A Madea Christmas (2013) Written & Directed by Tyler Perry
There are three distinct phases to the Madeaverse that I’ve noticed. From Diary of a Mad Black Woman through Madea’s Big Happy Family, these are mostly stage adaptations featuring predominantly Black casts. Beyond Tyler Perry, there may be one or two “major” Black actors in the production. For instance, Blair Underwood in Madea’s Family Reunion or Angela Bassett in Meet the Browns. Previous to this film was Madea’s Witness Protection, one of the series’s three most financially successful pictures; a budget of $20 million turned into $67 million in box office returns. That film incorporated more white actors (Eugene Levy, Denise Richards, Doris Roberts), which led to the following strange & short era with A Madea Christmas. This was when Perry tried to make movies that would also appeal to white people.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) Written by Dr. Seuss Directed by Chuck Jones & Ben Washam
This is my favorite of the classic Christmas animated specials. When I was in the middle of my childhood, in 1988, I think that TNT bought the rights to the Grinch and aired it exclusively on their network. As stated before, I grew up without cable television, and so I’m not sure how I saw this special and remember it so well. I’d like to attribute that to how well animated and written the story is, and so it ingrained itself firmly in my memories. The special came back to broadcast in 2000 on The WB and has floated around networks like ABC and its current home NBC.
Frosty the Snowman (1969) Written by Romeo Muller Directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. & Jules Bass
By the end of the 1960s, Rankin-Bass had solidified themselves as one of the major animation companies in North America. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer began their ascent, and in 1969 they had eleven films & animated specials under their belt. This was going to continue into the 1970s but would steadily decline in the early 1980s. When Frosty hit the air, we saw Rankin-Bass at their prime. I would also say this is by far my least favorite of the popular re-aired Christmas specials, but I’ll get more into that later.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) Written by Romeo Muller Directed by Larry Roemer
Rankin-Bass dominated holiday television for decades, yet almost none of their productions are remembered aside from this one and maybe a sprinkling of others. Rudolph was the beginning of what would become a bizarre shared universe with Santa Claus, Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny, and more. All of this would serve to inspire later work, especially A Nightmare Before Christmas, which exists as a sort of lost Rankin-Bass crossover between Halloween and Christmas. Rudolph keeps airing every year, but I wondered if it still held up as time has passed and stop-motion animation has evolved since.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Written by Charles M. Schulz Directed by Bill Melendez
This is my favorite of all the classic Christmas specials. It’s very in line with my own complicated feelings about the holiday, imbued with a sense of melancholy while still not lacking that charm you expect from these cartoons. What’s funny is upon its initial viewing for executives, they hated the cartoon. It was seen as too slow-paced, the music was off-putting (genuinely shocking to me), and they hated the animation. This shocked the creators as they were sure this would be a holiday classic from the start, and fears set in that it would never air again. Instead, the public fell in love with the story, drawn to the fact that this wasn’t a shallow feel-good Christmas story but deeper and talking about something more profound.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Written by Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell Directed by Henry Selick
While the idea and production design were initially conceived by Tim Burton, the actual execution of The Nightmare Before Christmas was done by a bevy of other talented creators. However, the film is associated with Burton, and many mistake him as the director. We love and remember the picture for Danny Elfman’s music, Henry Selick’s direction, and the fantastic script by Thompson and McDowell. Thompson co-wrote Edward Scissorhands, and McDowell also penned the screenplay for Beetlejuice, so they brought all those elements to the table. The result is a gorgeous macabre take on the Christmas spirit that endures because it stands out from the crowd but reminds us of childhood favorites.
A Christmas Story (1983) Written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, and Bob Clark Directed by Bob Clark
A Christmas Story is a great little holiday comedy about childhood but also one of the most disgustingly overhyped pieces of Americana in recent years. The TBS 24-hour marathon of the film definitely didn’t help things and has honestly led to the oversaturation of the picture. It’s a look back at the Depression Era Midwest and dramatizes Jean Shepherd’s memories of his childhood. The film is done in a series of vignettes that make it easy to consume by casual viewers or kids whose attention spans might wan after too long. But it definitely doesn’t deserve as much licensed merchandise or a Broadway musical based on the picture.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) Written by John Hughes Directed by Jeremiah Chechik
This might be my favorite Christmas movie of all time, but it might not. I have watched Christmas Vacation probably over two dozen times, and while I was a child and teenager, I loved the film, my views have become more complicated as an adult. I still think it is hilariously funny, a perfect ending to John Hughes’s tenure on the series. They tried to keep squeezing gold out of the series in later films, which were embarrassingly terrible. I’ve noticed in recent viewings that Christmas Vacation is a total mess, not sure if it wants to be sentimental or cynical about the holiday.
Home Alone (1990) Written by John Hughes Directed by Chris Columbus
Home Alone came about when John Hughes was making a checklist for an upcoming family trip and thought for a moment what would happen if he forgot his kids, who weren’t on that list. After making some notes about what antics the child could get into, he realized that a good source of conflict and fear for a child would-be robbers. Some unwanted intruders coming into the safety of a child’s home would be a pretty harrowing thing, and thus Home Alone was born. Director Chris Columbus came on board and did a quick rewrite, weaving in the emotional beats that unite Kevin and his neighbor.