Christmas Films as Reflections of American History, Part III: Perfecting the Paradigm from the 1990s to the Present

By the 1990s, Christmas films had expanded from Dickensian reimaginings, romantic tales, and militaristic homages to children’s fantasies, action-packed dramas, and horror films. This eclectic filmography continued to grow in the 90s, as Hollywood ceased to expand to new Christmas genres and instead released a high number of mainstream films across genres but aimed specifically at children. By the 2000s, Hollywood began perfecting the balance between children-centric films, romances, and occasional big-budget independent films.

The Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink 1990s

Hollywood’s child-centric approach to Christmas films in the 1990s was partly due to developments in technology and the wider industry in previous decades. Technological developments in home stereo systems and televisions, and the increasing affordability of VHS tapes made home video a popular entertainment option, especially for families with young children. As historian Colin Harrison writes in American Culture in the 1990s, “in cinema, the success of the eighties ‘high concept’ movie resulted in an increasingly formulaic output that began to disappoint audiences and helped create the conditions for a revitalized independent scene” by the end of the decade and more prominently in the 2000s.[1]

Following the end of the Cold War, the 1990s were a decade of uncertainty in which threats of terrorist activity worldwide, the Gulf War, and racial and class tensions at home were met with neoliberal policies and ideas. This neoliberalism influenced cultural production by emphasizing market principles in the entertainment industries, leading to fears that American culture was increasingly shaped by corporate interests.[2] This neoliberalism in entertainment led to the formulaic outputs in Hollywood that would come to define the decade’s cinema.

In 1990, John Hughes’s Home Alone was a smash success at the box office and became an instant Christmas classic. The film follows the elaborate booby traps and antics of Kevin McCallister (Macauley Culkin) whose family accidentally left him home alone when they left for a Christmas trip to Paris. When two burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) attempt to break into his home, Kevin sets up intricate mousetraps to stop them.

Home Alone is a children’s film, but it retains some of the adrenaline-filled energy of 1980s films such as Die Hard (1988). Another film for children, Jingle All the Way (1996) features one of the most prominent stars of 1980s action films, Arnold Schwarzenegger on an adventurous journey to get his son a Turbo Man action figure for Christmas.

The 1990s also saw a return to some of the classics of the 1940s (see Part I). In 1992, Walt Disney Pictures produced Brian Henson’s The Muppet Christmas Carol starring Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge. The film is a near-perfect rendition of Dickens’s classic, updated as a musical and with, of course, the Muppets main cast in most of the supporting roles. Two years later, Les Mayfield remade the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, targeted toward children more than the original.

Disney’s foray into Christmas films, which began with Babes in Toyland (1961) (see Part II), is expanded in the 90s, starting with Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Disney rolled out a second Christmas film the following year with The Santa Clause. The film stars Tim Allen as Scott Calvin, an uptight single dad who accidentally becomes the new Santa Claus after inadvertently killing the former one.

Disney also experienced a renaissance in the 90s by providing audiences with reassuring consistency and recycled narratives of popular myths and folklore.[3] The simplistic storylines of films such as Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) offered reassurance in the Disney brand by affirming virtues such as love and friendship, but they were also read at the time as allegories to world affairs such as commentary on the Gulf War in Aladdin or a reflection of South Africa post-apartheid in The Lion King.[4] By offering on-brand films for children that were influenced by world affairs (inadvertently or not) Disney secured its place as a prominent name in 90s households and made it possible to release even more direct-to-video films.

Several of Disney’s direct-to-video films were Christmas movies that offered more simplistic stories steeped in Christmas myths, themes, and tropes. Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997) is a film set during the plot of the original Beauty and the Beast (1991) that introduces new characters while Belle teaches the Beast to love the holiday. Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas (1999) similarly uses an ensemble cast of traditional Disney characters including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck in retellings of traditional Christmas stories such as The Gift of the Magi. These direct-to-video Christmas movies were low-budget and laid the foundation for B-list direct-to-video Christmas films. Hollywood would perfect the balance between B-list direct-to-video and bigger budget cinematic releases in the 21st century.

In the 1990s, Hollywood produced Christmas films for children, embraced the eclecticism of the category, and saturated the market. In previous decades, there were only a handful of films that fit the Christmas category, but in the 1990s, Hollywood leaned into the marketability of Christmas, churning out a plethora of low- to mid-budget films with famous stars.

The 21st Century and Streaming

In the 2000s, Hollywood approached Christmas with a clearer strategy than in the 1990s. In the 2000s and into the 2010s and 2020s, Hollywood struck a balance between B-List films and Blockbusters. This model of low- and high-budget Christmas films has extended into the streaming era.

In 2003, Richard Curtis’s Love Actually became one of the first Christmas blockbusters of the 21st century. The film features an all-star cast, with Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightley, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth, in separate romantic storylines that converge just before Christmas Day. The film did not do very well at the box office or with film critics, but enjoyed lasting success in DVD sales and in the streaming era. Love Actually is not exclusively a Hollywood production, as it was produced primarily by Working Title Films, a British film company, but with an exclusive deal for co-production and distribution with Universal Pictures, the film was released in the United States a week before it was released in the United Kingdom.

Love Actually, with a budget estimated at $40-45 million begins with a reference to 9/11 and situates itself as a film reacting to loss. Its plot suggests that healing occurs when people embrace love between with friends, family, romantic partners, and even strangers. In an interview for Channel 4, Richard Curtis (the film’s screenwriter and director) discusses Love Actually and his other works, remarking that, “of course there’s tremendous greed, tremendous corruption, tremendous violence, but the balance of that does not seem to me to balance up against all the goodness there is in families, and countries, and businesses around the world.” In the interview Curtis claims his approach to films is to acknowledge the bad happening in the world and highlight the immense good around it. This post-9/11 impulse to embrace love when and where we can is also evident in the 2006 Nancy Meyers film The Holiday.

The Holiday stars Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet as, respectively, women living in Hollywood and a small English town, who trade homes for Christmas and engage with each other’s worlds. Diaz’s high-strung and overworked character Amanda falls in love with the enigmatic Graham (Jude Law), brother to Winslet’s Iris. Iris falls in love with Miles (Jack Black) on her adventure in Hollywood and meets a retired screenwriter from Golden Age Hollywood, Arthur (Eli Wallach). Along with Love Actually, The Holiday merges the Hollywood Christmas film with the modern British rom-coms and its tropes of career-women protagonists whose lives balance out when they embrace love such as Roger Michell’s Notting Hill (1999) and Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001).

These theatrically released, star-studded films complemented low-budget, made-for-TV Christmas films made popular by the Hallmark Channel in the 2000s and Netflix in the 2010s and 2020s. Films such as A Christmas Prince (2017) and The Princess Switch (2019) show that B-list Christmas films remain popular as viewers have switched to streaming. These romantic comedies are largely formulaic with little derivation in their plots, normally centering on an overworked career woman – as made popular in the big-budget productions – suddenly falling in love with a prince of a fictional country. In an average year, US filmmakers produce a plethora of B-Llst Christmas romances and only one or two theatrical Christmas releases. In 2021, Hallmark boasts 41 new Christmas films for its holiday line up, complete with recurring casts of 1990s and 2000s stars, including Candace Cameron Bure, Lacey Chabert, Danica McKellar, and Tamera Mowry-Housley. In producing these B-list films to complement theatrical releases, Hollywood has perfected the paradigm started in the 1990s of formulaic comfort movies, recognizable stars, and optimistic towards love reminiscent of Love Actually.

Hollywood’s balance between blockbusters and B-list films has proven financially successful. In addition to the yearly romantic movies, more original storylines emerge in big-budget releases. One of the most critically acclaimed original Christmas films in recent decades is Sergio Pablos’s 2019 Klaus.

Klaus is a completely hand-drawn animation featuring J. K. Simmons as the title character, as well as Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack, and Norm MacDonald in his final film role. The story has the feel of a traditional Scandinavian myth, using the Northern Sámi language and a depiction of the Sámi people in the film; however, the story is an original reimagining of the Santa Claus mythology. It is a visually beautiful film that suggests how Hollywood can approach Christmas films as a subgenre outside of tired tropes, sequels, and B-list formulas.

Klaus’s story revolves around a community on an isolated Arctic Island made up of two warring families. The town is unkempt and sinister, but slowly, as Klaus begins delivering toys to the children on the island with the promise of more gifts if they are well-behaved, the children begin to clean up the town and foster a spirit of goodwill in the community. Gradually, the adults in the town follow the children’s example and the community’s long-standing history of warring factions comes to a peaceful end. This story of hope and unity as empowered by a forward-thinking youth movement reflects the social activism of the late 2010s. Youth movements and the progressive ideas of many young voters in the US have been a growing force in recent years and Klaus depicts an optimistic end to ritualistic fighting sustained by older generations by embracing the progressive ideals of the youngest members of the community.

Over the last 75 years – since It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946 – the Christmas subgenre has reflected developments in Hollywood and the wider United States. Technological, cultural, and political changes have shaped the creation of Christmas films, producing a massive filmography that offers everything from schmaltzy romances and musicals to horror films and action movies. These films have become integral to the celebration of Christmas, but they can also tell us much about the decade in which a given film was produced – the anxieties of postwar America, the child-centric media strategies of the Baby-Boom-centered 1960s, and the streaming wars of our current techno-cultural moment.

Featured Image: Klaus with Jesper, Alva, and Márgu in a promotional frame for Klaus (2019). The Sergio Pablos Animation Studio. Retrieved from Comic Book Resources.

[1] Colin Harrison, American Culture in the 1990s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 97.

[2] Harrison, American Culture in the 1990s, 34.

[3] Harrison, American Culture in the 1990s, 130.

[4] Harrison, American Culture in the 1990s, 130.

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