Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Fairy Tales We Wish Were True (A Princess for Christmas)

I normally don't like Hallmark movies, just the same way that I normally don't like romance novels or fairy tales. In general, I find them to be saccharine and cloying and altogether unrealistic. Which is not to say that my preferred genres of science fiction and fantasy are more realistic, just that they tend have a greater emotional depth to them than your average bodice-ripper or made-for-TV romance. 


After watching Outlander this weekend and being utterly and completely blown away by it, I happened to check the cast list for the film, and discovered something odd. Namely, that Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie in Outlander, was also in another little movie I'd almost forgotten I'd seen: A Princess for Christmas.

You could say I was surprised. Baffled would be more accurate, though, and I immediately rifled through my collection and threw it on so that I could see for myself. It's true. Jamie is played by the same man who appeared in this Hallmark original movie about princesses and feelings and Christmas. He plays a prince who is so stiff he has to be taught how to dance to rap, in a scene that is both cringe-inducing and the most charming thing on the planet.

But that's not what really stuck with me. Sure, I originally put the movie on so that I could stare at Sam Heughan for a while, but then I found myself actually watching it. Why? Because even though A Princess for Christmas is a piece of complete and utter schlock, the sort of drivel that is supposed to make people feel "Christmasy" and fuzzy and willing to spend lots of money on presents in a wasted attempt to forge emotional intimacy through consumerism, I really like it.

Like, a lot. Way more than I remembered liking it. No, the plot isn't complex, there are no big surprises, or even little surprises for that matter, and the character have about the emotional complexity of a spoon (collectively). All of that is true. No, the movie doesn't feel real, it doesn't seem like the sort of thing that could ever happen, and no, it doesn't work very hard to make you feel like it has. That's okay. The glory of this movie isn't that it seems like it really happened, but in how badly you wish it would.

Allow me to explain.

The movie opens on Jules Daly (Katie McGrath, of Merlin fame) tinkering with a clock. The voiceover tells us that she's a dreamer and always has been, but that life has conspired not to fulfill her dreams, and so Jules is still living in Buffalo, New York, taking care of her niece and nephew, whose parents passed away in the last year. And then, in this same scene where we get all that information, we find out that Jules is losing her job because of budget cuts, and the two kids are in big trouble.

Said trouble comes in the form of rather predictable, but still affecting, emotional outbursts as a result of grief. In other words, these kids are a little screwed up, because their parents just died, and they're acting out. Milo (Travis Turner) has just shoplifted a DVD, and frequently gets in fights, while Maddie (Leilah de Meza) has a snack food addiction and frequently manages to cause chaos. In other words, both of them are pretty normal kids who are going through a rough time. Unfortunately, Jules has neither the money nor the time to give them the attention they need, and on top of all of this, the nanny has just quit. Oh, and Jules' car died.

Into this storm of grief and frustration waltzes the improbably named Paisley Winterbottom (Miles Richardson), butler to the Duke of Castlebury. Paisley is there to invite Jules and the children to Castlebury for Christmas, because the children's grandfather, the Duke, has decided he wants to get to know them now that his son is dead.

Jules reacts rather appropriately to this, and tells Paisley to shove it. The Duke didn't approve of Jules' commoner sister marrying his son, and he disowned him on the spot. He's never met the children. She doesn't want this guy thinking he can buy his way back into their lives.

On the other hand, they do really need the money. And it would be nice to go away for Christmas.

Cut to Jules and the children driving through Castlebury (or wherever this is supposed to take place - Genovia?). Not only does the Duke live in a nice house, he lives in a virtual castle, with a staff, waxed floors, a formal ballroom, and thousands of antiques that make Jules both salivate and sweat with terror (of the children breaking something).

At the hall, their reception is a bit dimmer than expected. It seems that the Duke (Roger Moore, in fine curmudgeonly form) has changed his mind about wanting to meet the children, and is being a jerk to them all. Meanwhile Milo is already trying to abuse his power of having a manservant, and Maddie filled her suitcase halfway with bags of chips. And Jules? She is the awkwardest awkward to ever awkward. Still, even if the Duke is a crankypants, the staff like them. They "liven up the place".

And, as it turns out, the Duke's son likes them too. Ashton (Sam Heughan), the Duke's second and least favorite son, has just returned home and is positively charmed to meet Jules and the children. He tentatively joins with Jules in her fight to get the children a real Christmas tree, and then to decorate it, and even goes so far as to give Milo some grief counseling via archery lesson. Ashton is a swell guy, and very cute. He thinks the world of Jules. If only he weren't dating the positively horrible Arabella (Charlotte Salt), who is obviously only after him for his money and title.

Like I said, it's not the most original plot in the world. Jules wins over everyone with her earthiness and charm and adorable clumsiness, and Ashton realizes that Arabella is terrible, but before this can happen, Jules has to mishear Ashton and the Duke talking about an "embarrassment" and think it's her and try to selflessly run away... Yeah. It's pretty cliched. But here's the thing. I don't mind.

Everyone in this movie is thinly characterized, to the point where one character, Mrs. Birch (Oxana Morevec), actually has an emotional breakdown and spills her entire backstory in answer to the question, "Don't you remember what it was like to be a little girl?" That's the level of character development we're talking about here. Everyone is sweet and lovely and honest and good or else mean and greedy. But no one is really very complicated.

I think the reason why I like it here, where I hate this sort of writing almost everywhere else, is because, in a very real sense, A Princess for Christmas is a fairy tale. A real fairy tale. It doesn't feel real, because it's not supposed to. Of course you want Jules to marry Ashton and become a princess, because she's so good and hard-working and sweet and giving. You want her to get a happy ending because you see how hard she's worked.

And in a very real sense, I think it's this that makes the movie a palatable alternative to the usual romance novel humdrum. Jules isn't appealing because she's beautiful. I mean, she is beautiful. She's played by Katie McGrath, and it's a little hard to buy that this woman has trouble finding a date. But her beauty isn't why Ashton (and everyone else) falls in love with her. People fall in love with Jules because she's good.

That seems overly simplistic, and it is. Jules is good the way that Steve Rogers is good. In a completely unrealistic, uncompromising, generous, ridiculous way. She practically farts puppies and rainbows. And even when she cries, she's always thinking about someone else. 

When she thinks that Ashton is embarrassed of her, her first instinct is not to think that he's horrible, or that she's terrible. Instead, she realizes that she is out of her element, and maybe she better leave. But rather than this seeming like self-pity or a doormat woman, she comes off as, well, self-sacrificing. She figures that she's only there because the kids are, and that if that's the case, she should bugger off and let the family get on for a while without her.

Or how about this? When Jules loses her job, has a broken car, is faced with two completely unruly children, does she think for even a second about packing it in and going back to whatever her life was before she became a single mother? Nope. Not once.

Jules is a good person, and she's such a good person that she transforms the world around her. She makes other people good too. She insists that Christmas is magical, and so it is.

No, I don't think this is a particularly realistic representation of the world. But don't you wish it was?

I know people like Jules Daly, people who are so selfless and good and hard-working, people who strive to help others, even when they don't feel like it, and who give endlessly out of the abundance in their hearts. I wish that all of them could get the kind of beautiful happy ending that Jules gets. It's so human. We want the people we see who are genuinely good to be rewarded, don't we? And it's so rare to actually get that.

So while I would never call this movie well-written, or deep, or complex, or even surprising, I will say this: it's the story I wish were true. And I'm willing to watch it so that, for an hour and a half, I can believe it is.

Me too, girlfriend.