than a Disney family film.
Midway through the movie, something really bad happens that changes the course of the narrative. No question, the screenwriters read “A Christmas Carol” and have seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” but man alive, the second act reveal they come up with is a real humdinger and, if you’re a child, a distressing thing to witness.
“One Magic Christmas” is a weird mix of an honest, harsh depiction of a broke, working class family with a tale of holiday whimsy and magic. Steenburgen is so authentically warm, beautiful and natural as the mother, she carries the film. She’s luminous (though, to be a momentary scrooge, her established accent vanishes early on). The kids are cute and believable child actors and I truly cared about this family.
The film has a compassion for its characters and respects its audience by not making the happy ending seem inevitable or even likely. The fantasy elements don’t fully gel, particularly when Stanton’s gloomy angel retrieves a letter from a glowing mailbox. It’s the more grounded scenes (with actor Gary Basaraba terrific as the dad) that truly work. Little details, like Steenburgen making “a tuna noodle casserole,” the daughter wearing a “Gremlins” t-shirt and Mom having to share her bathroom with a flurry of kids, are just right.
“One Magic Christmas” isn’t sugary but serious and downbeat at times. Even with the Capra-esque ending, it’s a dark Christmas movie that flopped in theaters but became a staple o The Disney Channel. Kids would likely be antsy watching this, but the film has a lot of character. The message is good though the lesson is odd- did the Mom really have to endure the worst day ever to truly appreciate Christmas? The events that transpire are so punishing, you’d think Lars Von Triers made this. Then again, even “A Christmas Carol” was a gothic ghost story with a happy ending. “Prancer” is a better mix of lived-in grit and yuletide magic but this was an admirable stretch for Disney.