Most Christmas movies are terrible. A few are genuinely classic. Almost all of them you will watch anyway as you enter a turkey-fueled food coma. But there is one yardstick by which they should all be measured to know how good they are. We are talking, of course, about the Christmas Movie Dad.
A Christmas Movie Dad (CMD) can be many things. He’s so established, in fact, that it’s possible to subvert the rules on occasion. But as a festive patriarch, the accepted defining characteristics are that he’s at least three of the following things — overworked; a promise breaker; unpunctual; absent; well-meaning but in a useless way; overreaching; overly generous; embarrassing; or unfestive. This can make or break a movie, especially when you factor in the lesson he learns at the end. With this in mind, it’s our duty to analyze a dozen CMDs (one for each of the 12 Days Of Christmas), and rank them from best to worst.
1) Clark Griswold, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
On the outside, Clark’s a well-meaning goof who just wants what’s best for his family. But look again: Here he is, a married man, eyeing a female shop assistant in the lingerie department. He’s eternally rude to his (admittedly yuppie) neighbors. He puts thousands of lights on the outside of his house without thinking that people around him might not like it. But the piece de resistance of Clark Griswold being a dickhead is this: He invites his entire family around to his already massive house, just so he can rub it in further by opening his bonus check in front of them all. Then he promises that, when the pool he’s going to buy with it has been built, he’s going to fly everyone down to dedicate it. Money can buy you a pool, it seems, but not class.
Verdict: If being a CMD was a baseball team, Clark Griswold would be the Yankees. The ultimate. Frame him and put him in a museum as an example.
2) Scott Calvin, The Santa Clause
For Tim Allen, being a Christmas Movie Dad is very much an everyday thing. As he showed in Home Improvement, being a father and husband who does selfish things, makes a mistake, looks like a colossal ass and then realizes why his kids/wife were on his case and feels bad but learns a lesson, is basically a standard Tuesday. He was primed, then, for his role in The Santa Clause. In fact, accidentally knocking Santa off a roof and killing him, meaning he turns into Santa over the next year, is a real Tim “The Toolman” Taylor move. And curiously for a Christmas Movie Dad, Allen’s character Scott is doing pretty well until this happens, having arranged with his ex-wife to have his son for Christmas, and actually sticking to it.
For all the things that go wrong — turning into Santa isn’t really what anyone wants at short notice — Scott spends the whole film trying to do right, and largely managing it. He even sorts out a present for his ex-wife’s new fella — the one he never got as a kid and caused him to stop believing in Santa — which is a very extreme but very clear example of being a decent guy.
Verdict: The guy kills and becomes Santa — this is good CMD material.
3) Howard Langston, Jingle All The Way
Here he is, the classic “Overworked Man Who Screws Up Because He Spent Too Much Time Focusing on Working Late Than on the Things That Really Mattered” brand of Christmas Movie Dad. Only this time he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This detail isn’t the only reason we’re going to look more kindly on his character, Howard Langston, than on similarly challenged but far less tough Christmas Movie Dads. For one thing, he actually admits to himself that he’s screwed up by missing out on getting his boy a Turbo Man toy, and learns a lesson. For another, the guy’s a mattress salesman, okay? He’s not some corporate swinging dick like Clark Griswold or Home Alone’s Peter McCallister.
Now, we’ve seen Commando. We know what happens when you mess with Arnie’s kids. But it’s not his rival, Myron, messing with young Jamie this time: It’s Arnie and his own shortcomings. So we don’t get to see Myron being destroyed with a belt-fed machine gun, but then if we had, that would mean Howard wins by making someone else lose — not very Christmassy. It’s the effort he puts into making his son happy that makes him a winner here. And, bonus, on his festive spiritual journey, he inadvertently brings down a bootleg toy operation. Double good.
Verdict: A shining example of how good a CMD can be.
4) George Bailey, It’s A Wonderful Life
If Christmas Movie Dads are to be judged by what they miraculously learn at the end, then James Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life is the king of them all. He is the Michael Jordan of festive feel good. Eventually, anyway. Before that, feeling like he’s failed at everything, let everyone down and ruined things beyond repair, George heads out to take his own life, only to be saved when an angel intervenes and shows him not just how much he means to other people, but how bad their lives would be if he hadn’t lived.
George exists differently from other Christmas Movie Dads, partly because he comes from another time, when dads weren’t regarded as lovable, bungling idiots, but mainly because his Christmas redemption is so much less complicated than the others. Obviously, this makes him nowhere near as funny as watching Clark Griswold accidentally destroying his neighbor’s stereo with an errant icicle, but it does make his story an entirely relatable, more human one.
Verdict: Lacking in LOLZ he may be, but George’s story is a feel-good pick-me-up, which puts him in the top end of CMDs.
5) Walter Hobbs, Elf
Elf is a story all about a dad. More specifically, it’s a story about a man taken in and raised by Santa and his elves as a boy searching for his dad as a grown-up. And, because Elf is a movie, when Will Ferrell’s plucky Buddy first finds his old man after a search around New York City, he is a Bad Dad Who Doesn’t Want to Know Him and has him kicked out of his office. But Santa himself warned Buddy about this — that his pop, Walter Hobbs, was on the naughty list. Selfish. Greedy. Not altogether nice. And on first impression, Santa’s right.
But this is a more complex Christmas Movie Dad than some. Walter throws his son out of the building, but then bails him out of jail, arranges DNA tests and invites him into his home, albeit grudgingly. He then falls out with Buddy again (in fairness, Buddy absolutely screws up his big work thing), and that’s when he learns the standard Christmas Movie What’s Really Important Lesson. As a setup that’s far more relatable than most Christmas movies (if you ignore the raised-by-elves detail), the breakthrough and acceptance of his son at the end is far better than most as well. So, yeah, Walter is a grumpy old grinch, but his recognizable journey makes him a much more redemptive Christmas Movie Dad than most.
Verdict: Walter loses on the funny factor, but he learns a genuinely important lesson.
6) Randall Peltzer, Gremlins
You can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Randall Peltzer. His career as an inventor’s not going so well, but he truly loves and values his family, hence searching for a unique gift for his son in Chinatown. The mayhem he accidentally unleashes on his town by buying a mogwai and giving it to his boy is his fault, no doubt, but his intentions are pure, which sort of makes it alright that the debacle results in a dead science teacher and the attempted murder of his wife at the hands of the titular green monsters.
Obviously, it absolutely doesn’t, but you don’t hate him for it. Randall is very much to blame for what happens, but he was doing his best, an excuse that carries more weight than usual during Yule for some reason.
Verdict: An idiot, but a big-hearted one.
7) Willie T Soke, Bad Santa
Slight bending of the rules: Billy Bob Thornton’s character Willie doesn’t have any kids of his own, but he does get involved with a young lad he’s trying to swindle and ultimately learns a Christmas Movie Dad lesson from them, so he’s in.
Few of these characters need saving more than Willie, a boozing professional thief who uses jobs as mall Santas to do robberies from the inside. When he’s saved from a beating by aforementioned young lad Thurman, his first idea is to break into the kid’s father’s safe and steal his car. But things (sort of) come right in the end, and Willie is so desperate to give his new friend his present (which he’s stolen from the mall), he runs from armed police to do so, eventually getting shot on Thurman’s porch for his troubles. This isn’t a story as feelgood as some, but Willie’s clearly a man who needs a Christmas miracle, which getting shot is not. Still, he finds some sort of redemption, and that’s the most important thing. So, yeah, not technically a Christmas Movie Dad, but still very much one all the same.
Verdict: An outsider who fits into the CMD clothes exceedingly well.
8) John McClane, Die Hard
Annual Twitter argument: Is Die Hard a Christmas movie? The correct answer is yes, because it happens at Christmas, at a Christmas party. But this indisputable truth unlocks another: John McLane is a Christmas Movie Dad. For starters, he has children (albeit children from whom he is estranged through divorce and you don’t actually see with him in the film). Second, he gets involved in something far too complicated for most people to want to have to deal with right before Christmas, namely a big-money heist in a skyscraper. Third, he makes bad jokes. Finally, the Christmas cheer puts him back with his ex wife. Obviously, shooting loads of people and sending Alan Rickman to his death from a massive office block isn’t typical Christmas stuff, but these men come in all stripes, from all different walks of life.
Having said all this, aside from getting his wife back, McClane doesn’t really seem to come away from things a changed man or having learned anything. He still seems like the same stubborn, difficult lone-wolf it’s impossible to actually get on with he was at the start. And one other consideration: We know Hans Gruber had a brother, because McClane kills him as well two sequels later, but did he have kids? If so, John McClane is, in fact, the bad guy in a future Christmas movie about vengeance for a man who was just trying to loot millions of dollars in bonds for his family at Christmas.
Verdict: A complicated man to be sure, but not a great CMD. Could do with some slapstick involving shoveling snow or something to up his rating.
9) Jack Frost, Jack Frost
Whoever came up with the idea for Jack Frost was probably late for lunch when he was thinking up a name. “Just call Michael Keaton’s character… Jack Frost. Yeah, we can change it later.” But like Jack’s ways in the movie, this terrible, lazy name never did change. Jack keeps letting his family down by promising to do stuff and then blowing them off because he’s got stuff to do with his band. Then he blows his band off by ditching them at the last minute to see his family. Such indecisiveness costs him dearly: He’s killed driving through snow between the two.
The redemption for a persistent letdown of a man? Being reincarnated as a snowman thanks to a magic harmonica he gave to his son. And terrifyingly reincarnated, we might add. They learn about one another while trying to work out how to stop Jack from melting — an idea that definitely came up only after a studio exec pointed out the long-term issue of reincarnating someone as a snowman — and they do help the local bully make a personal breakthrough, which is nice. But as a Christmas Movie Dad, Jack is hard to judge simply because… yeah, the snowman thing is stupid. Still, the kid gets a magic harmonica from him, literally the only time such a plot device has been used in a Christmas movie, so there’s that.
Verdict: Sort of alright, but the whole setup is so stupid that, on points, he is a very low ranker.
10) Earl Cross, Scrooged
How does a man get as festive as Bill Murray’s big-wheel New York TV exec Frank Cross in Scrooged? Where do you learn to suggest stapling antlers onto a mouse’s ears for a TV Christmas special? Or make your assistant — a single mother whose murdered husband you never bothered learning about — work late instead of seeing her family?
Again: How does a man get this festive? We may be reading too much into the massive signpost this 1980s retelling of A Christmas Carol puts out, but it may be when your dad grumpily chucks you a packet of butcher’s veal instead of a choo-choo train for your fourth Christmas. That could leave a mark. Fortunately, Frank realizes the error of his ways before Bobcat Goldthwait — who he fired the day before — can put a bullet in him. So, happy days. But yeah, genuinely awful Christmas Dad who leaves it to his son to have a miracle moment for him.
Verdict: Awful. And he doesn’t learn anything, so, double awful.
11) Tucker Cobblepot, Batman Returns
You barely see Tucker Cobblepot, but he’s rotten; he and his wife intentionally abandon their deformed infant Oswald to fend for himself in the sewers of Gotham City, and in the middle of winter at that. There’s not much fun to be had here, really: Poor old Oswald grows up to be a weird, penguin-like, fish-eating criminal gang leader who gets taken in by smarmy, rich Mr. Burns type Max Schreck (himself in business with his own son), and never reconciles with the parents who sent him into the sewer like a gothic version of Moses. Not that he’d want to, to be honest. Even when Penguin is doing really, really terrible things like murder, you can’t help feeling sorry for him (which is, admittedly, the whole point of the exercise), or feel that his becoming a monster is only down to where he came from.
Thus, Tucker Cobblepot takes the dubious crown of being the most un-festive Christmas Movie Dad of the lot (although somehow, still not the worst).
Verdict: You’re Santa, you hear what this guy did, it’s absolutely no presents for him, ever.
12) Peter McCallister, Home Alone / Home Alone 2
We’ll say this now: Peter McCallister is a negligent monster. You can almost — almost — see how leaving your son behind once could happen. But twice? Oh sir, it means you actually hate him.
Even when you’re around young Kevin, every single scene involves you yelling at him. Someone eaten Kevin’s special pizza, causing him to get angry? Yell at him and send him to bed. After days wondering if he’s been killed on the mean streets of New York, you scream at him about a room service bill — piffling, next to a child’s life, surely — so loud it can be heard in the street outside the Trump Plaza Hotel. And while we’re on the subject, Donald Trump, Donald Actual Trump, does more to help your son by kindly giving him directions to a receptionist who can help him. You have come off looking worse than Donald Trump. How does that make you feel?
Your wife, Kate, isn’t innocent in all this, of course. But when things go wrong, what do you do, Peter? While she gets upset and panics and flies from 1) Paris and 2) Florida in search of her precious boy, what’s your move? Sit in front of the television, eating and shrugging your shoulders.
And another thing: what’s with the showing off? Like Clark Griswold, the greatest gift Peter McCallister gives at Christmas is to himself, and in this case it’s the smug satisfaction of spending loads of money to fly his massive extended family to Europe, basking in the smell of his own farts knowing that he’s the best. It’s never mentioned what he does for a living, but since he’s flying his family first class to Paris and lives in a house with about 20 bedrooms, we can assume it’s something very boring, something legal in a loophole sense, something very cruel or a rotten cocktail of all three. At least his brother, the grumpy and freeloading Uncle Frank, is honest about what a cheapskate he is — Peter just tries to balance his gaudy lifestyle with performative generosity. All of which makes Peter McCallister an absolute demon of Christmas Movie Dads.
Verdict: Like a less loveable Clark Griswold, this man embodies a CMD while also making you really, really hate them.