After much delay, at last I saw “Maleficent” the other night. And yes, while it is full of exactly what one expects from a Disney film – for (spoiler alert), example, a villain given grace by his vanquisher tries one last time for the win and ends up falling to his death – it took a remarkable number of turns away from expectations and more than once I prickled up with a tear.
I don’t cry much in the movies, and I wonder how many regular moviegoers do any more. Certainly, I know how the man behind the curtain works too well – the little manipulations of script, color, costume and music are all tip-offs to me. When a script does successfully vault my hurdles and makes me teary, I love it like no other. But there are so few instances when a movie goes where it did not seem to be heading, and evokes an emotion that I was unprepared to have. I can’t be alone in this – we’re all ingesting so much visual entertainment these days, I think it’s getting harder to really push our buttons.
Or is it? As we head into the holiday season, there’s a distinct change in the air. All at once, it’s time for the holiday movie – more specifically, Christmas movie – onslaught, and almost without exception it is seriously sweet stuff: Norman Rockwell households, problems best enclosed in quotation marks, wholesome (and usually very white) protagonists whose only real problems in the world now are how they can make one day at the end of the year feel real and precious. The other 364 days? Who cares.
Tune into the Hallmark Channel, and it’s almost wall-to-wall Christmas movies this time of year. From “Mr. Miracle” to “One Christmas Eve” to “Christmas Under Wraps,” these are films that are not written to surprise or challenge viewers – they’re meant as the equivalent of a holiday sweater: red and green-colored expressions of goodwill toward people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with them. They’re perfectly nice. And also like that holiday sweater, meant to be worn once and never thought of again.
Into all of this niceness has pawed one of the odder internet memes in recent years, Grumpy Cat. Lifetime – not traditionally the source of original, meaty stories – has embraced the cat with the permanent frown (a real animal) and turned her into the star of “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever.” This is enough to make me sit up and take notice: Comedian Aubrey Plaza is providing the voice of the cat and one of the scriptwriters is a longtime contributor to “SpongeBob SquarePants,” which automatically makes it a more interesting story.
Will it all pan out? Or will it end with Grumpy Cat coming to some kind of un-grumpy realization about the joy and wonder of the holiday season? Civilization will not fall either way, but it would be nice to know that things might turn out a little differently than the paint-by-numbers structure most of these holiday movies are made of.
We’re gluttons for stories these days, with more outlets than ever to tell them to us – online, in the movies, on TV. Expectations are higher than they once were – it’s up to us to demand better from our mythmakers. We want movies that will send their arrows through our protective walls, into our hearts, and release the emotion within. The storytelling equivalent of “nice” makes us sleepy. The other kind makes us alive.
If all goes well, “Grumpy Cat” will have a long life. Think of the Christmas movies that stick with us these days – “Elf,” “A Christmas Story.” Think of “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a horror movie (stay tuned for that next time). The films that are more than the sum of their parts, which get around all of the treacle and usual expectations … those are the ones we’ll want to watch again and again.
So for this Christmas, here’s what I want: A better story, well told. Think Santa’s got that on his sleigh?
This column originally appeared in Curiosity Quills/Between the Lines.