Santa Claus (Jan Rubes) is sending out his Christmas angels in advance of the festive season, but one of them, Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton), was content simply to sit in his tree and play his harmonica, not considering that he might be called this year. Yet he is after all, and sent to oversee the Grainger family who are going to find things tough what with dad Jack (Gary Basaraba) out of work and them scraping by on what mother Ginny (Mary Steenburgen) can make from her supermarket checkout job. In fact, this Christmas is looking grim as they are being forced to move out of their home shortly after the big day - but they don't realise how grim it will actually get...
That's because this is a very dejected Christmas movie to come from the Disney studios, made in Canada, and even though there's a happy ending what has gone before it colours your perceptions so that it's difficult to feel too cheery about how the plot resolves itself. This was evidently intended as a Yuletide family favourite to rival It's a Wonderful Life, so much so that it implements almost exactly the same twist about halfway through just when events have taken a truly depressing turn. But with the Frank Capra classic there was always the sense that it truly earned its tears, whereas with this it's more starkly manipulative.
One Magic Christmas still has its fans, but significantly not as many as its peers, and that could be down to that studied appearance that never leaves it. The story lays on the hardship of the Graingers very thick indeed, so much so that you're willing the filmmakers to give them a break and when you see that they have, it's not something that grows organically out of what has gone before but a fantasy development out of nowhere thanks to the inclusion of Stanton's angel character. He's a curious chap, explaining that his garb, which makes him look like a horror movie villain, is derived from his past life as a worker on a farm from decades ago - that's right, angels are dead people.
Dead people put to work, no less, and some of them end up toiling in Santa's grotto; so much for getting your reward in heaven! We know that Santa employs these souls because the little girl of the Grainger family, Abbie (Elisabeth Harnois), is taken there by Gideon after a whole day of tragedy on Christmas Eve. Ho, ho, ho! Oh, sorry, Santa doesn't say that in this, he's a more dour though benevolent character who seems like a strictly by the book type of man. It's a different, sterner variation on the jolly fat man, but you can't imagine him enjoying mince pies at every home as he is more of a "Let's get it over with" public servant who keeps a record of every letter sent to him, so might have a touch of the bureaucrat about him too.
If there is any bright spot in this, it is the charming Harnois, as her Abbie doesn't seem old enough to have allowed all this maudlin atmosphere affect her too much, though everyone else is quietly well meaning at best, and a mean-minded grump at worst. As if things couldn't get any worse for the Graingers, dad is shot dead in a bank robbery by a troublesome customer who had given Ginny grief earlier, and then kidnaps the kids accidentally whereupon they all drive off a bridge. Ho, ho - oh, never mind. The film is not so hard hearted that it would leave Ginny alone like that, but the fact that it did set this situation up in the first place may generate resentment in the viewer. Though the oft-mentioned Christmas Spirit wins through in the end, it will more likely have you wondering why people can't be nicer to each other on the other days of the year as well if these are the results, but maybe that was the point. Music by Michael Conway Baker.