In the bleak landscape of new Christmas films this year, a delightful new half-hour children’s Christmas special has appeared that is perhaps deserving to be called a new family Christmas classic.
It’s been more challenging for me to keep up with the latest films this year, and perhaps I found the slate of Christmas films emptier than usual because I simply scrolled through Netflix’s offerings. (I have lately grown increasingly disappointed with a large portion of Netflix’ original programming, but that is a matter for another post.) I confess I haven’t seen 2018’s Grinch nor Disney’s Nutcracker—both of which I plan to see.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I started watching Angela’s Christmas (a Netflix original), which is based on the short story written by Frank McCourt, and I continued to enjoy the entire delightful little Christmas special. (Listen to my 5-minute review on Salt + Light Radio Hour here.)
Angela’s Christmas totally deserves to be the new animated family Christmas classic. Centered around little Angela’s imaginative concern for the Baby Jesus being cold, the story has lots of moments of fun and suspense. The animation is delightful, and it has some fun moments that Catholics will appreciate—such as whether or not there was a miracle in St. Joseph’s Church that night! On top of the delightful story, layered writing, compelling characters, believable character arcs, the film is just so darling—it begs for a repeat viewing. Simple enough for young children, the story has more to it for thoughtful adults.
Rather than giving story spoilers, I’ll simply list why Angela’s Christmas is perfect to watch together as a family to “put us in the mood for Christmas.”
1) The Christ Child is the focus of the story, in a way that perfectly brings together the deeper meaning of Christmas (Christ came to save us by sharing everything with us, even our sufferings), and a story that little kids can relate to.
2) The focus on family. Not only is there a lovely plot line for Angela and her brother Pat learning to get along together, but also how their mother explains to them that the real meaning of family is to shelter and support one another. (We catch a glimpse of St. John Paul II’s reference to the family as the domestic church here.)
I also found it completely darling how one of Angela and her big brother’s main concerns was how worried the Blessed Mother would be about Baby Jesus.
3) A focus on the less fortunate. References to the less fortunate—beginning with Angela’s family and of course, with Baby Jesus—are interwoven throughout the story: Angela’s family generously shares their coats with each other just to go to Christmas midnight Mass; the children are obviously compassionate and generous with those less fortunate than themselves, the compassionate policeman who observes how tragic it is to separate a child from his or her family also highlights the plight of those who are deprived of the necessities of life. In a bold choice by the filmmakers, instead of telling the story of Jesus’ birth, Angela’s mother retells the story of Angela’s birth—a day that should have been full of joy but instead was full of suffering that was changed to joy by the love of her children. Her simple story, her gratitude to the children, her obvious courage in the face of hardship, point to the ways that the Christ Child still suffers in our midst today, needing our outstretched hands.
Even though such a delightful film, Angela’s Christmas is missing 2 important things that could have made it an even stronger movie:
1) A lovely Christmas hymn, for which there were many opportunities, and a setting and a tone that would have been perfect. Many hymns would have reinforced the themes of the story, especially a hymn like “What Child Is This.” This is a glaring omission—the filmmakers really missed a big opportunity here to make this a “practically perfect” film.
2) A simple retelling of the Christmas story from a child’s point of view (Angela’s, or perhaps Pat’s). The filmmakers may have decided to let this go because all the characters are so immersed in what Christmas means that it might seem redundant. But by not simply retelling the story, I think some elements of this little short could be lost for those who don’t know the story well, who see Christmas primarily as a family holiday. And who doesn’t need to be reminded why Christmas is a celebration of love?
Despite these shortcomings, this little film packs more into it than the roster of Christmas “feel good” family films. Angela’s Christmas is appropriate for all ages and deserving to become part of the family’s Christmas tradition.
Also noteworthy Christmas movies:
If you haven’t seen The Star, the full-length animated Nativity story told from the point of the view of the donkey who brings Mary to Bethlehem, I highly recommend this wonderfully imaginative tale for children, both playful and respectful approach to the story of Jesus’ birth for little ones. The talking animals give kids an easy way to identify with the characters in the story, especially Mary, whose affinity with all creation—including the animals, no matter how humble—is a beautiful thread running through the film. The Star is also available on Netflix. You can see my full review from last year here.
2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas is also well worth seeing as a new version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, coming especially from the perspective of the author’s struggle to write one of the best stories of all time. (I could relate!) The title is not my favorite, yet it is a worthy retelling of A Christmas Carol, with wonderful performances, some clever writing, and a lovely focus on family. Here is a review from the Director of our Pauline Media Studies Center, Sister Nancy Usselmann.