For a Christmas film to do its job, there are certain boxes that it needs to tick. Firstly, and most obviously, it needs to be set at Christmas. Secondly there needs to be something that the main character is striving for, with obstacles constantly appearing in his way. There should be a nice feeling of nostalgic sentimentality to everything, preferably some snow and children waiting for presents. While most films get some combination of these things, very few manage to tick every box, often looking to gentling subvert the Christmas season by mocking the capitalism of a holy day, or including an over-the-top sweet child who is vaguely annoying. The only film to do everything and still remain funny, realistic and sweet without being overbearing is the Bob Clark directed A Christmas Story. Little known in the UK and only released in the US, it was a commercial flop on release, but like It’s a Wonderful Life has become a perennial Christmas favourite.
Based on a collection of anecdotes from author and raconteur Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story is set in Hohman, Indiana and follows 9-year-old Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) in the lead-in to Christmas one year as he attempts to convince his parents to let him get a Red Ryder BB Gun. Unsuccessful at first he tries every trick that a kid knows to state his case even going to see Santa Claus at the mall and asking him in person.
A Christmas story oozes Christmas spirit from the opening scene and the wintery, snowy setting of middle America creates an atmosphere of the stereotypical Christmas that most people have in their heads. The whole film is narrated by an older Ralphie (author Jean Shepherd himself) who is looking back in this Christmas as the one that sticks most firmly in his head. It being semi-autobiographical helps to create a sense of realism that a lot of Christmas films don’t have. There are so many little stories that all tie in together that it would be hard for any member of the audience not to recognise something from their own childhood in among them. Whether it’s the memory of that one toy that you desperately wanted, or the disappointing visit to see Santa Claus at the shopping centre, A Christmas Story perfectly captures the mood surrounding an average Christmas.
Unlike many Christmas films like Home Alone or Miracle on 34th Street, the child actors are neither overly confident, precocious or annoying, they just normal children. They suffer from the same insecurities and lack of adult training as normal children and often find themselves defeated in conversation by the adults. It is this realism that makes them easy for the audience to sympathise with, especially as we can all remember that one particular toy at the one particular Christmas and the time when it looked like it would never arrive. There’s even clever little nods to school bullies, the first time you swear in front of your parents and the Christmas dinner that doesn’t quite work out. There’s even a fantastic scene involving a kid getting his tongue stuck to an icy pole, which was parrodied in Dumb and Dumber and A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas. A Christmas Story is not afraid to make all the characters look a little bit silly from time to time, which helps give them all depth and certain believable aspect.
Bristling with Christmas cheer throughout combined with a pitch-perfect cast of not particularly well-known actors and a level of truth that is rare to find in Christmas films, A Christmas Story stands as tall as any other films when it comes to the festive period.