It’s that most wonderful time of the year where we are lovingly surrounded by Hallmark Christmas movies. Around this time, I’m swamped with comments and letters from people arguing that all Hallmark Christmas movies are the same, that you throw a love story together, pepper in some holiday activities, throw together a soundtrack featuring covers of Christmas classics, and TA-DA! Instant classic. Well I’m here to tell you that I love Hallmark Christmas movies, but only if they’re made correctly. It’s a far more delicate process than most people realize. And there’s no better example of this than Hallmark films starring Lacey Chabert.
She’s been in plenty Hallmark Christmas movies – seven to be exact. But as you can see from that list, none stand out as classics. This is surprising. Chabert is charming and her performances are good; the only reason for the near-success of films like Matchmaker Santa is her presence. This is not true of all “celebrities” that grace us around this time every year.
CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENT: Candace Cameron Bure thinks she is somehow above the lowly Hallmark Christmas movie, and that’s why her movies are so consistently inadequate. There, I’ve said it. I’m outrageous.
Anyway, I really don’t think Chabert is the problem, I think it’s the stories themselves that are holding her back, proving once and for all that Hallmark Christmas movies are more complicated than some paint-by-numbers formula. And I’m here to demonstrate that to you.
Hallmark Christmas movies (abbreviated from here on as Hallmark Christmas movs) fall somewhere on what I call the Hallmark Christmas Continuum™ which measures good-bad vs. bad-bad. Simply put, Hallmark Christmas movs are going to lie somewhere between The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (endearing, wonderfully sincere, and the perfect amount of sappiness) and Christmas Bounty (a movie so bad and void of charm I cannot believe it was made), with A Christmas Song sitting right in the middle.
Making a good Hallmark Christmas mov is not a science, it’s an art, and simply dropping a skilled actress (or an unskilled actress) into a tried and true storyline does not automatically mean the movie will be a success. Scholars call this the Chabert Conundrum, and it’s something that will likely be studied at length once I write and release my bestseller, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Gender, Spectacle, and the Hallmark Christmas Movie Phenomenon.” ***Future Amazon link goes HERE***
To prove this, look no further than Lacey Chabert’s struggles in her 2014 near-miss, A Royal Christmas.
A ROYAL CHRISTMAS
Royalty and Hallmark Christmas movs go together like eggnog and Goldschläger. Last year’s A Crown for Christmas was easily the standout of the season, and as for A Princess for Christmas…well, it’s one of the best. Gaze upon perfection!
The royal Christmas treatment is a Hallmark staple with good reason. It combines a fish-out-of-water story with a rags-to-riches story, resulting in an over-the-top Christmas. So many hyphens! But seriously, it’s a gold mine. You have an unlikely romance between two people from different worlds, and when the audience needs a break from the love story, they get to vicariously explore a world of ballrooms and gowns and feasts and kindly servants who don’t resent them for some reason.
This is why A Crown for Christmas works so damn well and why it’s already spoken in the same breath as Annie Claus is Coming to Town and A Boyfriend for Christmas. In Crown, Danica McKellar works as a maid who is hired to be a nanny by some butler guy to work for a young king in a made-up country. The cast has great chemistry, there’s a real sense of magic, and it hits the predictable beats in a lively manner. As far as McKellar’s work goes, this is far, far superior to her dreadful downer of a movie, Love at the Christmas Table.
So it’s a can’t-miss storyline, right? Think again! Last year’s Once Upon a Holiday tried to keep the royalty part but reverse it. The princess ditched her obligations and hid among the citizens of New York City. The result: boring, boring, boring.
Even when you include the castle, things don’t necessarily go well, which brings us to our movie discussion.
On paper, A Royal Christmas should be a slam dunk. Chabert plays Emily, a blue-collar seamstress from Philadelphia (no relation to the gang) who is dating some dude named Leo who turns out to be the prince of Cordina! Hey, we’ve all been there AMIRITE?! Emily is whisked away for Christmas in a fake country, but she’ll have to deal with a displeased mother and a fanciness she’s not used to back in Philadelphia (for the sake of your health, do not take a shot every time she references Philadelphia). Again, on paper, everything seems good:
But there are definitely some problems with the plot that bring it all crashing down, so much so that even Chabert can’t save the movie. What problems specifically? Allow me.
- Co-starring Jane Seymour. You can’t have two recognizable stars in the same Hallmark Christmas mov or it collapses in on itself like a dying star (or Holiday in Handcuffs). This is demonstrated throughout the movie, where Seymour constantly pulls focus from the plot (and puts everyone else acting against her to shame). The reasoning seems sound: Let’s give some screen time to the famous actress. But because the camera is following around Dr. Quinn, we’re spending a lot more time with a subplot that is normally relegated to a few minutes before the third act. As a result, the movie suffers.
- Chabert is already dating this guy. Look, exploring fancy new rooms and trying exquisite new foods is fine, especially if you’re doing it while winning over a difficult but ultimately well-meaning child who is acting out because she lost her mom. But Hallmark Christmas movs rise and fall on the strength of the love story. This is a problem when the couple is already in love. Where’s the spark? The nervous first glance? The adrenaline of the first kiss? The walk in the snow? We not only miss out on those chemistry-building moments, but now (speaking pragmatically) the movie has to fill those minutes. And that’s when we get way more Seymour and, along those same lines…
- Too much competition. Again, the less time you spend with the prince and future princess, the less likely we are to fall in love with them. This seems similar to the Seymour complaint, but this is an all-too-common flaw in Hallmark Christmas movs. Every good movie in this genre has a complication, most often in the form of an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. In order to get from the second to the third act, this person must appear to try and break up the relationship. The best Hallmark Christmas movs walk that line lightly, ideally only having the obstacle appear briefly at the beginning before sending him/her far away (The Christmas Kiss approach of sending the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend to a spa for the week is a brilliant solution). Those that fail to do so risk cluttering up the storyline (look no further than Matchmaker Santa), stealing time away from the couple you’re actually invested in (glance over in shame at A Christmas Card) or, the worst case scenario, actually making you wish she had ended up with the other guy (cold stare at Christmas Bounty).
You can see the same kind of pitfalls in this year’s Chabert vehicle, A Wish for Christmas (not to be confused with A Christmas Wish and The Christmas Wish, both of which are equally bad). Again, I point this out to people who feel that all Hallmark Christmas movs are created equal. It’s much more nuanced than that. All the stars must align or else it doesn’t work. For more evidence, look no further than 2016’s Hallmark lineup, which, to be perfectly honest, has been a disappointment (Mistletoe Promise is the only one worth mentioning, whereas 2015 had hits like Crown for Christmas, along with some enjoyable ones like Ice Sculpture Christmas, 12 Gifts of Christmas, and I’m Not Ready for Christmas).
Anyway, here’s the trailer for A Wish for Christmas:
On the surface, they’ve done everything right. You’ve got a noteworthy star in Lacey Chabert (who is totally fetch), and an intriguing premise that promises to demonstrate the true magic of Christmas. But again, there is a narrow margin for success, and the formula only gets you so far.
The idea that Chabert is going to start standing up for herself is an interesting one – most Hallmark Christmas movs focus on what could have been (A Snow Globe Christmas is a good example – a budget Family Man knockoff). Unfortunately, here the plot fizzles out quickly. I commend The Hall for generally keeping its movies moving, but here the secret gift simply can’t hold up for 90 minutes. It’s just not that interesting or impactful, and it doesn’t adapt as the story moves forward.
Chabert stands up for herself at work, which works well. Then she stands up to her boss’s boss on the phone. Uh, that’s fine. Then she stands up for herself to…the manager of a rental car place. Ugh. She does this a couple of other times but it never really builds to anything. The bravery never extends beyond being politely insistent (it’s never rude or over-the-top), which you really need here. Moreover, we don’t get to see her enough before she gets the wish granted by Santa. So, with no real context beyond a few words of dialogue, there’s nothing to compare her with, and so it just doesn’t seem stark of a shift in character.
But the cardinal sin: They forget about the love story. The love story! Hallmark Christmas movs should do this at their own peril (look no further than Battle of the Bulbs for a cautionary tale). What’s especially strange is that this is billed as a love story, and all the pieces are in place. She’s on a road trip with her attractive boss – plenty of opportunities for the car to run out of gas, get in a minor accident, the two of them get lost…nothing but options for the writers. Instead? A totally predictable trip, which gives us plenty of time to spend with…his parents. His parents! Now we have to watch some kind of dysfunctional relationship between this dude and his father. Hey, Wish, nobody cares. We’re here to see these two crazy kids fall in love! If the father and son reconcile over Cat’s in the Cradle, that’s fine as a bonus, but we shouldn’t have a third of the movie revolving around that. That should all be happening against the backdrop of these two ending up together forever, thanks to the magic of the holiday season.
I digress. All of this goes to demonstrate that good Hallmark Christmas movs are surprisingly rare, and should be treasured and treated as such.
One final note: Please, Hallmark, please give Lacey Chabert a good script! She’ll take care of everything else! If you need me to write it, I’m willing to cut my fee in half for this noble cause.