Looks pretty innocuous, doesn’t it? Actually, One Magic Christmas, directed by master of wintry melancholy Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox), a mostly Canadian production released by Walt Disney Studios in 1985, is grim stuff indeed. Despite its kid-friendly trappings, in its harsh, death-tinged journey to human frailty this is more Eyes Wide Shut territory than, say, Miracle on 34th Street. It’s also one of the most potentially dangerous off-message films I can recall ever geared towards family audiences: in this case, a sturdy, reformed belief in the wonder of Christmas can not only rejuvenate one spiritually, but also potentially bring your father back from the dead! Yes, in the film’s crucial North Pole scene, what does adorable, five-year-old Abby, she of the translucent blue eyes and little dangling pink mittens, ask Santa Claus for Christmas? “Can you make my dad not dead?” she pleads, as her father has recently been killed as a bystander at a bank robbery gone wrong in their impoverished small town. At first, kindly St. Nick shakes his head, and apologizes that this is simply too big a task—and the audience sighs, relieved. But then, Santa drops a bomb: “I can’t . . . but your mother can!”
Yes, it’s all mommy’s fault. She, played with steely resolve by Mary Steenburgen, has not had enough Christmas spirit, and evidently, her husband’s death (and in a terrible, related scene, her two small children’s near-drowning in a lake) was associatively her doing. Wracked with financial woes, the Grainger family is being kicked out of their modest suburban rental home—a holiday gift from the bank—and in response, Steenburgen’s matriarch has been understandably grumpy. So an angel, played by Harry Dean Stanton with the slightest threat of pedophilia (he’s constantly in a trench coat. standing by the side of the road, gesturing to little Abby, and discussing her family issues with her), has decided to show mom what life would be like without the things she ought to better appreciate (i.e., loving hubby, cherubic kids). Steenburgen’s reaction to all this vividly depicted tragedy, is rightfully, a quiet scene of convulsive sobbing in the bathroom. Happy holidays.
That One Magic Christmas caps its catalog of horrors with a moralistic lesson (when mom blurts out “Merry Christmas,” the clock turns back and dear old dad is hobbling back down the street for a kiss and a hug) is truly a shame because overall this is a finely crafted, atmospheric, and refreshingly gritty seasonal film. For a long stretch, there isn’t a jigger of sentimentality, and its dreary, mid-eighties look at the economical woes of everyday people often strikes as revelatory. The interiors of the Grainger’s sickly yellow kitchen and drab living room have the feel of genuinely lived-in places, the supermarket where she works has a grim, run-down feel, and even the snow itself—a slushy, muddy-brown constant blanket over all exteriors—is real, which makes you realize how rarely one sees actual snow on film and not processed, idyllically white powder balls.
Yet mom makes the pain go away through her own reformation. It’s like if It’s a Wonderful Life had painted George Bailey as the villain all along, rather than his own worst enemy. George goes through a nasty spell, for sure, taking his family’s love for granted temporarily, but understandably so, since he’s mired in a sudden crisis. Ginny, on the other hand, is simply trying to make ends meet, and God forbid she shouldn’t appreciate Christmastime, when her children want expensive toys, and her childlike husband wants to grant their wishes. Ginny’s re-education feels highly unnecessary, even cruel. The true spirit of Christmas, however, lies in the fact that this horrifically manipulative film makes me weep every time I watch it.