Apparently if you slap on a few colored lights and tack on a schmaltzy feel-good ending, you can call just about anything a Christmas movie. ” ‘Twas the Night,” the latest original film from Disney Channel, is set on Christmas Eve, features an authentic-looking Santa and a bunch of cute kids, but the sentiments are far from traditional.
“‘Twas the Night” entrenches itself deep into the spirit of irreverent Christmas movies past with the intent of reproducing something like “A Christmas Story.” The result isn’t nearly as clever. Instead, pic is a hodgepodge mix of “Uncle Buck” and the Three Stooges mixed with “The Santa Clause” and “The Ref.”
Writers Jim Lincoln and Dan Studney make an honest attempt to modernize holiday themes while making a good case for the negative ramifications of labeling kids as good or bad. Ultimately, however, the two introduce far too much malice and ill will to justify the abrupt emotional turnaround near the end.
The appeal of the film appears to be confined to computer nerds, preteens and those with a strong appreciation for sight gags.
Pic opens with a Christmas card-ready scene of snow falling around the festively decorated Wrigley home. Cut to the inside where Santa is bound and gagged in a chair, tied up with Christmas lights. We find out through Danny Wrigley (Josh Zuckerman) about the extraordinary events that lead to this moment, which is not at all in the holiday spirit.
Danny is a 14-year-old wiseacre who has little or no remorse for regularly scamming people, especially his adoring younger brother Peter (Rhys Williams). Always working an angle, Danny can’t manage to fool his savvy sister Kaitlin, a computer wiz who pretends to read teen magazines but is really studying quantum physics.
A traditional Christmas Eve in the Wrigley home is disrupted when Uncle Nick (Bryan Cranston) shows up under the guise of a holiday visit; actually, he’s on the run from thugs out to retrieve the $30,000 he scammed in a phony Internet deal.
When mom and dad, both successful doctors, are called away to the E.R., Nick is left in charge. A quiet night in hiding turns into chaos when Nick sends a computer virus to his pursuers and inadvertently downs Santa’s new, high-tech sleigh, Sclaus 2.
Santa gets knocked out in the confusion, and Nick and Danny decide to take over the big man’s duties for the evening. Unbeknownst to Danny, who relishes the thought of doing good deeds for a change, Nick intends on collecting gifts rather than distributing them so he can repay all of his debts. Soon, it’s Danny’s turn to find out what it is like to be had.
Although attempts are made at conveying holiday spirit, the underlying message is that the magic of Christmas is really manufactured, thanks to the miracles of modern technology.
Santa wears a wireless; gifts are bought and download from computers and the reindeer-less sleigh is steered by a joystick. One half expects someone to pull Santa’s beard off and discover Bill Gates behind the whiskers.
Cranston, a comic marvel on “Malcolm in the Middle,” isn’t given the chance to be funny, just smarmy. It’s like handing Mark McGuire a baseball bat and asking him not to hit any pitches. Jefferson Mappin is one of the best-looking Santas you’ll find, but he’s given the most un-Claus-like of scenarios.
The child actors, especially Williams as Peter, are appropriately appealing. Director Nick Castle and visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okum offer an eyeful of extravagant special effects. But all of the wizardry and neat effects can’t make up for the emotionally stilted plot.