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The Christmas Star DVD Review

Buy The Christmas Star from Amazon.com The Christmas Star
Movie & DVD Details

Director: Alan Shapiro

Cast: Edward Asner (Horace McNickle), Rene Auberjonois (Mr. Sumner), Jim Metzler (Stuart Jameson), Susan Tyrrell (Sara Jameson), Karen Landry (Clara), Alan North (Captain Whittaker), Philip Bruns (Lucky), Nicholas Van Burek (Billy Jameson), Vicki Wauchope (Trudy Jameson), Zachary Ansley (John Sumner), Fred Gwynne (Waters)

Original Air Date: December 14, 1986

Running Time: 94 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio)
Dolby Digital Surround (English, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French; Closed Captioned

Release Date: Septembr 7, 2004
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5); Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

 
Few actors have gotten to play Santa Claus in as many different projects as Ed Asner. In television movies (The Story of Santa Claus), animated specials ("Olive, the Other Reindeer") and feature films (Elf), Asner has portrayed the holiday figure enough times to impress anyone short of Charles Durning. In The Christmas Star, Asner's character gets to play jolly old St. Nick, and his audience is a gullible lot of children.

In this 1986 television movie, Asner portrays Horace McNickle, a convict just six months away from parole. Faced with the possibility of losing his loot on the outside, McNickle escapes Graybridge Penitentiary right before Christmas by switching places with a visiting priest dressed as Santa.

McNickle's suddenly on the prowl for the thousands that were successfully robbed but never discovered by authorities in a semi-successful heist of Worthington's department store. All he knows is that the loot is somewhere among the store's impressive holiday display, which is going to be given away following this Christmas.

As soon as they learn of Horace's breakout, the police is on the case. Waters (Fred Gwynne), the man who put McNickle away eight years ago, just wants to spend Christmas home with his family. But instead, the department calls him to take on the case and follow McNickle's trail.

Locked up, Horace McNickle dreams of warmer weather. And he winds up in a garbage dump!

When Horace is spotted, it is not by the police, but by two kids: Billy Jameson (Nicholas Van Burek), a naive optimist, and his sister Trudy (Vicki Wauchope), ardent collector of My Little Ponys. As McNickle's still in costume, the two siblings naturally think he's the genuine article. Horace plays along, knowing that the flimsy Santa act will keep him safe with children from the law. In addition, the kids offer their help in finding the loot that McNickle is after, unknowingly aiding and abetting a felon.

Meanwhile, Horace adapts to his new home, in the basement of the Jamesons' apartment building with the faulty furnace. When the children of the neighborhood hear that Santa's in town, they all come forward with requests. These youths are apparently every bit as gullible as Billy. Horace may not be all bad, but he does continue conning the children who are growing attached to him.

The other Scrooge of this piece is Mr. Sumner (Rene Auberjonois), a heartless landlord who is evicting the Jamesons and all the other tenants in his building. Sumner won't even let his son John (Zachary Ansley) take in a dog. The film subtly paints Horace as the product of unattentive parenting, a fate that unappreciated punk John seems destined for, without change in the Sumner family.

The Jamesons get a new dog via a doorbell ring-and-run. Billy and Trudy think they've found Santa. But he looks more like Ed Asner to me!

With the authorities on Horace's trail and a cane as the only evidence to go on, the film moves along with a pleasant pace while time runs out for Horace to claim his booty. The coincidences that advance the plot do seem more than a little formulaic; obstacles arise to make getting the money more challenging and time-consuming. But in the face of the entertaining story, it's easy to concede the film its formulas, even when something important falls into a drain, and the kids have to decipher riddles to gain access to a golden spirited Santa throne.

Though the subject matter would seem to have serious dramatic overtones, there is a casual tone and a fair amount of levity, which never feels out of place or forced. Asner's protagonist seems to hold the more flimsy pieces together quite well, even if he's mostly just gruff and cloying to the kind-hearted children.

While a change-of-heart seems inevitable for Horace, the eery, surreal sequence with which the film pulls it off overshadows any predictablity. This memorable transformation does, however, give way to the inevitable happy ending, which seems to ask for its audience's acceptance with a heavy dose of holiday joy. Though the resolution may err a bit on the side of saccharinity, overall, the movie gets away with more hokiness than most feature films could.

In addition to lower production values evident in some phony-looking sets, there are some other hallmarks of a television movie here. For instance, three-fourths of the the Jameson family give standard TV movie performances, with Vicki Wauchope being the standout as daughter Trudy.

Fred Gwynne plays Waters, a police detective who's not too thrilled about working on his first Christmas off in six years. Oh, Billy, Billy boy. When are you going to find whatever it is you're looking for?

Still, in spite of the limitations of a relatively low-budget telemovie, or perhaps in part because of them, I found The Christmas Star to be a simple, but thoroughly enjoyable experience. Though the archetype of the story treads no ground beyond a standard Christmas character transition, the atypical plot elements make you feel as if you haven't seen this particular film before.

Director Alan Shapiro also directed Tiger Town (1983), the Disney Channel's first original movie, which too was slated for a September 7th DVD debut. Unfortunately, the release of that telemovie has been indefinitely delayed, but the director's same sensibilities make The Christmas Star rewarding and inherently watchable.

While it may not take the place of your family's favorite Christmas movie, The Christmas Star does make for a genuinely entertaining film, perfect for post-Thanksgiving viewing or quite suitable for a revisit at any other time of the year.

Billy and the kids hang with Santa in a rough, graffiti-covered neighborhood. Zut Alors! Mr. Sumner (Rene Auberjonois) is one uncool landlord.

VIDEO and AUDIO

I wasn't expecting much from an 18-year-old television movie that hasn't seen the light of video or (as far as I know) reruns in years. So Disney's very strong transfer is quite pleasantly surprising. The 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer, preserving this TV movie's original aspect ratio, is remarkably clean. Colors are vibrant, and rich, if not always the most natural looking. The level of detail and sharpness are both pleasant surprises. This transfer gets the highest marks, and has me holding hope for DVDs of other rare Disney telemovies long missing in action.

Despite the package's claims of a Mono track, this telemovie is actually presented in Dolby Digital Stereo Surround, and quite effectively too. There's some good use of holiday music, and dialogue is almost always crisp and discernible. The rare impressionable sound effects are aptly presented.

EXTRAS

The DVD opens with a 90-second promo for Disney's recent live action fare on home video. Unfortunately, that's the only thing besides the film on the DVD. The menus are simple 16x9 screens, but they do offer a bit of the film's music at a low volume.

Ho Ho Ho! Merry Christmas! The kids tell 'Santa' what they really want.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Out of print for years, The Christmas Star makes its DVD debut in fine form, with delightful video and audio. I only hope this paves the way for more Disney TV movies to come to DVD, especially those from the 1980s. For now, this one is more charming than corny, and one which merits a recommendation.

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Reviewed September 9, 2004

UltimateDisney.com | Review Index | 1980s Television Movies Page | September 2004 Catalogue Releases