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Christmas movies. They’re churned out by TV channels, who plop a cute jumper on a couple of their botoxed, permatanned stars, add a bit of grog to a romantic plot involving the healing of a family rift – or something – and there you are, 90 minutes (perhaps 120 with adverts) of overlit fixed-grin cheer.

But when a Christmas movie works – A Christmas Carol (almost any one of them) or Elf – what a glorious thing it is, catharsis without the pain.

Noelle fits that bill. Borrowing heavily from Elf, it’s a feminist-lite tale of the girl who would be Christmas, Anna Kendrick playing the daughter of Santa Claus who, when the old fella dies, is overlooked as a contender for the job even though she’s got the skills the new Santa (Bill Hader’s Nick) lacks.

Nick can’t get down chimneys, is afraid of reindeer and can’t tell the difference between the naughty and nice kids. He’s wrong for the job. Noelle on the other hand… if only she weren’t a girl.

Writer/director Marc Lawrence reworks Elf’s “naive abroad” plot to send Noelle after Nick after he does a bunk and becomes a yoga teacher in Phoenix, Arizona – it’s warm and the North Pole is not – piling her into confrontations with everyday cynics like private investigator Jake (Kingsley Ben-Adir), a divorced dad slightly estranged from his young kid.

Emotionally, that’s an obvious open goal. This is Lawrence’s MO. In four films starring Hugh Grant (Two Weeks’ Notice, Have You Heard About the Morgans, Music and Lyrics and The Rewrite) he’s shown himself to be less interested in situations – they’re all corny – keener on using them as scaffolding for jokes.

And he’s good at jokes, most of them at the expense of Noelle’s helium enthusiasm, but Lawrence doesn’t forget to also pile on the skates, the hot chocolate, the open fires and chocolate boxery.

Shirley MacLaine as Elf Polly
Elf Polly looks familiar

Less successful, though you can’t fault Lawrence for trying, is his introduction of a wee subplot featuring a homeless mother (Marisa Nielsen) and her deaf daughter (Shaylee Mansfield), who are looking at the prospect of spending Christmas in a shelter. Lawrence’s “fix”? Give them an iPad.

In fact there are so many references to iPads it becomes a bit of a running gag. It’s almost as if Lawrence is buying at face value the story that the tech giants tell the world – we can fix it all – when it’s clear once homeless Lisa and daughter Michelle have taken delivery of their Christmas iPad that they’re still homeless.

Should we pile in on Lawrence for touching on a societal issue that can’t be fixed by yuletide present-giving, or praise him for raising it all and reminding us of how lucky most of us are?

Either way, I have not mentioned that Shirley MacLaine plays an elf, Noelle’s childhood nanny, who heads with her to Arizona, where she doles out severe advice and hides her pointy ears under a hat.

Yes, Shirley MacLaine. It is bizarre but inspired casting, MacLaine proving she’s still got the razor sharp timing that Billy Wilder exploited so well in The Apartment, made nearly 60 years before.

Like Elf, Noelle’s message is simple but heartfelt – listen to people, empathise, don’t be so clique-y.

Fast-paced, smartly written and without too much gush, it’s a proper Christmas movie whose strong women and failing men will probably infuriate a few conservatives. The Christians among them will need to think twice – Santa Claus is probably based on pagan god Wodan (or Odin), after all. Either way, a merry Christmas to one and all!

© Steve Morrissey 2020

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