Credit: Steve Dietl/Disney+
by Ayeen Forootan by Luke Gorham by Steven Warner Feature Articles Featured Film

Hallmark and Beyond: Quick Takes on a Selection of 2023 Holiday Films

December 22, 2023

Dashing Through the Snow

It seems wholly appropriate that Disney’s new holiday comedy Dashing Through the Snow bypassed theaters completely and premiered on the studio’s exclusive streaming service, as everything about it, from the crummy CGI to the hackneyed plotting and characterization, feels beyond low-rent, a desperate attempt to tempt some eyeballs through yuletide audience-baiting. Noted rapper and thespian Chris “Ludacris” Bridges stars as Eddie Garrick, a Grinch-like social worker who recounts in flashback how he lost his holiday spirit when a local mall Santa attempted to rob his childhood home on Christmas Eve, an act that Eddie attributes to the eventual divorce of his parents, which… is a leap. Eddie needs a therapist and a Xanax, while his estranged wife Allison (Teyonah Paris) and daughter Charlotte (Madison Skye Validum) believe some holiday spirit will fix him. (This is what we call enabling, folks.) On Christmas Eve, while attempting to feed the vacationing neighbor’s cat, Eddie stumbles upon St. Nick himself, (Lil Rel Howery), who is stuck in the chimney. Eddie naturally isn’t buying the shit he is selling, seeing only a mentally imbalanced wannabe thief, but Charlotte becomes enamored with him, and soon the trio are racing across Atlanta, trying to stay one step ahead of a group of nefarious thugs who are desperate to get back what St. Nick has taken from them. The screenplay, courtesy of Scott Rosenberg, is essentially a gloss on 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting, in which a group of innocent suburbanites are taken out of their element and exposed to the big, bad city. Yet that film had something resembling grit and edge, a texture that Dashing Through the Snow quite clearly craves, even as it aspires to nothing more than family-friendly holiday shenanigans. Howery is an appealing screen presence, and he is certainly committed to his role of a modern-day Santa Claus who sweats glitter and farts cinnamon. Yet Bridges is the definition of charisma-free here, delivering a soggy wet cardboard box of a performance, his line readings and tonal inflections signaling a man who seemingly just woke up from a particularly sound nap (or is on his benzo-aided way into one). Even given the low stakes, it makes it nearly impossible to care if he finds his holiday spirit when he seems so broken of spirit, period. Also, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t start snowing in this film until nearly the end, and none of it sticks, so the title is a bald-faced lie, and viewers aren’t even given that most basic of holiday film signifiers. Then there’s the matter of the movie’s timeline, as Rosenberg bafflingly tries to get his Babel on, purposely excluding a key scene in the early going and presenting it later as some form of Gotcha!, but it makes no sense thematically and renders the proceedings incomprehensible for the first half. Still, points to Rosenberg for at least attempting something novel-adjacent in an effort to shake up the proceedings; director Tim Story is on complete auto-pilot, and it’s a rather remarkable achievement that he produced both this and the horror satire The Blackening in the same year. Here’s hoping he scored a nice fat studio paycheck, because no one else is getting anything out of Dashing Through the Snow, least of all audiences looking for a yuletide good time.  STEVEN WARNER

DIRECTOR: Tim Story;  CAST: Ludacris, Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris, Madison Skye Validum;  DISTRIBUTOR: Disney+;  STREAMINGNovember 17;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.

Credit: Claudette Barius/Amazon

Candy Cane Lane

Amazon Prime Video’s big-ticket offering in this year’s holiday flick sweepstakes, Candy Cane Lane, is most immediately notable for reuniting Eddie Murphy with his Boomerang director, Reginald Hudlin. Boasting a truly confounding filmography, swinging from the highs of the aforementioned collaboration and House Party on the one end to the more serious-minded fare of his recent output in Marshall and Sidney — with detours along the way to helm The Ladies Man and, yes, that aughtiest of early-aughts gobbledygook Serving Sara — it’s always been fair to wonder which Hudlin viewers would encounter. And yet, Candy Cane Lane is so anonymous as a festive offering — a prefab assemblage of holiday parts at best, A.I. spittle at worst — that there’s no room for any directorial signature at all, despite the outrageously bloated (for a Christmas movie) two-hour runtime. Perhaps counterintuitively, there’s novelty to be found in the Christmas film template that Hallmark employs, the minor tweaks, tinkering, and bizarre specificity necessary to keep the assembly line in motion offering numerous outré pleasures; just look at this year’s slate, which includes a grounded astrophysicist developing a planetarium exhibit in Under A Christmas Sky, or My Norwegian Holiday, which centers around a troll figurine. And then there’s the subgenre’s essential case study, 2018’s Holly Star, technically a Hallmark film in spirit only, which features bunraku puppetry, buried treasure, and lobstermen turf wars as integral to its narrative. (It’s only a matter of time before we get a holiday film about hogamadogs.) If Candy Cane Lane is too mainstream to take this Mad Libs approach to story, it at least initially seems inclined toward a lane of familiar comfort, promising a film that will foreground a neighborhood decorating contest, the newly announced spoils of which recently laid-off Chris Carver (Eddie Murphy) needs desperately — beating a blowhard neighbor played by Ken Marino representing an added perk. Alas, cozy Christmas viewing is not to be. Instead, the film immediately pivots into medium-concept shenanigans featuring a conniving elf/store owner (Jillian Bell) who sets Chris on an inadvertent mission to collect the “12 Days of Christmas” five rings, all while contending with the other 11 days’ namechecked players trying to thwart him. Enter some shoddy CGI featuring previously bamboozled folks (Nick Offerman, Chris Redd, Robin Thede) now shrunk to ornament size — which is the threat Chris himself faces should he fail — and some inane familial drama about school pride and music vs. math. The result is too busy by half, the narrative distended in order to accommodate the conceit’s required “set pieces,” and Murphy’s sadsack sucking any joy from the proceedings. And in fact, therein lies Candy Cane Lane’s biggest problem: Murphy brings not an ounce of playfulness or charm to bear, any semblance of the energy he’s summoned in recent years entirely absent; it’s more believable that an NPC threw on a very realistic Eddie Murphy costume and trundled around the set than it is the actor committed even an ounce of care to the project. Candy Cane Lane is candy cane lame, and the fact that that joke is better than the film should tell viewers all they need to know.  LUKE GORHAM

DIRECTOR: Reginald Hudlin;  CAST: Eddie Murphy, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jillian Bell, David Alan Grier;  DISTRIBUTOR: Amazon Studios;  IN THEATERS: November 24;  STREAMINGDecember 1;  RUNTIME: 2 hr.


Rom-com king and Working Title God Richard Curtis — he of Notting Hill and Love, Actually fame — is back with Genie, a high-concept Christmas comedy based on Curtis’ own 1991 television film Bernard and the Genie. Directing reins have been handed to Sam Boyd, who has done nothing of much interest prior and thus seems wholly appropriate for a final product this pedestrian, even as the plot details hint at something either far more sinister and/or wackier. Paapa Essiedu stars as Bernard, a workaholic antiques procurer who, as the film opens, misses his daughter Eve’s eighth birthday. Fed up with his selfishness, wife Julie (Denée Benton) absconds with the child to her mother’s house in the country, leaving Bernard to pout in solitude. Yet the random rubbing of an ornate box unleashes an all-powerful genie by the name of Flora (Melissa McCarthy), who grants Bernard unlimited wishes. What follows is a fish-out-of-water story in which the 2,000-year-old genie learns about modern life while Bernard discovers how to become a better man for his family. That all of this is set at Christmas is completely incidental, a superfluous detail seemingly born out of studio-driven greed, a desperate attempt to capture and capitalize on some of that Curtis holiday magic. At only 90 minutes, there isn’t all that much to Genie, save for a lot of McCarthy mugging and some tired platitudes about how actions speak louder than wishes (or some such nonsense). Speaking of McCarthy, it’s always nice to see her free from the limiting shackles of her filmmaker-husband’s work, but most of her scenes feel like improv exercises stuck in neutral, which makes sense given that scene partner Essiedu is an uncharismatic wet blanket. There’s also an absolutely ridiculous subplot about the disappearance of the Mona Lisa that seems to exist solely to pad the already slim running time, while the likes of Marc Maron, Alan Cumming, and Luis Guzmán are wasted in nothing supporting roles. Let it be said, though, that Genie does contain one of the most unhinged scenes featured in a motion picture this year, as a mid-film gathering involving Bernard’s family and a game of wishing is so absolutely bonkers — and the implications within so unsettling — that the movie refuses to acknowledge it again, utterly devoid of the wherewithal to unpack what it so nonchalantly and troublingly introduces. It’s damning that such foolhardy tomfoolery is a welcome respite from the one-note drudgery that entombs the rest of Genie. Everyone involved should have wished for a better movie.  STEVEN WARNER

DIRECTOR: Sam Boyd;  CAST: Melissa McCarthy, Paapa Essiedu, Marc Maron;  DISTRIBUTOR: Peacock;  STREAMINGNovember 22;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.

Credit: Hallmark Media

Christmas by Design

It’s almost impossible anymore to envision the holiday season without the ever-present, unending array of Hallmark Christmas flicks. Clearly, plenty of folks find casual pleasure in Hallmark’s products, largely in the name of fleeting festiveness and heartwarming romance, others may face difficulty in finding that Yuletide joy due to the indistinguishably featureless nature of these films, most of which will have completely vanished from one’s memory before the holidays are even over. Indeed, there are some evident prefabricated formulas and production clichés that enable Hallmark to easily regulate its pseudo-genre. Whether it be in the Disney-like royal fairy tales where a young everygal finds her way into the world of aristocrats and encounters her lonely prince charming (A Royal Christmas Crush), or through a European excursion where a character arrives at a new, quaint setting abroad (A Heidelberg Holiday, My Norwegian Holiday), or a cozy tale where a classy, usually work-focused city woman returns to her small hometown to reunite with family, meet the perfect guy, and, of course, come to some sort of new year’s resolution (Our Christmas Mural) — all of these narrative shapes will be familiar. Also true is that all Hallmark fans likely have their own set of criteria to evaluate the holiday behemoth’s plentiful offerings: some may look for the better scripted (i.e., more realistic) story; others will prioritize the romance’s charm factor; then there are those who go in for the game of spot-the-star with the C- and D-listers populating these movies; and some are just tuning in to find the nuttiest and campiest guilty pleasures possible. But one thing most will agree on is that the grander the visual design and allure of holiday atmosphere, and stronger the chemistry between the romantic leads, the better chance there is to capture the hearts of audiences. 

Max McGuire’s Christmas by Design manages to bend these familiar elements into a delightful and beguilingly charming shape. Following an aspiring New York luxury fashion designer, Charlotte (Rebecca Dalton), who has to return to her family home in Brooksbend, Connecticut after a water leak at her boutique, she soon bumps into the small town’s young mechanic, Spencer (Jonathan Keltz), who as noted in the film is like “the Clooney of Brooksbend” — the fella every young women dreams to date. The film’s narrative is unapologetically predictable, and the way the burgeoning romance’s ups and downs will reach their happy ending — of course, only after Charlotte both finally embraces life’s simple pleasures and wins a fashion contest to develop a line of pajamas (inspired by her childhood memories of “the Pajamboree,” the final event of her family’s Christmas Eve Elfcapades) to be sold in stores nationwide — is de facto. But if Christmas by Design manages to be among more convincing Hallmark flicks this year, it’s not only for the easy chemistry between Dalton and Keltz (whose presence as a heartthrob, sigma widower isn’t entirely convincing), its cheerful ambiance, or visual vibrancy, but rather for the relatable and homey warmth that can be felt in the local hangouts, including an aw-shucks diner, a cozy bar, and the Christmas market. Which is to say, rather than plaguing itself with any overt concept like so many other films of its ilk, Christmas by Design is content with creating a mood of luxuriating comfort that feels like going through the old pages of a JCPenney or Sears catalog by a fireplace. Put differently, and to borrow the movie’s own words, it’s “made for the average American family. It’s comfortable, affordable. No frills, just classic. It’s nostalgic, but still contemporary.”  AYEEN FOROOTAN

DIRECTOR: Max McGuire;  CAST: Rebecca Dalton, Jonathan Keltz, Joanna Douglas;  DISTRIBUTOR: Hallmark;  STREAMINGDecember 29;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 24 min.

The Shepherd

Certainly the strangest of the season’s premiere holiday releases, The Shepherd is the third and final Disney+ Christmas film of 2023, following seasonal centerpiece Dashing Through the Snow and the latest animated entry in the kids’ culture juggernaut Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Technically relegated to the status of “Special” rather than “Original Film,” presumably due to its petite 39-minute official runtime, The Shepherd is essentially the content giant’s answer to 2022’s Le Pupille. Both are concise, less festively flamboyant period works set on Christmas Eve, but the latter boasted a legitimate authorial voice in Alice Rohrwacher while The Shepherd is helmed by ‘90s film also-ran Iain Softley, of Hackers and K-Pax fame. This latest short also has none of the emotional or aesthetic texture of Rohrwacher’s charmer, and is instead a strangely clinical effort, its crisp, clean lines and digital sheen betraying its 1957 setting and ostensible yuletide leanings. The film follows Freddie Hook (Ben Radcliffe), a pilot stationed in Germany who is given last-minute permission to fly home to Suffolk on Christmas Eve. But it isn’t long before his fighter jet suffers instrument failure, and his inability to make contact with any radio guide, as well as the ocean of fog he encounters, leaves him fearful of his prospects and recalling memories of his girlfriend back home. But after flying through an aurora, Freddie’s hopes — and the film’s complexion — change considerably, and The Shepherd comes closer to an especially narcotized episode of The Twilight Zone, replete with a hilariously random cameo. That bit of goosing aside, though, Softley’s film is a deeply flat affair, and offers little of what viewers clammer for in their Christmas cinema. In the absence of any technical bravura and emotional foundation, The Shepherd lives and dies according to its supernatural tilt, which is met with baffling incuriosity; it’s the movie equivalent of an affectless monotone. And the bow that Softley fastens to his film is a protracted double twist that does less to surprise than it does to leave viewers with the impression of a hat being put on a hat. Socks are bad enough, but nobody needs two hats for Christmas. LUKE GORHAM

DIRECTOR: Iain Softley;  CAST: Ben Radcliffe, Steven Mackintosh, John Travolta;  DISTRIBUTOR: Disney+;  STREAMINGDecember 1;  RUNTIME: 38 min.

Credit: Hallmark

The Secret Gift of Christmas

Hallmark Channel holiday flicks are so abundant — and so reliant on formula — that it’s only in the details that one can begin to find merit, those various plotlines or characters so batshit that they transcend the labels of “good” or “bad” and exist on a plane of otherworldliness. Sure, the average viewer mainly watches these films for comfort, the expected plot beats soothing in their familiarity (and mundanity), but when such genre fare is inescapable for literally months on end, even the most forgiving of Hallmark fans desires something askew, a brief moment of respite from the nonstop cloying banality. To put it in holiday terms, those who prefer their eggnog spiked would be wise to check out The Secret Gift of Christmas, a yuletide Hallmark concoction so self-aware of its own ridiculousness that it borders on parody. Bonnie (Meghan Ory) is a personal shopper and social media darling famous for her ability to find gifts for her clients that truly mean something, a feat which she accomplishes by looking at their Facebook pages. Yet Bonnie’s latest client may be her biggest challenge yet, a widowed construction worker and single dad named Patrick (Christopher Russell) who hates social media and is only utilizing Bonnie’s very specific skill set because he’s too busy for such frivolities as shopping. Plus, he’s a man, and thus incapable of shopping or picking out something meaningful for those he loves, according to common Hallmark thinking.  Bonnie and Patrick are naturally total opposites; he wants to wear a hoodie to his big holiday party for current and prospective clients, while she insists he wear a sports jacket. Yet it’s upon basically kidnapping Patrick’s eight-year-old daughter and taking her out for hot cocoa that Bonnie realizes that this hunky blue-collar lug may still be mourning the loss of his wife, who died of cancer three years prior. Bonnie can relate, as she lost her own mother — wait for it — three years ago, and she now attempts to fill the void left in her absence by buying shit she doesn’t need, an ironic detail considering she is so good at buying things for others. (This flick has layers.) Soon, Patrick and Bonnie are shopping, ice skating, and picking out Christmas trees, basically using the daughter as an excuse to salaciously flirt. Yet The Secret Gift of Christmas throws a wrench into their potential happiness in the form of Fiona Appleby(!) (Jenn Grant), a mullet-sporting music teacher who insinuates herself into the lives of Patrick and his daughter so diabolically that the proceedings begin to more resemble Fatal Attraction whenever she appears on screen. There’s also the matter of Bonnie’s father, who she resents because he is getting remarried, which is also pretty damn ironic considering she’s trying to shack up with a widower herself. It’s these details that render The Secret Gift of Christmas far more entertaining than your average basic channel romance, as does the performance of Ory, which can best be described as… spirited. It’s impossible to tell if her wild eyes and coked-out line readings are a purposeful attempt to channel a character deeply enamored with both rampant consumerism and holiday cheer, or if the actress is just attempting to inject some fun into the proceedings, but the end result is just off-kilter enough to prove strangely endearing. This also has to be one of the horniest Hallmark flicks in ages, as this critic has seen less edging in a scrapbook tutorial. Yet who could resist Russell, the star of last year’s equally batshit Hallmark flick The Most Colorful Time of the Year — yes, the movie that seemed to believe colorblind folks see exclusively in black and white — and who here is made to resemble a smoldering Chip Gaines, because this movie knows its target audience. Yet even that choice seems less like baiting and more like a subtle swipe at the very demographic it’s courting. Perhaps writer-director Christie Will never intended such a reading, but in a sea of sameness, The Secret Gift of Christmas arrives as a lifeboat of blissful self-awareness. A Hallmark holiday classic is born.  STEVEN WARNER

DIRECTOR: Christie Will;  CAST: Meghan Ory, Christopher Russell, Aria Publiocover, Jenn Grant;  DISTRIBUTOR: Hallmark;  STREAMINGDecember 24;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.

The Naughty Nine

Considering that The Naughty Nine is quite transparently a basic cable-level Christmas movie targeting typical young Disney viewers, it’s not hard or unfair to assume a certain ceiling for this Alberto Belli holiday kids flick. Given this target audience, the film’s narrative story is straightforward, foregoing any complicating bells and whistles: after a group of kids find out they haven’t received any gifts this Christmas due to their naughty list status, they decide to follow the lead of Andy (Winslow Fegley, who also starred in the enjoyable yet underseen 8-bit Christmas) and employ the help of a pilot named Bruno (Derek Theler), endeavoring to sneak into Santa’s Village in the North Pole to get their presents back. As corny as that setup sounds (and it is), The Naughty Nine’s half-fantasy mission, half-heist movie tropes retain escapist appeal. In fact, younger parents may even find themselves invested in the genuine energy and zaniness on display, as a certain degree of the movie’s harmless adventure fun comes from the fact that it, if only lightly, mines nostalgia for the memorable simplicity of Disney Channel’s kids shows of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, playing a little like Lizzie McGuire by way of Spy Kids, wrapped with a holiday bow. Admittedly, the time spent in Santa’s Village during the second act doesn’t satisfy, falling flat and feeling rushed, with the poor CGI and kitschy sets and costumes (especially, during the elves’ party) feeling undeniably lackluster, even given the circumstances. And the potential, playful hijinks promised by the title never much come to fruition. But at least the group of young actors — and most notably, the trio of Fegley, Madilyn Kellam as Laurel, and Camila Rodriguez as Dulce — offer the film plenty of saving grace. Strangely, given its story, The Naughty Nine’s brand of whimsicality actually situates it more comfortably as a family-friendly watch than a pure Christmas movie, lacking as it is in the particular atmosphere viewers often flock to holiday films for, but the push-and-pull sibling dynamic between Andy and Laurel is genuinely sweet and at least channels the spirit of that feel-good energy in the end. AYEEN FOROOTAN

DIRECTOR: Alberto Belli;  CAST: Winslow Fegley, Danny Glover, Camila Rodriguez, Clark Stack;  DISTRIBUTOR: Disney+;  STREAMINGNovember 23;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.