Dancing penguins and other holiday turkeys

A taste of what the cinemas were serving up this Christmas.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

Black Christmas, directed by Glen Morgan; The Nativity Story, directed by Catherine Hardwicke; Deck the Halls, directed by John Whitesell; Happy Feet, directed by George Miller.

During the winter holiday season cinemas are traditionally taken over by the feelgood and badly cheesy, as film producers wish for the kerrching! factor in the Christmas box office tills. That’s no bad thing; winding down after a busy working year, it can be satisfying to trawl through the listings and find them full of easily digestible stories. My quest for undemanding tales and light-hearted comedies at my local cinema was successful. And as you’ll see, there is no need to put a plot spoiler warning above this digest of 2006 Christmas films – they’re all so predictable that you can even treat yourself to a well-deserved holiday nap in the middle of these movies and still catch up on the stories when you awake.

First off, Black Christmas is a horror shlock remake of a 1974 film with the same title. A bunch of cynical college girls and their housemother spend a snowy, stormy Christmas Eve at their sorority house. The girls are not exactly getting into the holiday spirit; ‘Santa Claus is just a voyeur’, says one before launching into a rant about the backwardness of upholding pagan traditions like decorating the house with mistletoe and Christmas trees. Other profound lines are ‘fuck Christmas’, ‘fuck Santa Claus’ and ‘merry fuckin’ Christmas’.

The sorority house was once home to Billy, a psychopath born with a liver disease that turned his skin yellow. He was locked in the attic for years after witnessing his mum and her boyfriend murdering his dad. Later, he fathered his own sister after their mother sexually abused him. As expected from a film with ‘the ultimate slay ride’ as its tagline, it is full of gruesomeness. Billy, who returns home after escaping from an asylum, kills off the sorority girls one by one after feasting on their eyes and bashing their pretty faces in with all sorts of tools; it’s a gory night for the Phi Kappa Sigma sisters.

By contrast, The Nativity Story is a dreary tale about how Jesus came into the world and ‘changed it forever’. This wannabe-epic has not been blessed with the controversy that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ inspired and it took a heavy blow at the box office when a snowstorm in the US Midwest kept Christian cinemagoers at home during the opening weekend. Unlike Gibson’s film, this one is in English, though the entire cast speaks with a badly imitated Israeli accent – presumably for a more authentic air.

After a Superman-esque opening vignette, The Nativity Story settles into a dull straightforward account of the origins of Christendom, giving some airtime to Joseph who doesn’t often get credit for schlepping Mary and a donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census and to help her give birth to a kid he couldn’t even claim as his own.

King Herod, who sports a mullet wig and a fake beard with perfect curls, is obsessed with an Old Testament prophecy of the coming of a Jewish king. He orders his soldiers to kill all male children under the age of two, but little did he know that the Messiah was about to be immaculately conceived by a Nazarene teen.

Mary’s parents arrange for her to tie the knot with Joseph – who clearly fancies her more than she does him – but her father commands her to remain chaste for at least one year. Soon enough she is visited by the angel Gabriel, then goes off to Jerusalem to bond with her middle-aged cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zecharia who have, against all biological odds, had a son – the future prophet John the Baptist. When returning to Nazareth heavily pregnant, she has to explain to her parents and husband that she hasn’t been fooling around. Like a petulant teenager she tells them it’s not her problem if they don’t believe her claims, and then stomps out of their one-storey stone house. Typical teen.

Meanwhile, in a badly misguided piece of comic relief, three wisecracking men make their way from Persia to Judea to be present at the birth of the saviour born in a Bethlehem barn under a studio spotlight disguised as the North Star. The wise men’s witticisms are about as clever as Christmas cracker jokes. One tells the others: ‘You forgot the map!’ Or how about this one… ‘You would not have been able to survive without me’, said one wise man to the others. ‘How do you know?’, asked a second. ‘Because I am the wisest.’ Ho, ho, ho!

If you’re looking for a real Christmas turkey, Deck the Halls has got what it takes. It’s the story of sly but goodhearted car salesman Buddy Hall (Danny DeVito) who breaks every health and safety regulation known to man in a frantic quest to make his house visible from space. His two blond bombshell teenage daughters show him a website with satellite images of the world, but whereas the well-to-do, clean-cut neighbours’ home is clearly visible, their own house, which they’ve just moved into, isn’t.

To the great irritation of his neighbour Steve Finch (Matthew Broderick), Buddy buys every light bulb in town and turns their quiet street into a mini Las Vegas Strip. Buddy and Steve, a married optician with a sulky teenage daughter and a 10-year-old son suffering a midlife crisis, quickly turn into bickering rivals. Buddy keeps cramping Steve-I’m-the-Christmas-guy-around-here’s style until their wives get fed up with it all and take the kids to a motel. But all’s well that ends well; the two family men manage to overlook their differences for the sake of their families and the Yuletide spirit. Aaah.

Unless you’re under five or appreciate light shows, cheesy jokes and fall-flat slapstick humour (including a camel spitting yellow goo in Broderick’s face and a skating race with predictable accidents), Deck the Halls will not impress.

For those who prefer the new sanctimony of environmentalism to the old one of Christian mythology, Happy Feet – the latest, animated, addition to penguin mania that beat James Bond at the US box office before shooting straight to the top in the UK – fits the bill. As if the heavy dose of anthropomorphism that March of the Penguins provided last year wasn’t enough, the wobbly birds have come back to haunt us this Christmas.

Nicole Kidman, who lends her voice to Norma Jean, the mummy penguin of the story, has not had such an outlet for heart-attack-inducing rounds of ballads, RnB, pop and rock since she starred in Moulin Rouge. The penguins spice up Queen’s Somebody to Love, Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel and Prince’s Kiss, to name but a few, but the hero of this schmaltzy morality tale, Mumble, can’t sing a clear note. This is quite a predicament for an emperor penguin whose only chance of finding a mate is with a unique ‘heartsong’ – but boy can he tap dance, and he’s brave, too. After befriending a bunch of Adelie penguins with Mexican accents, Mumble sets out to find out why they’re all running out of fish.

One of the Latino birds is a self-proclaimed guru who is being slowly strangled by the talisman he wears around his neck. Only it turns out to be a six-pack ring left behind by the littering ‘alien source’ that is removing the Antarctic fish on an industrial scale. You guessed it – it’s those evil humans that are threatening to extinguish the penguins and their traditional lifestyles of big brash discos, singing lessons and dance-offs. Some of the humans are played by real, non-animated actors and they all look very scary. So, in short, if we could only learn from the penguins, then we too could lead meaningless existences and make a minimum impact on our surroundings.

In the end, Happy Feet turns out to be the cheesiest, most tedious and scary film of them all; it’s a black Christmas indeed if a penguin can be adorned saviour of our times. It was almost enough to make me nostalgic for The Nativity Story’s saviour in a crib. I said almost.

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