28 Christmas movies and specials to watch on TV this week (and two to skip)
Christmas comes but once this week, and if you haven’t noticed, television will help you remember. Given that the holiday has been unwrapping itself since before Thanksgiving — which is not Christmas but kind of pretends it is — many seasonal favorites have already had their airing. But TV Yule is not done with us yet, with its mistletoe and holly, elves and reindeer, real or manufactured snow and Man in Red (not always old, not always fat, not always jolly — nor, for that matter, always a man). Yes, I’m talking about Santa.
Because Christmas is a time for tradition, NBC will repeat last year’s holiday lineup (as I am repeating last year’s descriptions of it) with Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve, 8 p.m. Tuesday; it’s a movie that lasts two hours and 10 minutes spread across three hours of prime time, so count the commercials and think of Mr. Potter.
Christmas night sees the Chuck Jones-directed, Boris Karloff-narrated “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which is an animated classic (8 p.m. Wednesday), followed by the live-action “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which is a Jim Carrey movie. ABC brings back its latest “CMA Country Christmas” for a Christmas Eve encore; CBS sends a workhorse game show into prime time for “The Price Is Right at Night: A Holiday Extravaganza With Seth Rogen.”
Christmas morning at 9 a.m., ABC has “Disney Parks Magical Christmas Day Parade,” from Disneyland and Disney World, which is absolutely not an advertisement for any Disney product, place or channel. Hosts Matthew Morrison, Emma Bunton (the artist formerly known as Baby Spice) and Jesse Palmer welcome Sting, Shaggy, Ally Brook and “Portugal. The Man” (name in quotes owing to confusing punctuation), as well as the cast of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” which by an utter coincidence airs on Disney+.
The greatest of all TV holiday specials is, of course, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” because it has a respect for silence and sadness and the music of Vince Guaraldi. It has already had its yearly airing, but I do not in any case recommend watching it on broadcast television, where it is blown out and cut up with commercials in a spirit inimical to its message, and insulting to its handmade beauty. Buy yourself a DVD or stream for a fee from Amazon, iTunes or Vudu, any time or all the time.
Also available from Amazon (at a small charge) is “The Snowy Day,” from 2016, adapted from Ezra Jack Keats’ poetic 1962 picture book. Given a Christmas Eve setting and little bit of plot, tracing a small boy’s journey down the block to grandmother’s house, it features voice work from Angela Bassett, Regina King, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Laurence Fishburne. If anything deserves to sit next to “Charlie Brown” in the ranks of Christmas classics, it’s this, and that Amazon does not offer it free to Prime subscribers seems a little Scrooge-y, especially given that it’s their own production. But it’s the price of a cup of coffee to rent and worth every penny, many times over.
If “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a poem stitched together from daily comic strips, the animated Rankin-Bass specials, stop-motion and otherwise, are little epics based on pop songs and sketched on cocktail napkins. Freeform has trio showings of their “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” from 8:20 p.m. on Christmas Eve and 3:10 p.m. on Christmas Day. (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” also airs on ABC, Tuesday at 8 p.m.) Because they are so integrated into the seasonal landscape, it’s easy to miss how deeply weird these origin stories are, with their misfit toys, their dentist elf, their Burgermeister Meisterburger.
After 36 years, Bob Clark’s film of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” can safely be called a classic. The story of a boy (Peter Billingsley) and his dream for an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time, it begins its now-traditional 24-hour marathon Christmas Eve from 8 p.m. on TBS and 9 p.m. on TNT. “A major award” and “fragile,” pronounced “frajeelay,” are terms I use not infrequently. Fox, meanwhile, dusts off its pretty decent 2017 TV airing of the 2012 stage musical, “A Christmas Story Live!” (8 p.m. Monday) with Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos and Matthew Broderick as the voice of Jean Shepherd; I see that in reviewing the original production I called it “magical in a military manner,” but it is sometimes also magical in a magical manner.
I am up for nearly any adaptation or variation on “A Christmas Carol,” from the Muppets to “Black Adder” to Bill Murray to “A Nature Carol,” an anti-materialist, three-spirits special episode of the PBS Kids series “Nature Cat” (PBS SoCal, 7 a.m Tuesday; streamable any time from pbskids.org; or PBS SoCal Kids, 50.5 on your digital broadcast dial, 4 and 8 p.m. Wednesday) in which Nature Cat’s insane love of Christmas temporarily overcomes his love of nature. With the voices of Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan and Kate Micucci, so it’s like a slice of “Saturday Night Live,” plus Kate Micucci.
The all-around best “Carol,” to my still trustworthy mind, is the 1951 Alastair Sim version (“Scrooge” in its original British release), which Fox Movie Channel will present in a marathon from 4 p.m. Christmas Eve all through Christmas Day. But I have recently discovered and highly recommend a 1935 “Scrooge,” also British, with Seymour Hicks, who had previously played the title role in a 1913 silent film and for three decades onstage. Available via Amazon Prime subscribers (and, like the Sim “Carol,” easy to find free on the web), it skips some important bits but overall it’s visually inventive and dramatically astute. The Cratchit family scenes have the weight and balance of Victorian art photography; Hicks, a monster in the early scenes, is moving in his repentance and delightful in his rebirth.
If, on the other hand, you are after a dark “Carol” with all the Dickens and most of the Christmas stripped out and themes of sexual abuse and industrial neglect worked in, then you will find yourself grimly at home with FX’s “A Christmas Carol,” from “Peaky Blinders” creator Steven Knight. (8 p.m. Tuesday, and also available on Hulu). Guy Pearce is its Scrooge; Stephen Graham, a more than usually involved Marley. It is very long. I will not see you there.
Almost too light, by contrast, is MGM’s 1938 version, which airs Christmas Eve at 9 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies and stars Reginald Owen as Scrooge in an Oompa-Loompa coiffure, with “Andy Hardy” heartthrob Ann Rutherford as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Other holiday-related films on the TCM Tuesday docket include “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (11 a.m.) with a Santa-bearded, though not spirited, Monty Woolley and Bette Davis in a rare rom-com part; “The Bishop’s Wife” (5 p.m.) with angel Cary Grant in not quite a romantic triangle with ambitious reverend David Niven and his neglected wife Loretta Young; and Vincente Minnelli’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” (9 p.m.), whence comes Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” in its proper sad context.
Christmas Day on TCM brings George Cukor’s 1933 “Little Women” (7.a.m.), with Katharine Hepburn as your Jo; Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Shop Around the Corner” (1 p.m.), which clever younger viewers may recognize as “You’ve Got Mail”; and the greatest of all Christmas movies not strictly speaking a Christmas movie — no, not “Die Hard” (which Pop has in back-to-back Christmas Eve airings). It’s “The Thin Man” (5 p.m.), in which William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles make merry and unmake a mystery in 1934 yuletide Manhattan. With Skippy as Asta.
Streaming now and possibly forever: Amazon Prime has “The Kasey Musgraves Christmas Show,” a light, mostly musical hour that means to recall an age of TV variety that Musgraves is too young to remember. Guests include Lana Del Rey, Camila Cabello, Zooey Deschanel, James Corden, Fred Armisen and Dan Levy, in elfwear. Also honoring, or perhaps dishonoring, the Spirit of Television Past, is Netflix’s wicked “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch,” “a show for kids by adults, with kids present.” (Also David Byrne, Andre De Shields, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natasha Lyonne and Richard Kind.) Mulaney to his young cast, fielding a question about “tone”: “Honestly, if this doesn’t turn out great I think we should all be, like, ‘Oh, it was ironic,’ and then people would be like, ‘Oh, that’s hilarious.’ But if it turns out very good, “Oh, thank you we worked really hard,’ and act humble. And then you win either way.” (But it is ironic.)
Very satisfying if not 100% sensible is “Noelle,” a starry, generously budgeted Save Christmas film from Disney+, with Anna Kendrick as Santa’s holiday-mad daughter and brother Bill Hader the reluctant heir to the family business. You will quickly divine where this is headed, which makes it no less satisfying when it gets there. Billy Eichner plays Billy Eichner as a tech-minded elf; a droll Shirley MacLaine is Noelle’s elf minder.
Also very much worth your while is “Klaus,” a clever, sweet Anglicized Spanish animated feature, from “Despicable Me” creator Sergio Pablos, branded as a Netflix original. Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, J.K. Simmons, Norm MacDonald and Joan Cusack star in a Santa Claus origin story, set in a vaguely Scandinavian 19th-century frame; it neatly mixes love, loss, sentiment, comedy and action and is beautifully designed, a lightly shaded 2-D affair with a killer sense of color and a small child cuter than Baby Yoda. Yeah, I said it.
Before James Corden (him again!) was an American television late-night host riding around in cars singing with celebrities, he was the co-creator, with Ruth Jones, of the British sitcom “Gavin & Stacey,” an ordinary-folks comedy of friends, lovers and families. After nearly a decade, it gets a Yule-themed reunion special, premiering Christmas Day on the streaming service Britbox, that picks up the thread with an impressive lack of self-consciousness or explanation; at the same time, knowledge of the series is not necessary to understand or feel what’s happening here. With Corden, Jones, Alison Steadman, Rob Brydon, Julia Davis and Mathew Horne and Joanna Page as the title couple. Instead of watching “Love, Actually” again, watch this twice.
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