Judge Erich Asperschlager wishes he had a magic sack. Why are you laughing?
"Who stole Santa's sack/the one he carries on his back?"
The Christmas movie landscape is crowded with everything from classics to dreck, especially when it comes to content aimed at kids. The latest animated entry to hit DVD is Christmas is Here Again, based on a family story passed down from father to son. That son, writer-director Robert Zappia, wanted to share this story of love, hope, and redemption with the world. While it can't quite scale the heights of holiday greatness, the sweet story, stylish animation, and solid morals might just be enough reason to recommend it to parents looking to give their children an early present this year.
Facts of the Case
Thirty years ago, on Christmas Eve, the evil Krad (Ed Asner, Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage)—whose underground kingdom was the source of the coal Santa gave to naughty children—stole Santa's magic sack, used to carry presents for all the boys and girls. Without the sack, Santa (Andy Griffith, A Holiday Romance) has been unable to make his yearly rounds, and as a result an entire generation of children have grown up not knowing the joy of Christmas—children like a crippled young orphan girl named Sophianna (Madison Davenport, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl). One day, after a mysterious old woman stops by the orphanage to pick berries, Sophianna and her pet caterpillar decide to run away. In the woods they discover another lost soul—an elf named Rocco (Daniel Roebuck, Mary Christmas) who takes them back to the North Pole. There, Sophianna meets Santa and hears the story of Krad and the missing sack. Against Rocco's warnings, she sets off to retrieve the sack and bring Christmas back to the world. But before she, Rocco, Mr. Caterpillar, and a young reindeer named Dart (Colin Ford, The Ant Bully) are able to find the secret entrance, they run into a lumbering polar bear named Charlee (Brad Garrett, The Bears Who Saved Christmas) and his scheming fox friend Buster (Norm MacDonald, The Flight Before Christmas) who offers his "help" in return for Sophianna's most prized possession—a heart-shaped locket given to her by her parents.
Considering how many awful movies have been pumped out in the name of Christmas, Christmas is Here Again deserves a lot of credit. It's got a great cast, a distinctive animation style, and its story is pretty unique. Sure, the young-girl-and-unlikely-companions-on-a-dangerous-journey stuff owes a lot to The Wizard of Oz, but I can't think of any other story that's based on the premise that the reason Santa's sack is magic is because it was made from the swaddling clothes the baby Jesus was wrapped in.
Most of the time, there's a strict church and state separation between Santa and Jesus. Christmas is Here Again dares to bring the two together, putting the "saint" back in "Saint Nick," and for the most part, it works. Christian parents have a tough time finding suitable holiday movies and TV specials for their kids that aren't A Charlie Brown Christmas or VeggieTales. I'll leave it to those parents to decide whether the idea of Jesus' blanket being used to distribute Bratz dolls fits their personal understanding of biblical theology. On a less literal level, though, the Christian metaphors in Here Again—Krad/Satan's mindless minions of "Selves," for instance, or one character's Judas-like betrayal of the group—reinforce the message about the "reason for the season" in a way that even non-believers can enjoy.
As is the custom in children's animation, the voice cast is packed with recognizable voices, ranging from old-timers like Jay Leno (as the narrator), Andy Griffith, Ed Asner, Shirley Jones (as Mrs. Claus), and Kathy Bates (as the dour Miss Dowdy) on down to youngsters like An American Girl's Madison Davenport. Many of the best lines, however, go to Brad Garrett and Norm MacDonald, who are played mostly for comic relief and get way too little screen time.
For all that Christmas is Here Again does right, though—especially if you're a parent in the target religious demographic—it can't quite overcome its two biggest weaknesses: the songs and its running time. Christmas has a ton of great music, and if you want a new song to make a splash you need to make something truly memorable. Here Again's songs weren't written by professional songwriters. They originated in the Zappia household, sung around a piano long before anyone thought about making this movie. I'm sure in that intimate family setting, the songs seemed magical. On the big screen, however, they're completely forgettable. Simplistic lyrics like "Santa's on his way/with his reindeer and his sleigh/Santa's on his way/bringing gifts for Christmas day" just don't cut it.
My biggest disappointment with Christmas is Here Again, though, is that the most interesting part of the story—after Sophiana and friends have gained entry to Krad's lair—is way too short. With all the build up, I expected more. Too bad. There was potential for some cool subterranean adventures.
Not at all disappointing is the movie's widescreen presentation. The bright, angular Cartoon Network-style animation is perfect for DVD. And the 5.1 surround soundtrack not only looks good on the box, but sounds great in the living room.
There's not much in the way of bonus material, but your kids probably won't care. An eight-minute making-of featurette and a profile of young star Madison Davenport are the only serious extras. There's also a jokey piece about Daniel Roebuck's method approach to playing an elf and a montage of cast members and the director trying to name all the reindeer. Yawn.
The Parents Television Council-approved Christmas is Here Again isn't the best animated holiday movie out there, but as a parent you could do a lot worse, especially if you're desperate for material that puts the Christ back in Christmas (and don't mind some questionable theology). The songs aren't great, but don't worry. Their not being memorable means your kids won't drive you crazy singing them all month.
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