Flick Facts: Christmas Films

Christmas movies are no different than the non-holiday features that inspire and motivate people daily.

Christmas season; my favorite time of the year. It’s during this time that marshmallows are oozing into hot cocoa, sap is running down the trunks of our Christmas trees, and cookies are rising to be placed for Santa in hopes that he leaves us what we want. Above all of these, though, there remains one aspect of this joyous holiday that I enjoy most: movies.

Whether you are a film aficionado or not, you got to admit that there’s something warm and fuzzy about sitting down to a Christmas flick (eggnog aside). Feelings of nostalgia, innocence, and deep morals seep from the screen because it is during this time that film fills a different mold. Depending on what you watch, holiday features shine a light on humanistic themes and how this special time of the year can bring out the best and worst of people.

The only real downfall to a Christmas movie is also what makes it special: the holiday itself. Thousands of films that sport the seasonal atmosphere fail to see daylight outside of December (and July, if you’re one of those people) only because it is deemed as “for the occasion.” The significance behind some of the best Christmas pictures is seemingly lost in the folds of the holiday spirit, thus blurring the true genre and meaning that makes them treasured in the first place.

Like all films, Christmas flicks hold interesting facts as to how they became so popular and even how they changed the industry. After further research, I have compiled a list of three holiday classics that will surely make you think differently when you watch them.


1. The Polar Express (2004): Christmas Meets Motion Capture World

The Polar Express is my favorite Christmas film. Its genuineness found in imagination and a strong theme of faith made for a gripping, fun adventure that I thoroughly enjoyed growing up. However, the biggest feat that made this movie so spectacular was its animation. At the time it premiered, it was revolutionary – and for good reasons.

Back in 1997, Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), along with partners Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey, formed the production company ImageMovers. The key objective of the company was to create industry-leading motion capture and CGI. After a few years of special effect work, the company got its big break with The Polar Express when Zemeckis ordered for the entire flick to be filmed with motion capture technology. It would be the first of its kind, as no other movie had been made entirely out of nothing tangible. Actors wore specially-designed suits fitted to capture their facial expressions and body movement, as they typically performed in blank rooms of white and used props that hardly resembled what the characters in the film were actually holding.

Audiences were amazed. Sure, the animation has its flaws nowadays (especially with the characters’ big eyes), but because of the work done by ImageMovers, other filmmakers followed. Some examples include James Cameron’s Avatar as well as the formation of ImageMovers Digital, operated by Walt Disney that led to the films Mars Needs Moms and 2009’s A Christmas Carol. Besides complete motion capture, advancements in technology by ImageMovers led to big steps taken by other industries. Recently, War for the Planet of the Apes benefitted from motion capture work that brought its ape citizens to life. Of course, ImageMovers didn’t create motion capture, but because of their work on The Polar Express, cinema was impacted in a big way.


2. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): From Box Office Dud to Christmas Classic

“Look daddy! Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings!” It’s a Wonderful Life is not only a classic Christmas film, but an American staple altogether. The story of George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) wishing that he was never born, only to realize how, for lack of a better word, “wonderful” his life really is makes for a timeless moral of how God not only blesses us, but uses us to bless others. The film is loved by many and is celebrated every year around this time, however it was not always this way.

World War II had just ended, and Frank Capra (director of the film) was looking to make a splash with his new production company, Liberty Films. This company sought a better restitute from the studio system, and It’s a Wonderful Life was meant to be its ticket to the big leagues. Unfortunately, it flopped at the box office. Even with Academy Award nominations under its belt, Wonderful Life failed to make back its profit, forcing Liberty Films to dissolve and Capra out of the cinema realm (he would only go on to direct television movies before retiring).

The legacy of It’s a Wonderful Life was bleak, until a copyright jurisdiction saved the day. According to the 1909 Copyright Law, after 28 years of a film’s existence, its copyright has to be renewed or else it is open for public use. Republic Pictures, the owners of the copyright, failed to reestablish it, making the picture royalty free in 1974. It was from then until the early 1990’s that networks would air the movie yearly around Christmas time at almost no expense. It’s a Wonderful Life was virtually everywhere, and was aired so much that audiences would welcome it into their conversations during Christmas, solidifying the movie as an American staple.


3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): The First Stop-Motion Christmas Special

While this one is the least fascinating of the three, it still rings out as essential to one production company: Rankin/Bass Productions. We’ve all grown up with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer; it’s difficult to avoid it around this time because of how much it’s shown on television. The many songs and memorable scenes tell of a misfit reindeer trying to fit in made for quality entertainment. But, this is portion is more about the company that made it than the film itself.

Rankin/Bass, whether you know them by name or not, created some of the most unforgettable holiday features known to man. Examples such as Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and Here Comes Peter Cottontail filled the shelves of many children looking for something festive and fun to watch, as Rankin/Bass knew how to hone storytelling and animation together to make something magical. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was their first stop-motion film among many; in fact, it was the first Christmas stop-motion special created.

Harrison Dove-Green is a Staff Writer for The Daily Runner.