Let’s be clear on this point: My love of Disney’s One Magic Christmas is definitely a minority opinion. Mostly the film was over-looked, having made less than $14 million when it was released in 1985. The dreadful Santa Claus: The Movie, released the very same Christmas season, made much more than that. No one saw this, and those few who saw it didn’t like it. Even the Rotten Tomatoes round-up of 50% is inflated â€“ the film has only four reviews, and one of the positive ones is clearly ironic, calling it â€œA holiday flop destined to become a cult favorite among cynics who love it when well-intentioned, sincere family films fail miserably.â€ Ouch!
Ironically, I think the reason this film is so poorly treated is that it is way more ambitious than what we expect from a mid-80s live-action Disney film with the words â€œmagicâ€ and â€œChristmasâ€ in the title. What we are expecting, I think, is something where some orphans save Christmas and ride around in Santa’s sleigh with a wise-cracking elf to guide them, with the ultimate message being some stupid, vapid thing like â€œbe true to yourselfâ€ or â€œit’s important to work together as a teamâ€ or â€œrun out and buy all our licensed merchandise!â€
Beware: There be plenty o’ spoilers ahead.
Instead, we get a grittier version of It’s a Wonderful Life. It doesn’t look magical at all. The ’80s didn’t really look like a music video â€“ it looked like this film. Snow on streets turned to slush. Cashiers wore red smocks that were neither flattering nor ridiculous. Old cars weren’t all beaters, they were just old. When I saw this in the theaters in 1985, I clearly remember being surprised to see a very real-looking portrayal of middle class life. Of course, the economy had really started to improve by 1985, so the depiction is probably a little closer to 1980, but this is what it was like.
The protagonist of the story is Ginny Grainger (Mary Steenburgen), mother of two whose husband Jack is good-hearted but unemployed. Ginny is working a job she hates as a cashier, and they are facing eviction shortly after Christmas, so not surprisingly, Ginny isn’t in a very jolly mood. Immediately we see one reason critics are puzzled by this film â€“ we expect Christmas movies to be about kids, or the cheerful dad, not about a middle-aged woman struggling to survive in a tight economy. It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are both about adult men, but one is almost cartoonishly generous, while the other is almost cartoonishly stingy. There is nothing cartoonish about Ginny. She has lost her faith, and her stinginess is out of desperate fear for her family’s future, not out of any meanness of heart. She’s scared.
So now Harry Dean Stanton shows up as an angel named Gideon (though it is made clear this is not Gideon from the Bible, but rather a dead soul who has become a Christmas angel). He’s not silly like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, but rather quiet and a bit sad. He has come to deal with Ginny’s loss of faith, but from the very beginning we see that the path is very frightening and will require sacrifice. In one early scene, we see him miraculously protect the children from an errant hockey puck, but that miracle ends in a broken window â€“ there are consequences.
Ginny and her husband argue about money and his dream to open a bicycle shop, and when he goes for a long walk around the block all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood go out at once. Later, we come to realize that this rather understated magical moment is an important turning point in the film.
From this point on, the stakes get higher and higher for Ginny, and she goes through real loss. Her husband is killed in a bank robbery, and when the robber flees, he steals the car the children are in. In the subsequent chase, the car goes off a bridge into an icy river, apparently killing the robber and the children.
Through previous conversations about angels, we have come to understand that Ginny no longer believes in any kind of afterlife, and so when Ginny returns to her empty house having lost everyone she loves, we feel her hopelessness as she weeps in the bathroom. Soon after, we find that Gideon spirited the children of the car before it went into the river, and we get a joyous reunion with the children, only to have that joy crushed when Ginny has to tell her children that their father has died and will never come back.
In response to learning of her father’s death, the daughter Abbie (a very young Elisabeth Harnois) runs away, and Gideon takes her to the North Pole where she goes to Santa’s workshop. Here is where we might expect more typical Disney fare, but even Santa’s workshop is marked by grief, albeit hopeful grief, when we learn that elves do not make the toys, but rather the departed souls, including the janitor of Abbie’s school.
Santa gives Abbie a letter Ginny had written to him when she was a little girl to return to Ginny. Not surprisingly, Ginny is stunned to get the letter, and responds with the first hopeful sign she has made in the entire film â€“ she mails a letter to Santa that Abbie had previously given her, but she had neglected to send. At this point, all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood turn back on, and her husband Jack comes up the street, alive. Apparently, all of the events since the lights previously went out had been some sort of vision.
From the point on, the film is a happy one, culminating in a visit from Santa Claus. We have various scenes of Ginny making right all of her wrong choices from before, even to the point of giving her husband permission to use their savings to go after his life’s dream.
It is in these â€œsetting the world rightâ€ scenes that we see an act of understated heroism from Ginny. She buys a camp stove for $50 from the robber in the previous timeline, thus giving him the hope he needs to resist robbing the bank. At first glance, this might seem like a maudlin moment of Ginny doing a good deed, until we remember that Ginny just experienced this very same man gunning down her husband and kidnapping her children. This isn’t just Ginny’s compassion toward some penniless beggar; this is literally loving your enemy.
Perhaps the most important part of the ending of the film is that nothing has changed from before timeline split. Santa doesn’t bring her husband a job. They will still be evicted from their home in a matter of days. She’s still working as a cashier in a job she hates. Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, no one shows up with donations to save them from financial ruin. Scrooge doesn’t give Bob Cratchett a raise and deliver the biggest goose around to save Tiny Tim. Life is still hard; all that has changed is Ginny’s perspective.
In the end, One Magic Christmas is a film about hope, real hope in real circumstances. For a film with magic and Santa Claus, there is very little true fantasy in the film. And for that reason, I love One Magic Christmas. It’s not about visiting Santa; it’s about fixing our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.