Angela’s Christmas: a delightful new family Christmas classic

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 omissionthe 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. 

The Star: the Christmas Story through the Eyes of Talking Animals

The Star, which opened wide in theaters on November 17th, is a playful yet respectful approach to the story of Jesus’ birth for little ones. In trying to do a bit too much, the story wanders off-course midway, but overall The Star is a competent animated version of the story of the birth of Jesus, both entertaining and accessible to children.

The Story

The Star is mostly told from the viewpoint of a young donkey, who longs for adventure and to do something “big” in his life. The donkey, who comes to be called Bo (a nickname for Boaz), escapes from his owner and hides in the yard of the newly-married Mary and Joseph. Bo meets Mary and is delighted by her gentle understanding and care. Mary seems to have a special affinity for all of God’s creation, and she adopts Bo despite Joseph’s protests.

Bo goes back and forth between trying to follow his own long-cherished dream of adventure (to work in the royal caravan) and his loyalty to Mary and Joseph. The entire second act of the film follows Bo’s desperate attempts to rescue Mary from the assassin whom Herod sends after the three Wise Men. This middle part of the story feels quite convoluted by Bo’s changing his mind several times about what he will do, and the various complications that ensue. The plot further falters because of the heavy-handed use of several Christmas carols, when the action simply stops. But the wandering plot has a purpose, as Bo learns from every mistake he makes and recommits to helping the Holy Family, whether his service is appreciated or not. 

The filmmakers rose to the challenge of remaining true to the essence of the story of Jesus’ birth, all the while interweaving the fictional adventures of talking animals. From a Christian perspective, it is disappointing and somewhat contradictory that, in a children’s story about the birth of the King of Peace, both high points of the protagonist’s story are fights.

The visual design and animation of The Star is delightful and serve the story well to help connect the children with the characters.

The Characters

The tension between Bo’s longing for adventure and his growing attachment to Mary form the core of Bo’s character development. The outstanding character in the story is Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus. She is lovably human and warm, but also clearly possesses—and exercises—great faith and love. Joseph, too, is appealing and manly. He really struggles with the idea of being chosen to be the foster father of the Son of God. Instead of showing Mary and Joseph as always calm and serene, the film shares several moments where Mary and Joseph react in a vulnerable and understandable way to the difficult circumstances they face. Their relationship and their encouragement to each other to have faith through difficulty is a joy to watch.

Bo is a hardheaded big-hearted donkey with a loyal friend in the not-so-practical dancing dove, Dave. Bo and Dave provide much of the enjoyable humor in the story. Bo’s growth in faithfulness, love, and discovering what is truly important in life might be a bit too complete by the end, but his growth and his adventures go hand-in-hand.

Several of the supporting characters are poorly drawn caricatures that fail to serve the drama or the humor, with particularly limited, overly-simple dialogue. The three camels who carry the wise men are often not funny, but irritating and even problematic: their attempts at humor included calling others by derogatory names. Name-calling is not a matter for humor in a children’s film. In one instance (which was unfortunately repeated), the name-calling might be construed as disrespectful to Christ and the Jewish people.

Windows to the Soul

In many ways, The Star is a wonderfully imaginative tale for children, set in the context of Jesus’ birth. 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.

It’s hard to know at what age a child would most appreciate The Star. (This is true of many films, and why it can be so important for parents to watch movies with their children, and make sure to discuss it afterward.) Many moments in the film (especially the humor) seem to indicate that the film is for young children—toddlers up to 5 or 6 years old. But the super-scary assassin (perhaps a less-violent stand-in for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?) could be problematic, especially as the tension of his threat grows throughout the film. And older children will enjoy the antics of Bo and Dave, as well as receive insights into the journey of faith taken by Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem.

However, in a couple of ways, the script needed stronger writing. Name-calling portrayed as humor, fighting used for the “big scene” at the end of a film about the birth of Jesus, and some overly simplistic dialogue about “being good” and “being bad,” plus the fact that Bo’s adventures and growth sometimes overshadow the story of the Holy Family, means that the film could have been much stronger in telling the story of the birth of Jesus. But when we remember that the viewpoint of the film consistently stays with the animals—primarily with Boaz, the donkey—The Star becomes quite a remarkable and delightful retelling of the Christmas story.

Note for Parents and Teachers: Affirm Films has made some wonderful resources available to use before and after watching the film. Go to the movie’s site: http://www.thestarmovie.com/ click on Menu and then click on the Resources tab. From brochures, coloring and activity pages, to a family discussion guide (downloadable for free), this is a great opportunity to spend time with your children on the true meaning of Christmas.

You can listen to my review online on Salt + Light Radio here.