May 2022

One Magic Christmas (1985)

Review: Disney's One Magic Christmas (1985) — Disnerd Movie Challenge

DIRECTOR: Philip Borsos

CAST: Mary Steenburgen, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Basaraba, Elisabeth Harnois, Robbie Magwood, Arthur Hill, Elias Koteas, Wayne Robson, Jan Rubes


If a mix of down-to-earth drama about a hard-done-by family struggling during Christmastime and a supernatural fantasy involving Christmas angels and Santa Claus feels a trifle schizophrenic, One Magic Christmas manages to traverse its uncertain terrain about as smoothly as one could reasonably expect. The result is a trifle schmaltzy—what Christmas movie isn’t, unless one’s counting Die Hard—but the screenplay has a level of intelligence, it’s well-acted, and it blends modern problems with an unabashedly old-fashioned feeling.

Christmas angel Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton) is a man on a mission—handed down straight from Saint Nick (Jan Rubes), no less—to fulfill his annual job of getting someone in touch with the Christmas spirit. His target this year, Ginnie Grainger (Mary Steenburgen), isn’t nearly as nasty as Ebeneezer Scrooge, but she’s having a hard time finding anything to feel jolly about. Not that she doesn’t have her reasons: her irrepressibly Christmas-loving husband Jack (Gary Basaraba) is out of work, forcing Ginnie to scrape by a meager living supporting them and their two small children Abbie (Elisabeth Harnois) and Caleb (Robbie Magwood) ringing groceries at a supermarket. Oh, and they live in a company house which they’re in the process of being evicted from. But if Ginnie thinks life sucks now, hoo boy, does she have another thing coming. Family tragedy strikes just in time for Christmas, but Gideon might have the solution, working through Abbie to undo what’s been done, and just maybe reminding Ginnie of what Christmas is really about along the way.

While distributed by Disney—though originally an independent Canadian production and not a “Disney movie” per se—One Magic Christmas is a rare family-friendly Christmas movie more likely to appeal to adults than small children, though the fact that it stars a cute precocious child and eventually sends her to the North Pole makes it questionable whether that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Kids might enjoy the charmingly-conceived North Pole scenes at Santa’s workshop, but they have to get through a lot of drama about a financially struggling family, a bank robbery, a shooting (!), and a car crash to get to much “magical” about this Christmas. The movie is tame, but some of the issues and situations might be inappropriate for very young children. Additionally, its messaging is confused. The movie more-or-less indirectly blames Ginnie’s sour attitude toward Christmas for all the bad that befalls her, but in so doing it threatens to disregard the valid reasons why she feels the way that she does (watch the argument between husband Jack, who wants to blow a couple hundred dollars on presents for the kids, and Ginnie’s seemingly perfectly reasonable retort that the few thousand dollars they have in the bank are all that’s keeping them from the poorhouse, and ask yourself if the “right” and “wrong” side is coming across the way the filmmakers seemingly meant for it to). Just get in touch with the Christmas spirit, the movie seems to say, and everything will turn out alright in the end.

One Magic Christmas (Review)

What saves the movie from some of its own mixed messaging and cross-purposes is an intelligent screenplay and wonderful performances. The script and Philip Borsos’ direction fashions down-to-earth family scenes that feel unforced and true-to-life. While its appropriateness for small children is debatable, there’s something refreshing about a family-friendly Christmas movie that doesn’t talk down to its viewers and actually has real issues and doesn’t shy away from Serious Things happening. The scenes at the North Pole, in Santa’s cozy abode and in his bustling workshop (where the movie adds an original touch by portraying his “helpers” as deceased good people in a sort of afterlife, not elves) are lovingly-crafted and charming, even if it’s debatable whether this sequence feels like a different movie. Mary Steenburgen brings the needed nuance to the beleaguered Ginnie, hitting the right notes to convey that she’s not an inherently mean person, she’s just cynical and worn-down. The children, Robbie Magwood and especially the delightfully precocious Elisabeth Harnois, are credible. There’s a few recognizable faces in the supporting cast, including familiar Canadian actors like Elias Koteas (as Jack’s best friend) and Wayne Robson as the amateur bank robber who becomes a catalyst for the family tragedy (though he’s not really a “villain”, just desperate), and Arthur Hill as a kindly grandpa, and veteran actor Jan Rubes (also appearing this same year as the elderly Amish patriarch in Witness) might well be the best onscreen incarnation of Santa Claus. Gary Basaraba doesn’t make much of an impression as the almost one-dimensionally cheery Jack. Harry Dean Stanton is a somewhat unconventional choice for a Christmas angel. He’s sad-faced and gentle, all right, but cuts a sketchy figure in his hat and long coat that makes him look more like Barnabas Collins than Clarence.

One Magic Christmas is arguably a little too skimpy on the magic and a little too depressing before anything “magical” happens, but there’s something a little refreshing about a family-oriented Christmas movie that also dares to not shy away from its mix of adult weariness and childhood innocence. It’s well-acted and sometimes affecting, and grounds its supernatural fable in real-world concerns.

* * 1/2