What do you get if you take a beloved leading actor, redemptive character arc, vaguely bonkers plot, some unnecessary singing and several tonnes of fake snow? Either a classic Christmas film or a total turkey, if last week’s two releases are anything to go by.
On the one hand, the Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds vehicle Spirited raucously debuted on Apple TV. On the other, Lindsay Lohan’s Falling for Christmas limped weakly on to Netflix with little to announce its arrival. Perhaps, on reflection, they hoped no one would notice.
Now, before you get up in arms that I was not the target audience for the latter, let me assure you – I was exactly the target audience. Every year, from mid-November onwards, I devour all the latest low-budget “made for Netflix” festive flicks. Holiday in the Wild, where Charlotte from Sex and the City goes on a Christmas safari and takes care of elephants while “finding” herself (and her one true love)? Seen it. The Christmas Prince trilogy where the wannabe journalist meets the prince of a made-up country and saves him from being usurped from the throne by finding a royal proclamation inside a Christmas ornament? Knocked back all three. The many variations of festive fluff inexplicably starring Vanessa Hudgens as multiple characters with different accents, like an excruciating, Christmassy bastardisation of Orphan Black? Completed it, mate.
I’m of the firm belief that, once you’ve popped on some fairy lights, got yourself a glass of red and retreated beneath a blanket, there is no such thing as a bad Christmas film. But Falling for Christmas has, in its own way, performed a miracle – it has completely shaken my faith.
I am used to bad dialogue, sets and acting. I’ve made my peace with the predictability of the plot, two-dimensional characters and ubiquitous saccharine child. I’ve even come to accept that some tired version of Father Christmas might make a cameo for no obvious reason – to sprinkle extra “magic” on proceedings. But even with such lenience, Falling for Christmas pushed me to breaking point.
The terrible green-screen skiing shots; the weirdly creepy Santa who looks like he’s had botox; the lack of chemistry between Lohan and her leading man so severe that I started shrieking, “No, no, NO,” every time it seemed like they might kiss…
A brief run-down of the plot (warning: may contain spoilers, though there is arguably little to spoil): Lindsay Lohan plays Sierra, a wealthy heiress whose dad owns a mega-ski resort. She is spoilt and narcissistic and dating – who else? – an influencer. Her soon-to-be real love interest is the “down-at-heel” owner of a much smaller resort who’s looking for investment (because in the world of this film, you can still be the underdog while owning a ski resort). One mountain accident and case of head trauma-related amnesia later, Sierra can’t remember who she is; Jake takes her to stay at his place; she finally learns how to make a bed; and the pair inevitably “fall in love” over the holiday season. It is unclear how or why – perhaps it’s been so long since he’s felt a woman’s touch that anything seems like love to Jake. (Oh yes, you know he’s a sexy widower – and a single dad to boot.)
Anyway, there’s the requisite obstacle when her memories return but we’re soon back on track when she realises what’s “really important” or some s***.
How did I survive this film? Well, it only has a run time of 93 minutes – though I spent the last 40 of these pondering aloud how it could still be going. Even the scene where Lohan sings along to “Jingle Bell Rock” – referencing her much-loved performance in Mean Girls – is curiously charmless, instilling instead a keen sense of loss as you remember a bygone age when she was in actual, proper movies.
But on to merrier things: Spirited, meanwhile, really did warm my heart with all the festive joy of a mulled wine. Not everyone feels the same, clearly; I’ve seen reviews calling it “convoluted”, “grating” and “an awkward double act” between Ferrell and Reynolds. Here, I must politely but firmly disagree.
As something of a connoisseur of the genre, I put it to you that Spirited has all the elements needed to enter the Christmas film canon, alongside Home Alone (the first one only), The Muppet Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, Die Hard, Love Actually and The Holiday. It’s not easy to enter the canon. Many have tried, many have failed – much like attempting to record a hit Christmas song that will stand the test of time. It is part art, part science.
What people misunderstand is this: a film does not have to be “good”, in any classical sense of the word, to make the cut. The plot can require you to suspend your disbelief to the point of jumping-the-shark territory. The characters can be irritating, the soundtrack nauseating. But as long as it is carried along by some mysterious combination of chemistry, charisma, chutzpah or – in the case of The Holiday – Cameron Diaz’s coats, it has the potential for greatness.
The most recent film I deemed canon-worthy? Last Christmas. It was roundly panned by critics, but only because they have never understood what makes a festive film work: in this case, pitch-perfect, laugh-out-loud dialogue, characters you can root for, and a scene-stealing Emma Thompson (she being powerful enough to transform any movie into an instant classic). Did the plot involving Emilia Clarke as the recipient of a heart transplant who works as an elf in a Christmas shop make any plausible sense? Heck no! But it didn’t need to. That’s the magic of Christmas, baby.
Now, I feel confident that Spirited’s playful twist on the done-to-death Christmas Carol concept – in which Ferrell is part of a team of haunters who attempt to redeem one bad soul a year, pushed to the brink by Reynolds’ slick, division-sowing PR man – will likewise become a staple of the genre. The song and dance numbers – OK, OK, it’s a musical, but stick with me here – are made bearable by the fact that none of the main characters are great shakes at singing or dancing. The potentially sugary backstories involving dead sisters and orphaned nieces are balanced out by adult jokes and genuinely funny one-liners. Ferrell’s character falls in love with someone age-appropriate (Octavia Spencer) rather than some waif-like, Emily Ratajkowski type! There’s a twist to the redemptive arc so unexpected it made me cry actual tears!
Yes, the Dickens format was undoubtedly perfected by the Muppets 30 years ago. But while Spirited may lack the chemistry of Gonzo and Rizzo – and the raw sexual tension of Kermit and Miss Piggy – only a real Scrooge could fail to be moved when Reynolds and Ferrell finally declare themselves “Bros”. God bless us, every one.
‘Spirited’ and ‘Falling for Christmas’ are streaming now on Apple TV+ and Netflix, respectively