Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holidaze Review: Northpole (2014)

I’m not a big fan of Hallmark holiday movies.

Too often, they seem like romantic comedies dressed up in Christmas sweaters--tacky ones at that. And while I agree with my friend who recently pointed out that romance is also a vital part of the holiday season, it also seems to be a crutch that the network leans on too heavily and too frequently. The movies in question could be about Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Arbor Day—doesn’t matter. The seasons and decorations may change, but the plots and execution would be about the same.

Now and again, though, out of the seemingly dozens of yuletide offerings Hallmark puts out every year (I know it’s not that many, but throw in all the movies and specials from previous years and they can run with Christmas 24/7 from Dia de los Muertos all the way through New Year’s Eve), one will show interest in more then mistletoe.

This year, that one is Northpole.

As the title implies, Northpole is concerned with that place way up north where Santa and Mrs. Claus (real-life couple Robert Wagner and Jill St. John) and all the elves make all those toys for good girls and boys. But something’s wrong this year: The Christmas spirit “down south” (as they apparently refer to the rest of the planet) is fading, which means the aurora borealis won’t be able to produce the magic snowflakes the elves need to make all those toys. (Got that? If not, no worries—the movie explains it more than once.)

Everyone at Northpole is worried about the situation, but spunky elf Clementine (Bailee Madison) is determined to do something about it. When she sees that the Christmas spirit of a young boy “down south” (Max Charles) is still glowing bright despite the crisis, she steals one of Santa’s reindeer and flies down to help him spead Christmas cheer.

Not as easy as it sounds, though: Kevin’s mom, Chelsea (Tiffani Thiessen) is a recently divorced, no-nonsense reporter who loves her son, but has little patience with his bursts of imagination (like, say, conversations he has with his “imaginary friend,” Clementine), especially when Kevin’s hunky teacher, Ryan (josh Hopkins), encourages the kid to go for his big dream: Saving the town’s Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, which has been mysteriously canceled.

Will Chelsea find out why the town is so down on Christmas? Will she realized that Ryan is the perfect man for her? Will Kevin save the tree-lighting ceremony? Will that even be enough to help Clementine save Christmas? Is Northpole doomed?

If you’ve seen enough of these Hallmark movies, you know the answers to those questions already. You also won’t be shocked to find Hallmark trying to sell you various bits of Northpole chotchke (own your very own Magic Snowflake!) not only in the commercial breaks, but also in banner ads during the movie itself.

And while Northpole does have the requisite romance, it’s treated as a subplot rather than the main concern. What Northpole does better than most Hallmark offerings—heck, than most TV holiday movies, period—is it focuses on the importance of the Christmas spirit itself. The way it makes us feel. The comfort and joy it can bring. The effort it takes to keep that spirit stoked—and the benefits of that effort.

Thiessen and Charles have great chemistry—you could almost believe they’re really mother and son—and Madison’s enthusiasm never crosses over from charming into annoying. She’s having fun with the role, which makes it so much easier for the audience to do so as well. And while Wagner and St. John don’t get a lot of screen time, they bring a quiet authority and dignity to their roles—when they’re on screen, you don’t look anywhere else.

Director Douglas Barr (a former actor best known as Lee Major’s sidekick on The Fall Guy) keeps things moving along at a steady pace and juggles the various subplots admirably. Even the special effects—often a major weakness in made-for-TV movies—are handled well. (It might help that most of the SFX sequences happen at night, thus hiding any budgetary restraints.)

And that romance? It’s allowed to develop slowly over the course of the movie, even if the hunky teacher is a bit bland in that way that most leading men in these movies tend to be. Still, the romance never takes the focus away from the main plot, but you’re not the least bit surprised where this subplot is going.

In fact, there’s very little in Northpole that qualifies as surprising. Does that make it a bad movie? No. Familiar elements well executed can still entertain, amuse, and warm the holiday heart, and Northpole does that—even as it tries to sell me stuff and lets me know that there will be a sequel next year, whether I wanted one or not.

As it happens…I do.

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