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.
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.
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.
I have a confession to make: I love Hallmark Christmas movies.
Like, I really, seriously love them and forward to them all year long. I think at one point I liked them ironically, but now I just absolutely cannot get enough. They’re so simple, so uniform, so predictable…and yet so utterly enjoyable. Every year, on T-Give, we watch the Hallmark film, Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade, signaling the start of Hallmark Christmas movie season!
The good ones have many of the same elements. In order for a Hallmark Christmas movie to be successful, you need a love story, an enemy (but who doesn’t take up too much screen time), a known actor who can carry the story, kids who aren’t essential to the plot, Christmas music in the soundtrack, and (if at all possible) snow.
Make no mistake, there is a huge difference between a Hallmark Christmas movie and a Lifetime Christmas movie. Generally speaking, Lifetime Christmas movies don’t move too far away from the regular line of Lifetime original movies, almost all of which thrive on tragedy. That formula simply doesn’t work for these types of Christmas movies. For example, the depressing film A Christmas Wish (not to be confused with The Christmas Wish, though both are bad) focuses on a homeless family trying to escape an abusive husband/father. Sure, the last eight minutes are uplifting, but that’s not enough to make you want to sit through the previous 80 minutes of sadness. Hallmark movies, in general, get it. When you press the “Guide” button on the remote, Lifetime films tend to have “Romance: Drama” next to these titles, while Hallmark movies tend to be listed as “Romance: Comedy.” It makes all the difference.
That said, there are exceptions. Of the fifteen movies ranked here (I had meant for this to be a top five list, but…), four of these movies are not from Hallmark (two from Lifetime, two from ABC Family). However, they capture the spirit of the Hallmark Christmas movie experience.
Last note: To fully enjoy the Hallmark Christmas movie experience, I suggest hot chocolate with a bit of peppermint schnapps, or some delicious eggnog (adding Bailey’s is fine, but adding Goldschläger or Fireball Whiskey is an absolute game changer). So curl up under a blanket, bask in the glow of the Christmas tree, and throw on one of these gems. You won’t regret it!
Is this a controversial choice for making it into the top 15? Apparently! Yahoo named it the most insane ABC Christmas movie ever made, which is crazy-talk considering Christmas Bounty is on the list, which is absolutely the worst Christmas movie of all time.
But I digress. Snowglobe is under-appreciated film takes some chances and should be rewarded for those risks. First off, the lead is not a White actress, and you don’t see a lot of diversity in these types of movies (apart from the one outrageous friend of course). Almost as importantly, she’s wishing she could arrive in an idyllic winter scene inside of a snowglobe (like the movie title!), and when she arrives, she realizes the “flawed” reality of her everyday life is actually pretty great—impressive considering most Hallmark movies are striving for that perfection. It’s a truly unique approach that sets it apart from the rest of the Hallmark Christmas movies. The movie falls apart a bit in the third act, but overall it’s a fun contribution to the holiday lineup.
If you think about this one too long, you might just think that Santa Claus is a real jerk. However, you’ll be too busy being captivated by romance to focus on much else! Holly (probably not her name) was told by Santa Claus when she was like 8 years old that she would not fall in love for 20 years (again, kind of a jerk move). The story jumps ahead those 20 years, and the only man in her life is her loser ex-boyfriend who just became the editor of the newspaper (great time to get into print media, Ted!!) and a hotshot lawyer who she doesn’t realize has a heart of gold. Guess which one she ends up with! The entire premise is built around the lawyer love pretending to be someone else (because she thinks the lawyer is a jerk), and so we have to deal with the ultimate reveal and forgiveness, but it’s a fun (if predictable) ride.
This one is enjoyable, but the horrible body double for her big skating scene will stay with you forever.
This one should be automatically disqualified because it features a teacher (“Professor Farnsworth”) who saw Dead Poet’s Society one too many times. In the opening scene, Farnsworth sends his boarding school students on a scavenger hunt that leads them to a boiler room, where he emerges dressed up as a coal miner in order to teach these kids about Charles Dickens. He talks to them for three minutes and then class is over. No wonder he’s so popular! I often wonder how the “fun” professors like this handle a lesson plan that calls for comma usage.
Anyway, I digress. Farnie stays back to oversee a few students who stay behind over Christmas vacation—one of whom is a real troublemaker who doesn’t believe in helping others. Farnie helps the kids, but in the process learns a little something about seizing the day…and perhaps even to seize an opportunity at love with another teacher. If you want to know more about the movie, you can always check out this inexplicable three-page press release detailing the entire plot.
Kenneth’s blind almost-girlfriend from 30 Rock stars in this delightful romp through Christmas tropes with a healthy dose of magic sprinkled in. Annie Claus (daughter of Santa and Mrs.) is ready to learn about the world outside of the North Pole, and Los Angeles is where her heart (and a dart) led her to begin that journey. A nefarious elf hires an actor (played by someone who appears to be the lovechild of Kevin Bacon and Casper Van Dien) to trick her into falling in love, but will he be a match for the toy store owner who also played love interests in Desperate Housewives and Greek? Maria Thayer fully commits to the innocent, naive, but hopeful daughter of Santa Claus, and it’s a nice twist on the standard Santa Christmas movies.
Special note: This is one of the rare films where a child plays an important role but doesn’t annoy the audience to death in the process.
This movie is a bit of an odd duck in its bizarre message, but it pulls you in. A tabloid reporter with questionable ethics and fashion sense is hoping to cover a rich, wealthy family for her paparazzi magazine, but when her car runs out of gas, she must don a wedding dress to stave off hypothermia. While walking for help, she meets the son of the aforementioned family and, over the next few days, realizes that they might not be all bad. Incidentally, there is also a brother of the wealthy love interest who is going to propose to the ex-boyfriend of the wealthy love interest, so in her defense, it would have made for a good story.
SPOILER ALERT: At the end, the family ends up buying the tabloid so it can’t print things about said family. As far as free speech goes, this is…not…ideal. But it’s so ridiculously over the top that all you can do is chuckle.
This is a series that has gotten steadily worse (Call Me Mrs. Miracle was good, Mr. Miracle was an outright disaster), but the first one gets it right. Jimmy Van Der Beek (before his amazing turn on Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) stars as a father who is raising two boys on his own, but they are a bit of a handful. Fortunately, a guardian angel by the name of Mrs. Miracle is there to help him wrangle those two trouble-makers…and just maybe help him find his one true love! That love is working as a travel agent (kids, you might need to look up that profession), but she has some of her own issues with family that need to be worked through.
Incidentally, JVDB plays a widower, but they do a nice job balancing him missing his wife and him moving on (similar to The Wishing Tree). Most Lifetime Christmas movies focus on that grief for the first hour or so. That said, Hallmark, while great, is not perfect – The Christmas Ornament is an example of succumbing to sadness at the expense of focusing on the magic of Christmas.
The incomparable Kristin Chenoweth took one look at this script and decided to throw the movie on her back and carry it toward the finish line…and she did just that! Chenoweth is a hotshot public relations guru in New York City when her professional and personal lives come crashing down. She strategically retreats to a job in a small Montana town where she learns that life in the country isn’t so bad. Her professional career gets a boost from her idea for a major fundraising venture: A sexy calendar of men on the local search-and-rescue team (hence the title). But while she’s not looking for love in Big Sky Country, she might just end up falling for a mountain man after all!
Don’t undersell the scenery in this one (and I’m not talking about the dude eye candy). Whenever I watch 12 Men, I have the strong urge to move to Montana. Gorgeous!
Here’s a time-tested Hallmark storyline: A woman going home for the holidays finds a stranger to pretend to be her boyfriend…but then they unexpectedly fall in love! Now I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this just the plot to Holidays in Handcuffs? Basically yes, though Handcuffs is a kidnapping whereas Engagement is a scheme (which, oddly enough, makes it more plausible than Handcuffs). Engagement is the superior film, thanks to shifting venues, decent acting from secondary characters (I would totally watch a movie about her friend who finds a surfer-lover), and just enough schmaltz make this a Grimm-Odenweller staple. The miscellaneous characters help move things along, and there is actual chemistry between the two leads (something that can be lacking).
Also, the over-annunciation of the lyrics, “In excelsis deo” in a piano duet of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is worth the price of admission, as is realizing that all of her newspaper stories are roughly 250 words long.
When a recently-widowed mom makes a surprise visit to Boston using some sort of primitive Air BnB house swap, the real surprise is that her daughter went south for Christmas break. But the realer surprise is that the brother of the reclusive author (JD’s brother from Scrubs) whose house she is staying at has a crush on her…and she might just be falling for him too! Meanwhile, the author is staying at the mother’s house as per their house exchange. But the mother’s friend shows up to surprise the mother, only to find an eccentric author who can’t write women. Will she help him write his book, despite his insistence that he doesn’t need anyone else in his life?
This is different than the typical Hallmark Christmas movies (though most of these are, at least to some extent), and it’s kind of genius. By having multiple stories going (the daughter has a bit of an arc as well), it keeps you from getting bogged down in any one plot. It definitely keeps things from becoming stale. And while the Boston storyline isn’t nearly as interesting or entertaining as the author storyline, it all works.
This one is way better than it has any right being. Amy Smart re-lives the same Christmas Eve day over and over again, trying to get it right. It’s not terribly original (A Christmas Wedding Date tried this idea…but failed), but here it works. Along the way she meets love interest Zach Morris, a couple of newfound friends, a kindly neighbor, and a stepmother who Amy didn’t realize had her best interests at heart. I think my favorite thing about this movie is how it’s basically trying to make the perfect Hallmark movie, but it keeps having to add elements (Now add an ex-boyfriend! Now add a troubled teen!). Spoiler alert: She succeeds in creating the perfect Christmas Eve! Oh, and keep your eye out for a visual representation of each of the 12 Days of Christmas each time she re-lives the day (e.g., partridge in a pear tree, nine ladies dancing, etc.). I only caught a few this time around, but next year, I’ll witness them all!
This movie should be annoying. It should be obnoxious. It should be 90 minutes of eye-rolling and exasperated sighs. But it’s actually a delight! This is a textbook case of a celebrity coming on-board and just running with it—way to go, David Hasselhoff!
This is only one of two(!) Lifetime original movie on the list, and it’s worth the exception. For this film, an exasperated mother hires a Christmas consultant to plan the holidays for her family…and maybe learn a little something about love and forgiveness along the way! And while this one takes a tragic turn toward the end (it is a Lifetime Christmas movie after all), the sadness is very much short-lived, and given the amount of levity in the film, all is forgiven. Also, I about died laughing at the appearance of the gingerbread man. You’ll see!
Alicia Witt is a national treasure, and it’s criminal that the movie she’s “known for” on IMDB is that Two Weeks Notice debacle. She was fine in A Snow Globe for Christmas, great in Christmas at Cartwrights (where she dresses as Santa Claus…even though she’s a woman!!!), and I’m sure she’ll be wonderful in I’m Not Ready for Christmas (which has a premise that sounds a lot like Liar, Liar). But she is pure magic in A Very Merry Mix-Up, a film where Alicia is traveling to meet her fiance’s family but accidentally goes home from the airport with the wrong family. What?? Yes! And when she’s there, she starts to fall in love with a guy (budget Paul Eisenstein, right down to the voice) and his family, and they like her as well. Of course, the switcheroo gets figured out, and she heads back to the correct family…but is it the right family? I saw this one for the first time last year, and the fact that it shot up the list so fast establishes it as a staple for years to come. Pay attention when she tells the tale of people frozen in time. You’ll see!
Roger Moore is serviceable here, but this is one Hallmark movie where a relative unknown actress really sells the movie (just like A Christmas Kiss). The plot itself is as old as time—a woman (I forget her name, but she gets eaten by that underwater dinosaurbeast in Jurassic World) is living an average life when she ends up with her two cousins at a castle…because they’re suddenly royalty! The trio tries hard to fit in with the formal atmosphere, but they’re not afraid to take some of the starch out of that stuffed shirt! The kids love it, and MosasaurusBait is hesitant…at least until she finds the man how her dreams in this modern fairytale. Incidentally, here is a great example of what differentiates a typical Hallmark Christmas movie from a typical Lifetime Christmas movie. In the movie, the two kids are with MosasaurusBait because their mom (her sister) and dad were killed. Lifetime loves suffering (just ask Love at the Christmas Table or Home by Christmas). Meanwhile, rather than moping around for half the movie and throwing (non-love) obstacles at the main characters, here the protagonists are at the castle 13 minutes into the movie.
I don’t start watching Hallmark Christmas movies until Black Friday, because I’m not a damn animal. But this year, my wife was out of town for Halloween weekend, I was kind of feeling down that Sunday about going back to work—like, I was legitimately bummed out. So what did I do? I went to Starbucks, grabbed a chai tea latte, and I went home to watch A Christmas Kiss. And it was pure magic—it completely changed my mood. In this movie, a young woman named Wendy is the assistant for a famous interior decorator (and maybe party planner?). This famous designer is dating the sixth Baldwin brother, and he gets trapped in an elevator with Wendy and they kiss. She’s wearing glitter make-up so he doesn’t recognize her (????), and later the designer assigns Wendy to design Bradley Baldwin’s Christmas party. But he doesn’t know Wendy is the woman he kissed with whom he has fallen in love! It shouldn’t work—especially without a celebrity to help with the heavy lifting—but it does.
Everything in this movie works: the premise (a free-spirited man stranded at an airport who needs a place to stay), the love interest (a successful workaholic single mom trying to find the perfect Christmas for herself and her son), the enemy (snooty but clueless soon-to-be fiancé of the aforementioned single mom), and the fact that none of it could have happened without the magic of Christmas. Henry Winkler plays the uncle (who’s “more like a father”), and I swear his commitment to the movie just raises everyone else’s game in terms of their performances. It’s one of the better examples of the protagonist having an existing relationship where you can actually understand why she’s with him (even if you’re rooting for the traveler). I seriously watch this a couple of times a season, and it is pure magic. Here’s how much I enjoy this movie. I own the DVD (DUH!)…but I also have it DVR’d in case I’m comfy on the couch and want to fall asleep to the dulcet tones of Henry Winkler’s New York accent. Seriously.
Also receiving votes: Naughty or Nice (boring, but the finale is amazing), Nanny for Christmas (too reliant on child actors), All About Christmas Eve (featuring a Diana DeGarmo concert?!), Help for the Holidays (sorry River, but you don’t have the charisma to carry a movie), Christmas Cupid (kind of a bummer since the protagonist is dead), The Christmas Ornament (focuses way too much on mourning – kind of a bummer, could have been great), Matchmaker Santa (it’s just okay), Holiday High School Reunion (it’s barely okay), Mistletoe Over Manhattan (too many unnecessary obstacles), Holidays in Handcuffs (some great body double ice-skating work, but…and I realize how this sounds…it’s too unbelievable)
Never. Not even once: On Strike for Christmas, A Bride for Christmas, Battle of the Bulbs, It’s Christmas, Carol!, Love at the Christmas Table, Christmas Lodge, Let It Snow, Home by Christmas, Christmas Caper, Hitched for the Holidays, A Christmas Wish, The Christmas Wish