"Richard, do you know what the first gift of Christmas was?"
Based on a pair of popular inspirational novels by Richard Paul Evans, The Christmas Box and its prequel Timepiece offer warm, family-friendly entertainment courtesy of the good folks at Hallmark.
Hallmark…when you care enough to watch the very best.
Facts of the Case
The Christmas Box
When his wife Keri (Annette O'Toole, Superman's mom on Smallville) answers an ad seeking a live-in housekeeping family for a well-to-do elderly widow, workaholic sporting goods storeowner Richard Evans (Richard Thomas, eternally John-Boy from The Waltons) is far from enthusiastic. He's even less excited when the Evans family interviews with the woman in question, crotchety Mary Parkin (Golden Age film star Maureen O'Hara—The Quiet Man, Rio Grande—making a rare appearance). But Keri and daughter Jenna (Kelsey Mulrooney, The Negotiator) immediately fall in love with the grand old Parkin mansion, and the family accepts the position as caretakers, much to Richard's chagrin.
Mary Parkin proves to be a cold, demanding taskmistress, and she and Richard are frequently at odds. Richard and Keri are also struggling with the stress imposed upon their relationship by his long hours at the store. It is ultimately little Jenna who finally breaks through Mrs. Parkin's icy façade—the girl and the gruff senior citizen grow to become fast friends and confidants.
When Mrs. Parkin's increasingly fragile medical condition takes a turn for the worse, Richard is led to explore the mystery of her early life, and the riddle Mary poses to him: "What was the first gift of Christmas?" Richard finds the key to both tucked away in the attic of the mansion, in a long-forgotten wooden music box with a nativity scene hand-carved into its lid. What Richard discovers, and what it means, reveals a secret that will forever alter the lives of the Evanses, and open the door to understanding Mrs. Parkin's personality and history.
Sixteen years after the events of The Christmas Box, Jenna Evans is about to be married. Her father Richard (still Richard Thomas, now laboring under one of the least convincing aged makeup jobs in the annals of film) gives the blushing bride a remarkable wedding gift: a gold watch that once belonged to their old friend and landlady Mary Parkin. Along with the watch, Richard shares with Jenna the story of Mary's young adulthood. And thus a tale (and a flashback) begins…
Mary Chandler (Naomi Watts, The Ring, Mulholland Dr.), an eager young Englishwoman, has newly arrived in the Colonies during the latter stages of World War II. With little résumé but plenty of enthusiasm and moxie, Mary lands a job as secretary to factory owner David Parkin (Kevin Kilner, American Pie 2, Auto Focus). Almost immediately, sparks fly between Mary and David, and before long employer and employee have transitioned into the new roles of husband and wife. David's wedding gift to Mary is a beautiful watch he acquired from his close friend, a black clockmaker named Lawrence Flynn (James Earl Jones, forever the voice of Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy, and the voice of Mufasa in The Lion King).
Shortly after Mary and David are married, they welcome a new arrival—a baby daughter, conceived during Mary's brief dalliance with a soldier before she came to work at the Parkin factory. David warmly embraces his responsibility as father to Mary's child, and the Parkins live happily for a few years. But the intersection of a pair of unforeseen tragedies—one involving a member of the Parkin household, another involving their dear friend Lawrence—shatters Mary and David's lives before drawing them even closer together than before.
Some will mock the borderline mawkish sentimentality of Hallmark Entertainment TV productions. On occasion, this curmudgeonly Judge might be inclined to join—nay, lead—the mockery. But even the most Scroogelike viewer must grudgingly confess that when the Hallmark folks get you, they really get you. And friends, they got me with this two-film couplet. As much as I wanted to resist the overt manipulation, as desperately as I fought to remain steely in the face of the dubious charisma of John-Boy Walton and the thunderous tones of James Earl Jones, as tenaciously as I clung to my unemotional manhood like a badge of masculine honor…I almost found myself reaching for the Kleenex box before each of these films concluded. (I did say "almost," didn't I?)
Compared side by side, Timepiece, the prequel to The Christmas Box, makes a stronger, more resonant, more challenging and adult film. The acting is more consistently grounded and believable in the prequel, with the presence of Jones, Ellen Burstyn, and a pre-stardom Naomi Watts narrowly outstripping the charming Annette O'Toole, the monolithic Maureen O'Hara, and the hapless and grating Richard Thomas in the first movie. Timepiece also delivers a more richly textured story with its multiple levels of narrative, and commentary to offer on a variety of human interactions. The Christmas Box, while reasonably effective in its own right, is more linear—thus more predictable—and has only one concrete message to share rather than the several served up in its companion piece.
Technically, both films reflect the customary unspectacular competence associated with Hallmark productions. Director Marcus Cole, who manned the canvas chair for both, employs a straight-ahead, paint-by-numbers approach that gets the job done without flash or flair. The screenplay for The Christmas Box, adapted by Greg Taylor (Jumanji, Harriet the Spy), shows a lighter touch for dialogue than its counterpart written by Richard Fielder, a TV scribe with a long list of series and miniseries credits. Without having read the source novels, I'd guess that the darker tone of Timepiece is inherent in the original. Both films proceed at a measured pace that never becomes overly plodding, and the characters in each are well developed and engaging.
Ultimately, one's enjoyment of this pair of tear-jerking tales will depend upon one's affinity for (or at least, one's ability to tolerate) this sort of saccharine, Pollyanna fare. As budding critic Abraham Lincoln once observed, "People who like this sort of thing will find this to be the sort of thing they like." Those who prefer their drama grittier and more action-driven will quickly tire of these wholesome stories. Like them or don't, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that it's not nice to know someone still makes old-fashioned flicks like these for the senior generation who still recall Frank Capra and his ilk, and for the new generation who will someday need to throw something in the DVD player that won't send Great-Grandma screaming for the exit. And every once in a while, we all ought to make sure the old lachrymal ducts still function, and that we still know how to use a handkerchief. Shouldn't we?
Artisan offers The Christmas Box and Timepiece in a no-frills two-DVD package. Both films look fine, about what one would expect for TV productions of their vintage. The full-frame transfers reveal some grain and print wear, but are serviceable and mostly absent of disruptive flaws. (Putting the two films on separate discs alleviates the potential for serious compression problems.) The stereo soundtracks are clear and present both dialogue and score with accurate focus and little noise. No one's going to haul these out as reference discs to show off their hardware, so what you get here is adequate for its purpose.
No extras are included. With the ardent fanbase garnered by Richard Paul Evans and his writings—those who don't frequent such circles might be amazed at the popularity this genre of inspirational, quasi-religious fiction enjoys—one might think a featurette or two might have been worthwhile. Artisan, as is often their wont, politely disagrees.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Actor Kevin Kilner has the largest head I have seen on a human being. Ever. Charles Steinmetz had nothing on this man. Kilner may well have been the life model for the Leader in the old Incredible Hulk comics. We're talking Easter Island here.
I don't know what this has to do with anything, mind you, but I thought you'd want to know.
If you despise manipulative melodrama like slugs despise salt, then this two-disc set is definitely not for you. (On the other hand, Ebenezer, it may just do your granite heart good to muddle through a good hanky-wringer now and again.) But if you're looking for an evening of entertainment the whole family can share a few smiles and a few tears through, especially at holiday time, The Christmas Box and Timepiece may appeal to, even delight you and your clan. Pop a giant-sized bowl of popcorn, break out the fondue pot, concoct a vat of hot cocoa with marshmallows, and snuggle up with a blanket and a warm body. And keep the tissue box handy.
If the Judge condemned these two films, Jacob Marley and his three ectoplasmic cohorts would be paying him a midnight visit for certain. On that basis, therefore, all charges are dismissed, and the defendants are free to go. We stand in recess.
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