Now that they have the power, respect, and money to do whatever the hell the want, Pixar has elected to make challenging, frequently gut-wrenching films for children and adults. This is something too many American production companies don’t have the guts to do, because it’s much easier to pander with mindless, innocuous entertainment that diverts kids with an engrossing but empty experience and appeases the Moral Majority with its sanitized-for-your-protection content.
Europe has no such problems traumatizing its children with memorably upsetting kids’ fare. The unimaginatively titled Christmas Story contains a depressing sequence matched only by Up: During a harsh winter storm, Nikolas (played as a child by Jonas Rinne) is left to care for his baby sister, Aada, while his parents venture out in search of medicine for ill Aada. They die in the storm, and Aada succumbs to her illness. Now an orphan, the tiny village needs to figure out what to do with Nikolas. Nobody wants him, but the villagers reluctantly agree to pass him around and care for him for a year, rotating every Christmas.
Six years pass quickly, and the village has sunk into even harder times. Bad weather has ruined their crops, and the nearby lake seems “empty of fish.” With families barely staving off starvation as it is, nobody can deal with an extra mouth to feed. The village is forced to sell Nikolas into indentured servitude. An avid woodworker who has developed a habit of leaving small, wooden trinkets on the doorsteps of his friends and neighbors at Christmas, now it’s time for Nikolas to learn the trade professionally, under the guidance of Isaak (Kari Väänänen)
This development leads Christmas Story to overcome its relentlessly upsetting first act and find genuine poignancy in the relationship between sensitive Nikolas and snarling Isaak. Like most brutish men in family films, Isaak harbors a dark reason for his behavior: his sons abandoned him long ago. At first, he sees much to resent in Nikolas’s eagerness and kindness, but he quickly realizes Nikolas’s presence has given him back what he thought he lost, and vice-versa. Their relationship slowly shifts from adversarial to familial, leading to a handful of tearjerker moments that would melt even the coldest heart.
As Isaak, Väänänen’s incredible performance shines. He plays what could have been a stock character with heartbreaking complexity. Take, for example, an early scene in which Nikolas attempts to cheer up the cranky Isaak by cleaning his entire cabin/workshop from top to bottom. When Isaak returns from a day of selling in the village, his expressive face registers a mixture of bewilderment and genuine affection. He holds this expression for an instant, just long enough for it to register with the audience, before contorting back to his usual sneer and growling, “Now how am I supposed to find anything?” But his bark lacks sincerity (skillfully dubbed by John Turturro to match Väänänen’s performance).
Nikolas grows older (eventually played as an adult by Hannu-Pekka Björkman), takes over Isaak’s business, and devotes it entirely to an ever-expanding Christmas operation. He dispels rumors that he’s the mysterious stranger leaving gifts on doorsteps. Only Isaak and Nikolas’s best friend, Emil (Mikko Kouki), know the truth. The secret is soon learned by Emil’s daughter, Aada (Nella Siilasmaa/Laura Birn), who was named for Nikolas’s departed sister in another effective tearjerker moment. Aada keeps Nikolas’s secret and, as she grows up, becomes Nikolas’s dearest friend.
As he ages, Nikolas has to deal with one of the more unexpected children’s-film developments: getting older and coming to terms with a life in which he gave every part of himself away and lacks the customary signifiers of a life well-lived (a family, a nest egg, a home of his own). This is uncharted territory and unexpectedly philosophical for a movie aimed at kids, particularly one telling the origin story of Santa Claus. However, it’s material like this that helps Christmas Story overcome the burden of its subject matter and feel like a real movie about a real person.
Unlike virtually every American holiday film made since the mid-’80s, the film never makes the mistake of desperately pandering to become a Christmas classic. Echoing It’s a Wonderful Life in clear but not derivative ways, Christmas Story captures the spirit of giving, the emotional toll it can take on the giver, and the value of forging lasting friendships. It’s easily among the best Christmas movies of the past 25 years. Seek it out.