A forgotten Holiday Classic: Fitzwilly

The 1960’s brought about a myriad of “caper films” in which the protagonists of the film set about attempting elaborate cons. Perhaps the most heart warming caper movie to ever come along is 1967’s Fitzwilly, starring the incredibly talented, and equally lovable, Dick Van Dyke. The title of the film refers to a shortened version of Van Dyke’s name in the film, Claude Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilly is the head butler in charge of the household of a Miss Victoria Woodworth, an eccentric elderly woman who spends her days doling out large checks to various charities as well as spearheading her own projects; most notably throughout the film she is writing an incredibly extensive dictionary for illiterate people. The only problem is that, though she is acustomed to a lavish lifestyle, her father left her exactly $200 at his death. Fitzwilly and the other staff spend their time coming up with and executing a number of cons and robberies in order to maintain Miss Woodworth’s, as well as their own, style of living. Miss Woodworth is oblivious the entire movie, completely believing that she is fabulously wealthy.
Fitzwilly is an odd movie in that, while it boasts an incredibly loveable cast, the story is humorous and would easily be categorized as a family movie, it is a shining example of a morally ambiguous film. As kind as the protagonist is, he isn’t stealing to simply aid in the survival of a poor old woman, rather he is stealing so she can maintain an existence of pure excess. Sure she gives large sums away to charity, and lets not forget that those companies that Fitzwilly and his band of high societal miscreants rip off are completely covered by insurance. The line is blurred to the point that you find yourself cheering for the bad guys. Though this occurrence is increasingly familiar and acceptable in the current cinematic climate, it wasn’t so common in the 1960s.
While it is certainly hazy in a moral context, Fitzwilly offers a fun and often overlooked holiday cinematic treat. The movie in the past has been increasingly difficult to find, I first watched it in a Film History class in college, and remember thinking it was pretty fun. Recently I noticed it streaming on Netflix, so my wife and I gave it a shot and I came to this conclusion: it is a forgotten family classic. Dick Van Dyke pervades the screen with all the charm he brought to the Disney films he became known for, while at the same time displaying a touch of the sinister with his criminal mastermind like antics. The supporting cast is also a blast to watch, particularly John McGiver who plays the increasingly remorseful priest-turned-thief. Barbara Feldon plays the love interest who almost brings the entire operation to it’s knees, a suitable adversary/ romantic interest for Van Dyke’s Fitzwilly.
It’s a fun little movie that gives off a strong sense of nostalgia, even after the first viewing. It harkens to the fact that, though certain movies will remain in the classic family canon (Marry Poppins, Swiss Family Robinsons etc.) there is a vast amount of movies that time has chosen to brush over. Fitzwilly is one of the unlucky movies to have fallen to the wayside which isĀ  in no way due to it’s quality or entertainment value.

Arthur Christmas

I don’t particularly like “Christmas Movies” unless they are able to adequately set themselves apart from the hoards of films that pollute this odd sub-genre. I don’t necessarily hate Christmas movies, some I actually love, but the overwhelming majority, particularly in the last 10-20 years can simply be clumped together in my memory as one big blob of movie lore that continues to accumulate mass year after year. For this reason I had low expectations for Arthur Christmas. Perhaps these low expectations aided in my enjoyment of the movie, but more I think it was due to a superb voice cast, a fun an interesting story, relatable characters that mixed well with the normally dismal attempt at cinematic holiday humor.

We’re introduced to our reluctant hero in the introduction of the Movie. Arthur, Santa’s younger son, works in the letter writing department of the North Pole. He reads and responds all day every day to children that write letters to his father. Decked from head to foot in novelty Christmas apparel, it becomes extremely apparent that Arthur loves his job, he displays enthusiasm and dedication to a job that almost anyone else would find abysmal. Despite being surrounded by Christmas themed everything all year round, he maintains a childlike sense of wonder, something that most of his family has lost after years of perfecting the “business” of delivering presents with militaristic precision. The story follows Arthur and his quest to get a present that was missed to a little girl before sunrise.

The relationship between the members of the “Claus” family are plagued by emotions and complications shared by most of the world. So, while they’re an extraordinary family, they are a group of people that we, as the audience, can easily relate to. Relatable characters in Christmas movies has become increasingly rare as exaggerated antics and cliches of the Christmas season are often overused. Santa is an aging man on the cusp of retirement, too afraid to let go of a career that has defined him. In his refusal to step down his older son Steve becomes increasingly frustrated that he can not take the position of “Santa” yet, a fact that is fueled due to his hard work and revolutionizing of the Christmas delivery system. The Grandfather figure is an old, withered rendition of his Santa, he lives in the past and talks about his days relying on reindeer and an ancient sleigh to deliver presents instead of the new spaceship like method of transportation. Then there is Arthur, selfless and joyful, always excited and optimistic in increasingly pessimistic circumstances. Three generations of the Santa Claus family all with their unique struggles.

The film is genuinely heart warming. All the characters wrestle with selfishness and are forced to face obstacles ranging from annoying to life threatening. The humor is fresh and funny and the animation works perfectly with the story. Having expected much less, I was pleasantly surprised that I found this to be one of the most enjoyable Christmas movies in recent memory.

It’s November which means it’s Christmas. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale”

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Santa Claus is not the jolly “Coca-Cola” picture of kindness that we’ve come to know and love. Rather, he is a monster that catches and dismembers naughty children. Based on the Short film Rare Exports Inc. This film follows a group of men that are pitted head to head against Santa Clause and his army. While the premise sounds like the perfect recipe for a Mystery Science Theater episode, what we’re treated to instead is a well crafted fantasy tale that takes itself seriously both in storytelling and film crafting. It would have been easy to take this premise and crank out a no holds barred goofy horror movie based on the holidays. However, this movie is more akin to Jurassic ParkĀ  or Gremlins.

We’re introduced to a small community in a snow covered wilderness that makes their living by hunting reindeer. Their livelihood is threatened when they find that all the reindeer in the area have been mysteriously killed. This event happens simultaneously with the unearthing of a massive burial tomb unearthed within their region. The only person that recognizes the signs of what is happening is a young boy. The boy is absolutely terrified of Santa Claus, going so far as to ask his father to spank him with a switch because he’s been bad. What he has learned from his research is that the true Santa Claus lives for punishing bad children. The story seems to combine the characters of St. Nicholas and Krampus. Krampus being an “old world” demon with a goat like appearance who, in legends, accompanied St. Nicholas and punished the bad children.

It’s such a campy premise that you can’t help but expect this movie to be a joke filled romp with plenty of over-the-top violence to accompany it’s R rating. But this is just as much adventure as it is horror. We’re given time to get to know the characters and their lifestyle, the cinematography is very good and the whole atmosphere gave the film a Spielberg-like sense of wonder similar to E.T. or Super8 The pacing of this movie was a little slow for what I was expecting, but not to the point of it being unbearable by any means.

Not since Trollhunter have I seen a movie take such a ridiculous premise and make so much of it. The film doesn’t openly joke about the fact that Santa Claus is the villain, it embraces it wholeheartedly and the characters are forced to play by those rules with dead seriousness. This includes some tongue in cheek humor but mostly it’s just a fun dark fantasy movie that has very few other films to compare to itself.