The Gift You Never Unwrapped

Come the New Year, we are inevitably left with those forlorn holiday leftovers. No, I'm not talking about the fruitcake turning green at the back of your fridge—although you really should do something about that—but about those holiday movies that are even now still being projected in mostly empty theaters across the land.

Funny thing about Christmas movies: the ones that really linger in the public imagination usually don't do too well at the box office when they first come out. Either they barely make their costs back or they are career-destroying bombs. It's a Wonderful Life is only the most famous example of this phenomenon: when first released, it lost money and didn't win a single Oscar. By 1974, the picture was so obscure that RKO let the copyright lapse and the film entered the public domain. It took years of endless TV reruns to make the film the Yuletide tradition it is today. A Christmas Story was only a modest success in 1983, but now it airs 'round the clock on TV every December and half the people you work with can probably quote the thing from beginning to end. Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas hardly set the box office aflame in 1993, but nowadays Nightmarecharacters are merchandised to the point of absurdity, turning up on lunch boxes, T-shirts, watches, snow globes, cookie jars, condoms (okay, I made that one up), key chains, panties (I didn't make that one up), etc. Every winter, Disneyland even gives the Haunted Mansion an elaborate Nightmare makeover, one of the few things the park's done in recent years you could call an actual success.

Another funny thing about Christmas movies: the ones to hit it big on their initial release are usually stupid and obnoxious, and while they make a big splash to start with, they're quickly forgotten once they leave the multiplexes. Do you think anybody is going to be watching Jingle All the Way 20 years from now? Or The Santa Clause, parts 1 or 2? Or that truly reprehensible Jim Carrey version of The Grinch? We all knew these movies were crap even before we saw them, but somehow we made them into hits anyway. What was wrong with us, anyhow? It's as if in the midst of all the stress and misery and general hullabaloo of the holidays, we flock to these awful, boorish movies hoping they'll be loud enough to crowd all the thoughts out of our heads. And then, when we want to actually feel something, we go home and watch the genuinely affecting holiday stuff on DVD, either with our loved ones or all by ourselves with a box of hankies nearby.

This holiday season, Christmas With the Kranks faced off against The Polar Express, and analysts were amazed when Kranks turned out to be a hit and the much-hyped Polar Express fizzled. On paper, Polar Express seemed like such a sure thing (this was Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks, remember) that when it opened well below expectations, many observers chalked up the problems to the film's animation style. The characters looked too creepy, it was said; they were like marionettes made of meat or corpses brought back to a shambling semblance of life through some dark magic. In truth, the film did look a little freaky sometimes, but it was hardly the problem critics made it out to be, and it had little if anything to do with why the expected crowds failed to materialize on opening day.

You could see from miles away that The Polar Express was no Grinch or Jingle All the Way; it wasn't out to hustle 10 bucks from your pocket and then dump you back on the pavement with nothing to show for your time but greasy popcorn fingers. This was a Christmas movie with ambitions: it wanted to awe you, to spook you, to warm your heart and make you think, too. It wanted to be the next It's a Wonderful Life. In other words, it was offering more than a nation of frantic, distracted holiday shoppers were interested in, especially when the infinitely less challenging Kranks was playing right next door.

But while Kranks opened big and put that goddamn Tim Allen back on Hollywood's A-list, by December 2006, it'll be a dusty obscurity on the shelves of your neighborhood Blockbuster (assuming, of course, we still have Blockbusters by then). Polar Express, meanwhile, had a respectable, if unspectacular, opening and then chugged along at that same respectable, if unspectacular, rate for weeks and weeks like the little engine that could. It now looks likely to cross $160 million in total domestic sales without ever having reached No. 1 at the box office. Not exactly a Christmas miracle on par with George Bailey's Bedford Falls neighbors saving him from ruin in the final reel of It's a Wonderful Life, but it's still very impressive.

As we settle into adulthood, the Christmas spirit becomes an increasingly elusive thing. We get lost in the stress and misery and general hullabaloo of the holidays, and sometimes we awake Dec. 26 with the feeling we've spent weeks going through the motions and missed the entire party. If that's what happened to you this year and you're still yearning for that old Christmas feeling, you still have a chance to catch The Polar Express. Or you could always catch it next year. I've a feeling this one's going to be around for a while.

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