The Christmas Chronicles.
Photo: Michael Gibson/Netflix
With the exception of White Christmas, you won’t find your usual Christmas classics on Netflix. Instead, over the past five years, the platform has become a haven for original Christmas movies — to the point of creating its own Netflix Christmas Universe of regal rom-coms concerning lost princes and princesses finding true love. In fact, it’s become a tradition, and a smart marketing ploy, for clips of the previous year’s holiday movie to appear somewhere in the newest release. (To be clear, not every original Christmas film Netflix releases is part of this universe.)
All of these holiday stories share common characteristics: They’re a cut above your standard Hallmark Channel movie (which isn’t as backhanded as it reads); they are diverse with regards to identity; they grapple with isolation, grief, and loneliness; and fanciful elves, small-town splendor, and enduring magic pave the way to family and community. Most of all, they are comfort watches, the kind of ready-made-to-snuggle-to tales that wrap you in a warm blanket. So, in preparation for your days of holly, here’s a list of eight Christmas movies on Netflix that are perfect for the whole family.
On Christmas Eve, every house on a festive neighborhood block is decorated for the holiday — except one. There live three children with a widowed father trying their best to avoid a holiday that reminds them of their recently deceased mother. Enter Aunt Ruth (Maggie Smith), who arrives with the gusto of Mary Poppins and a bedtime story about a young boy from Finland named Nikolas (Henry Lawfull). The kid lives a barren existence in the woods with his widowed father (Michiel Huisman); when his dad disappears, the son goes on a quest to find him and encounters magical talking animals, pixies, elves, and the wicked Mother Vodol (Sally Hawkins), who wants to banish the celebration of Christmas forever. Director Gil Kenan’s A Boy Called Christmas is a nesting doll of stories that teach kids how to deal with grief without losing their faith in the world. It features devoted performances from veteran actors Toby Jones, Kristen Wiig, Stephen Merchant, and Jim Broadbent. With a wink at the camera, the movie’s tender ending defies logic but brings on the yuletide flair.
It might surprise you to learn that Mary Lambert — director of one of the best horror movies of the 1980s, Pet Sematary — also filmed a Hallmark-worthy Christmas movie. Brooke Shields plays Sophie Brown, a successful romance novelist struggling with writer’s block after an ugly divorce from her husband. To rediscover her roots and some-much needed inspiration, she travels to Scotland to buy the castle her grandfather’s family worked at before a powerful, wealthy duke fired them, forcing them to immigrate to New York City. Sophie collides with the dashing new duke, Myles (Cary Elwes), a man with an empty title and plenty of debt but a heart of gold. Their inevitable romance is gooey and cute, the kind of earnest love affair that wraps you in a comfy sweater as the sparks between Shields and Elwes crackle to intoxicating levels.
From a demented belting of “Ho, ho, ho” to an Elvis-inspired blues performance in a jail cell featuring Steven Van Zandt from the E Street Band — as well as cultish elves with chain saws who act out scenes from Gremlins — Clay Kaytis’s The Christmas Chronicles runs on high-octane, bonkers energy. It begins rather simply: Experiencing their first Christmas without their recently deceased father, estranged siblings Teddy (a jaded Judah Lewis) and Kate (an eager Darby Camp) stow away on Santa’s sleigh during Christmas Eve only for Saint Nick (Kurt Russell) to crash-land in Chicago — losing his reindeers, presents, and hat in the process. Russell plays Santa with an inspired grouchiness that lands in the precarious space between menacing and cool in a film that blends together The Santa Clause and Bad Santa. The jokes are sometimes clunky and dated, but this gritty holiday tale has its heart in the right place, breaking the mold of what makes a merry classic.
You love to see a movie that relies entirely on holiday magic. With a charming script from Cara J. Russell, director Monika Mitchell helms a time-travel narrative that sees a crone zapping Sir Cole (Josh Whitehouse) from Norwich, England, circa 1334 to Bracebridge, Ohio, in 2019. He arrives on December 18 with a charge to complete his quest before midnight Christmas Eve. But what is Sir Cole’s quest? In a meet-cute involving hot-chocolate spillage, the wide-eyed, chivalrous Sir Cole bumps into local teacher Brooke (Vanessa Hudgens). Whitehouse delivers his fish-out-of-water performance with full commitment, and Hudgens is equally beguiling — together, they possess enough chemistry to light a tree. Part of the NCU, the film features incredible craft: The movie snow possesses a real body as it whips around the frame (a fascinating director’s commentary accompanying the picture outlines the process of creating the flakes). The Knight Before Christmas is adorable and enchanting, a smart, joyous romance as endearing as any medieval legend.
It’s unfortunately still a rare sight to see an all-Black movie musical: Dreamgirls, Get on Up, Ray, and Idlewild are exceptions. Black Christmas movies, though, are a tad more common (Last Holiday, The Best Man Holiday, This Christmas, The Preacher’s Wife, and so forth). Writer-director David E. Talbert’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story is an ambitious combination of the two genres: A once-brilliant toy-maker and inventor, Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker), is psychologically shattered when his trusted assistant, Gustafson, steals his book of ideas to begin his own toy-maker empire. To make matters worse, Jeronicus watches all this happen as his business and family crumble after the death of his wife. Several decades later, when his precocious, mathematically brilliant granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills), comes to stay with him, Jeronicus must rekindle his greatness before Gustafson (Keegan-Michael Key) steals his latest invention. This lovely family fairy tale’s brightness and vibrant costumes recall The Wiz, while the banging show tunes delivered by the talented ensemble are a compendium of earworms about redemption, jubilance, and unfettered belief.
Jesper Johansson (Jason Schwartzman), the lazy, entitled son of the royal postmaster general (Sam McMurray), spends his days lounging around his father’s vast mansion. To teach him some discipline, his father exiles the ne’er-do-well to the far-flung town of Smeerensburg with the task of posting 6,000 letters within a year or risk losing his inheritance. After some initial struggles, Jesper learns of an isolated woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons) with a cache of exquisite hand-carved toys. Directed by Sergio Pablos, Klaus is an origin story wrapped in an Emperor’s New Groove–type tale (even the way Jesper moves recalls Emperor Kuzco). Like that film, Pablos’s animated adventure sees Jesper learning humility through the example of a new simple, empathetic friend as he confronts a craggy evil woman, Mrs. Tammy Krum (Joan Cusack), intent on keeping the spirit of Christmas out of this dreary, snowy small town. The lively animation, composed of sharp, angular lines and vivid hues, brings out a heartwarming story ripe with copious jokes for adults and children alike.
The teen version of Love Actually, director Luke Snellin’s Let It Snow takes place in small-town Illinois, where several high-schoolers careen through melodramatic lives and relationship problems in the hopes of attending a late-night party at a waffle restaurant. The best of these story lines involves Shameik Moore as a lonely pop star passing through town and finding solace in Julie Reyes (Isabela Merced), a girl wary of leaving her sick mother to attend Columbia. Another intriguing story line involves a nice, painfully shy Tobin (Mitchell Hope), who’s fearful of approaching the girl he loves, Angie (Kiernan Shipka), with his true feelings. Teen movies come a dime a dozen in the streaming era, but few are as winsome and with such lovable oddball characters (see Joan Cusack wearing a tinfoil hat) as Let It Snow. An intoxicating genuineness runs through the film, the kind of earnest cheer that results in a post-credits scene composed entirely of an elaborate tracking shot that lands on a pig in a Christmas hat.
Demonstrating the growing inclusiveness of the modern Christmas movie is this gay Christmas rom-com from director Michael Mayer, which opens with beefy, shirtless models working their wares for a shaving-cream ad in a modest small town where true love takes flight. The film follows a heartbroken Peter (Michael Urie) returning home to New Hampshire to visit his parents for the holidays. Embarrassed about being single again, he asks his best friend and roommate, Nick (Philemon Chambers), to accompany him as his fake boyfriend. It doesn’t take long before the ruse is uncovered and Peter’s mother (Kathy Najimy) tries to set him up on a date with the one gay man in town, the hunky and sensitive James (Luke Macfarlane). But mixed signals and fear abound when Peter and James seem to become more than friends. An energetic Jennifer Coolidge and the strong script and comedic performances provide copious laughs, but it’s the romantic twists and turns that gives this familiar story a brand new carol to sing for marginalized groups and identities.
As traditional as a ham and some mistletoe, Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas is the lone classic holiday tale amid a sea of Netflix original movies. The film follows two World War II veterans, the blue-eyed maestro Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and the ginger-haired clown Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), during their postwar travels as a famous duo. At the behest of an old Army buddy, they collide with a sisterly double act — Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) — and are immediately smitten. The quartet eventually arrives at an empty, nearly bankrupt inn owned by their former commander, the kind General Waverly (Dean Jagger). Can these performers save the inn? Doubtless, you already know the answer. Surely, some of the charm of this Technicolor Christmas tale resides in its precisely timed comedic performances, particularly by Kaye and Vera-Ellen. There are some uneven moments, particularly musical numbers that veer between adorable and minstrel, but the pageantry of the film’s title song, replete with lush, ruby-red Santa suits, will remain as affixed in your memory as Jack Frost nipping at your nose.