Length: 89 minutes
Release Date: November 22, 1985
Directed by: Philip Borsos
Stars: 3 out of 5
If you’re looking for a Christmas flick that can be enjoyed by both adults and older kids, Disney’s “One Magic Christmas” fits the bill. This beautiful film still has a huge following, even a quarter-century after its release, and despite being a movie from the 80s that lacks the tools today’s cinematographers have at their disposal, it has skillful direction, memorable performances, and an intelligent screenplay that takes the audience into the deepest of despair only to emerge at the end as a tale of regrouping and surviving in the face of grief and tragedy.
The movie follows the Grainger family, and centers on the Grainger mom, played by Mary Steenburgen, who, in much the same fashion as Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” has sunk into a deep depression and has absolutely zero Christmas spirit. The family lives in a company house and is somewhat happy until Dad (played by Gary Basaraba) loses his job and his company tells the family to be out of their home by the first of January. The Graingers are forced to spend the holiday season in despair, wondering what they should do and packing their belongings.
The neighborhood is being watched over by a guardian angel, Gideon, played by Harry Dean Stanton, presumably because of Mrs. Grainger’s wish that she had never been born. He has been tasked with restoring the mom’s faith and showing her that the Christmas spirit is still alive, although the lesson is a costly one. When the father heads to the bank to get out some of the family’s remaining money for Christmas gifts, a man robs the bank and shoots the father dead. The robber then flees the bank and takes off in the family’s car, with the two Grainger children, Abbie and Cal, still inside. The role of Abbie was one of Elisabeth Harnois’ inaugural performances at age five; she would go on to star as CSI Brody in the hit TV drama, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” The plot reaches a dramatic high when the car plunges into a river, and the Grainger kids are drowned.
This is where the magic in “One Magic Christmas” really begins to take off. In the course of one tragic afternoon, Mrs. Grainger has lost her husband and both her children. All are miraculously brought back to life by Gideon, but only after Mrs. Grainger is given a brutal glimpse at what life would be like without the ones she loves; a lesson that shows her what really means the most in life-family. The ending is a happy one, complete with a visit to the North Pole, but the audience is really left wondering if the movie won’t end in tragedy.
If there’s one thing that this movie has in abundance, it is sadness, and it is this abundant quality that really keeps the movie from rating higher in the eyes of many critics. And although the movie has a “G” rating, parents should be forewarned there are themes of death in the movie that might be hard for a child to handle, so it is with caution that younger kids should watch this classic Christmas tale. The combination of no presents under the tree, a mom in the throes of severe depression, unemployment, and three deaths may be more than some kids can bear. One really doesn’t expect this sort of theme from a Disney movie, which leads some critics to dub this movie as being overly dark for a seasonal film.
There’s some obvious talent in this gripping film, including the directing talent of Philip Boros (“The Grey Fox”). Mary Steenburgen puts in a more-than-solid performance as the depressed mother who has lost her way and is ready to throw in the towel. Still, even with her steely act, the audience get a sense that Mrs. Grainger is still a kind, nurturing mother who wants happiness for her kids, even if she can’t find it for herself.
Overall, “One Magic Christmas” is a smart and compelling film that takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions, although it is better suited for older kids and adults. There are some valuable lessons and an interesting storyline to enjoy in this movie, but with death and depression major overtones of this movie, this is one best not viewed with smaller kids.