CHRISTMAS: Beyond Hallmark's snow & mistletoe
Occasionally, one of these productions will touch on the "gift" of family or a Christmas carol, but almost none have anything to do with the reason for the season -- the birth of our Savior.
That said, it can be argued that cinematic storytelling is at its best when it gets viewers to think about spiritual matters rather than attempting to proselytize. So, this blessed season, let's turn to three films that carry a spiritual message through parable. They remind us that the faith of a child, or a teenager, can be more powerful than whole armies, faith being the essential component.
"The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" (2007)
A mysterious recluse (Tom Berenger) happens to be the best wood carver in the valley. Slowly the woodcutter finds his world transformed by a young boy and his mother (Joely Richardson), who asks him to carve a yuletide scene.
When the boy loses a treasured wooden nativity set that links him to his deceased father, his mother persuades Jonathan to create a replacement and allow her son to watch him work on it. Soon the boy makes greater demands of the woodcarver's ability, and as Christmas approaches, the three come to terms with painful memories of loss and begin putting their unhappiness behind them.
Mr. Berenger gives dimension to his role and the technical and artistic merits blend together to give families an uplifting night at the movies. Because of the fine performances and positive messages, including a respect for God and Christ (prayers are spoken, church is attended and the main characters acknowledge the birth of Christ), The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey has become one of my favorite seasonal films. Unrated, I found nothing objectionable.
"I Am David" (2003)
This intriguing film adaptation of Anne Holm's internationally acclaimed novel "North to Freedom" concerns a 12-year-old boy who escapes a communist labor camp possessing little more than a compass, an inherent distrust of people and a sealed letter.
Preteen newcomer Ben Tibber does a credible job as the withdrawn boy fleeing unimaginable circumstances, somehow believing that there is more to life than what he has known. This character and his journey are symbolic, reminding us of the need for faith and the treasure of liberty.
Most powerful scene: young David walking into a church, hearing a choir rehearsing music that exalts God and revealing a tender side of mankind. As he stands there, a policeman also enters the sanctuary. At first, David is fearful when the constable takes a place next to the youngster. Government officials have always been people he was to fear. Suddenly, calmness comes over the boy, as the policeman smiles. David is changing. His world is changing. So much is being said, without words. It's really quite a remarkable film sequence.
Come to think of it, there's an even more powerful scene to come. But I'll leave that for you to discover.
I Am David is rated PG for thematic elements and some violence. While the subject matter may not be suited for very little children, the careful handling of the material helps suggest the triumphant power of the human spirit. What a delight to view such a film during this holy season, for it's an affirming journey of discovery about finding that which feeds the soul -- faith.
"A Greater Yes" (2009)
Sixteen-year-old Amy Newhouse lives a blessed life. She is pretty, she's popular and she's devout in her faith. What's more, her prayers always seem to be answered. After traveling to Africa for missionary work, she becomes even more determined to see a revival of spirit in her town. But just as Amy begins to see progress, she receives tragic news.
It has a low budget, a few clunky performances, and not the best of technical aspects, but soon these inadequacies are dwarfed by the filmmaker's storytelling abilities and Anne Underwood's perceptive performance as this teenager's faith is truly tested. Suddenly viewers are caught up in the drama and begin to care about the three-dimensional characters.
How rare it is to find a drama that avoids cynicism while showing respect for the intelligence of its intended audience -- teens. It's even rarer to find a dramatic production that holds the attention of older viewers as well as that of the planned-for audience.
What's truly impressive is the treatment of the film's theme -- God's ways are not our own. In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus says to His Father, "Thy will be done." That should indicate that a "yes" to our most desired requests may not always be our Creator's answer. That said, we can always be assured that He has a larger good, a greater yes in store.
As we're taught in that perennial Christmas classic "It's A Wonderful Life," A Greater Yes confirms the things we say and do impact others. What's more, it's a good reminder that trusting God in the darkest moments is pleasing to Him and ultimately best for us.
Now, for those disappointed that I didn't spotlight vintage Christmas favorites, take heart. Keep scrolling. And, oh, Merry Christmas!
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965). The Peanuts gang searches for the true meaning of Christmas in this animated TV treasure, with its funny dialogue, charismatic voice performances and an award-winning jazzy score by Vince Guaraldi. And how often do you hear cartoon heroes quoting from the gospel of Luke, proclaiming the Christ-child as the Messiah.
"Three Godfathers" (1948). John Wayne stars in this western morality tale about three outlaws who come across a dying woman and her newborn baby. The symbolism between the Christ-child and this new foundling has a redemptive effect on the three bandits. Unrated.
"The Little Drummer Boy" (1968). The moving seasonal song comes to animated life in this 30-minute claymation parable with the capable voices of Greer Garson, Jose Ferrer and Teddy Eccles. Puts present-giving in perspective.
"The Gathering" (1977). Ed Asner and Maureen Stapleton star in this Emmy-winning TV movie about a dying man's efforts to reunite his family. It reinforces the importance of family and presents positive Christian images including a heart-felt prayer, the scripture reading of Jesus' birth, and a child's christening. Unrated
"The Fourth Wise Man"(1985). Gateway Films/Vision Video. Martin Sheen is featured as a devout man searching for the Messiah in order to give valuable treasures. But one by one he sells his priceless gifts to help the needy. Full of compassion and illustrations of how our Lord would have us treat our fellow man. Unrated.
"The Bishop's Wife" (1947). Cary Grant stars as an angel aiding struggling minister David Niven. I marveled at the ending sermon given by the church's pastor. Standing behind his pulpit, the Reverend reminds his parishioners to focus attention on Christ. "All the stockings are filled, except one. We've even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It's His birthday we're celebrating. Don't let us ever forget that." Wow, probably won't hear that in a mainstream movie made today. Unrated.
"The Nativity Story" (2006). Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac play Mary and Joseph in the retelling of the birth of Christ. The filmmakers worked hard to ensure that The Nativity Story was both historically and biblically accurate. Several Christians were involved, such as screenwriter Mike Rich and producer Wyck Godfrey, and a wide spectrum of Christian New Testament scholars and historians were involved in the pre-production process. PG.
"Miracle on 34th Street" (1994). Richard Attenborough, Mara Wilson. The manager of a New York department store hires Kris Kringle to be the store Santa. Soon the old fellow has to convince the woman and her precocious daughter that he truly is Father Christmas. A delight and a rarity, as it is one of the few worthwhile remakes. Full of laughter, poignancy and charm, it is noteworthy for containing both visual and verbal Christian metaphors and points out that Santa is a symbol. The scene where Santa communicates with a little deaf girl is worth the viewing. PG.
"Prancer" (1989). Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, Cloris Leachman. A bright 8-year-old cares for a wounded reindeer she believes is one of Santa's flying helpers. Not just another film promoting the existence of Santa Claus, its theme is about believing in things unseen. Contains positive lessons about faith, spiritual healing, doing what you believe is right and family love. Although the father is a bit of a grump -- a no-nonsense farmer frustrated with financial problems and single parenting -- we see his love for the children by film's end. G.
"White Christmas" (1954). Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney. About as corny as they come, but it has great music, some good laughs and beautiful color. It's festive and takes us back to gentler times. Unrated.
"It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey is given the opportunity to see what his community would have been like if he had never been born. It reminds us that our compassion and responsibility make a difference in the lives of those with whom we come in contact. Unrated.
"Scrooge" (1970). Albert Finney is terrific in this musical version of the Dickens' classic. Warning: There are a couple of scary moments, which may be unsuitable for little ones. But this is a powerful and most entertaining parable about a man finding redemption. G.
"Elf" (2003). Having accidentally snuck into Santa's sleigh, a human baby is raised at the North Pole as an elf. After wreaking havoc in the elf community due to his 6'2" size, Buddy (Will Ferrell) heads to New York City to find his place in the world and track down his father. Absolutely hysterical. PG.
"Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" (1962). Put Jim Backus together with Dickens' timeless classic, then add the Broadway talents of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, and you're bound to have entertainment fit for the kid in all of us. This hour-long animated musical version of A Christmas Carol works for the whole family.
"A Christmas Carol" (1951). Alastair Sim stars in this best of the Scrooge movies. It contains lots of Christian references and symbolism. Unrated.