Can you name a popular Christmas movie? I’ll bet you could immediately think of a few. Your children and grandchildren could easily triple that number, too.
From memorable cinematic renditions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to timeless animated classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas and Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town, there’s a holiday treasure for just about everyone. We could conceivably spend every waking moment watching them on television, streaming services and our home collections from now until next Christmas.
What about the Christmas movies and TV specials that aren’t as well known in North America?
Every country has its own slew of holiday classics. Many of them haven’t been translated into either English or French. Some deal with ancient tales and local folklore that wouldn’t immediately resonate with international viewers. When distributors attempt to release international holiday films to North American audiences, the results sometimes fall short of expectations.
It’s a shame. There are many international Christmas movies and TV specials we could learn more about. They could add to our knowledge and understanding about different customs, communities and countries. Some could even be incorporated into our own holiday-viewing traditions.
For my annual column for The Interim, we’re going to attempt just that.
Let’s begin in the United Kingdom. A popular tradition at Christmastime is to watch animated specials based on the work of Raymond Briggs. The British-based children’s author, illustrator, and cartoonist won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal for Father Christmas (1973) and Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for The Snowman (1978). The latter, a remarkable work of pantomime of a boy’s magical adventure with a snowman drawn completely in pencil crayons, was adapted into animated form by Channel 4 (with singer David Bowie’s narration) in 1982. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and has appeared annually on TV (other than 1984). Father Christmas was transformed into a jovial animated special in 1991. British comedian Mel Smith voiced the titular role in an amusing, expressive manner that young audiences still enjoy. A sanitized American version with William Hurt was released several years later, but it never achieved the same success as the original.
Briggs’s stories, films and TV specials have mesmerized Brits of all ages for decades. The Snowman and Father Christmas have become British TV staples much like A Charlie Brown Christmas has in North America. But while the author (who passed away on August 9) wasn’t an unknown entity in our neck of the woods, he never received a fraction of the recognition he so richly deserved on this side of the pond.
Sweden also has its own animated classic, Sagan om Karl-Bertil Jonssons julafton (“The Tale of Karl-Bertil Jonsson’s Christmas Eve”). It’s the story of a 14-year-old boy, Karl-Bertil, who works at the Swedish postal service. He decided to emulate his literary hero, Robin Hood, and secretly rerouted Christmas presents intended for wealthy households to be delivered to the homes of poor families. When his parents find out, he’s taken by his angry father, Tyko, to apologize to them. Much to his surprise, Karl-Bertil is treated like a conquering hero by the rich and powerful, and is tossed in the air with a hearty “hip hip hooray!” Tyko changes his tune, and sees that his son is a good person at heart.
This short film was created by the brilliant Swedish animator Per Åhlin in 1975. He’s the driving force behind Dunderklumpen! (1974), an animated family film/musical, as well as The Journey to Melonia (1989), an animated feature film loosely based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both movies were honoured at Sweden’s prestigious Guldbagge Awards. The Robin Hood-like tale of Karl-Bertil Jonsson remains his most popular story, and is still viewed at Christmas in Sweden, Norway and Finland.
Åhlin’s film was dubbed into English in 1987 and released as Christopher’s Christmas Mission. The voice-over work was performed by Bernard Cribbins, a longtime British character actor who passed away on July 27. (You may have heard him as The Wombles’ narrator, seen him on Doctor Who, or remember him from the legendary Fawlty Towers episode about the hotel inspector.) While some English-speaking audiences have become acquainted with Christopher/Karl-Bertil, most Canadians and Americans haven’t the foggiest notion who he is.
The Czech Republic is home to a wonderful Christmas fairy tale made with stop motion animation and puppets, Dva Mrazíci (“Two Little Frosts”). Two mischievous frosts, one who is courageous and the other an unmistakable coward, compete to see who can hurt the hardworking townspeople the most. The frosts try to freeze a person’s nose, grab someone by the ears, hide inside a man’s jacket and make a rich man catch a cold. No matter how hard they try to cause mischief, they’re unsuccessful – which shows that people, whether rich or poor, aren’t affected by a little frost in their lives.
Dva Mrazíci was made in 1953 by the talented Czech puppet-maker/animator Jiří Trnka, and released on Jan. 1, 1954. This Slavic fairy tale, which includes the voices of Czech actors Vlasta Burian and Jan
Werich, remains popular to this day. While there are a few English-language documentaries of his work, including the Lincoln Center’s The Puppet Master: The Complete Jiri Trnka (2018), his masterful films remain largely unknown in North America.
We can’t forget France’s Les Contes de Noel (“Christmas Tales”), which was released in 1989. It’s a series of 15 animated shorts that run approximately five minutes apiece and examine holiday legends across Europe. These include stories like “The Christmas Tree,” “The Fourth Wise Man,” “The Crystal Bird” and “The Magic Book.” Each tale is beautifully animated and engaging for young children and their families.
Les Contes de Noel was directed by Jean-Loup Martin. He earned acclaim for his 15-part animated series Les Contes Magiques (“Magic Tales”), released in Christmas 1988, which led to this equally ambitious project. The Institut national de l’audiovisuel, or INA, has free access to recordings of his two beloved series. They’re fondly remembered in France, but never gained a large following in either Canada or the U.S.
Our final excursion is Japan. Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers (2003) has been described as one of greatest non-North American animated films ever based on Christmas. It’s the story of three homeless people, Gin, Hana, and Miyuki, who discover an abandoned baby while sifting through garbage cans on Christmas Eve. They name the child Kiyoko, which means “pure child” in Japanese and is part of the translation of the Christmas carol “Silent Night.” The trio set out to find the infant’s parents in Tokyo’s dark underbelly and are determined to reunite them at any cost.
Tokyo Godfathers is Kon’s masterpiece. It’s one of the few anime movies based in reality rather than pure fantasy, which led the late director to describe it as a “twisted sentimental story.” In 2003, it won the Japan Media Arts Festival’s Excellence Award and the Mainichi Film Award for Best Animation Film. Yet, when this brilliant movie was released in North America by Sony Pictures for Oscar consideration, it wasn’t able to attract much attention. A proper English-language DVD version wasn’t released until 2020.
That’s my short list of recommendations of lesser-known international Christmas movies and TV specials. Some are available for purchase on DVD or Blu-ray (make sure it’s for Region 1 in North America), while others can be viewed on YouTube and streaming services. My hope is you’ll watch a few of them, and encourage your family and friends to do the same. The more Christmas we experience in our lives, the better!
Michael Taube, a columnist for the National Post, Troy Media, Loonie Politics and Epoch Times, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.