Christmas Break with the Kids: What’s the Appeal of Hallmark Family Movies?

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Our second Pandemic School Holiday break finds us in familiar territory – at home and spending more time than ever together in the nest. For those not totally consumed by the World Junior Hockey Championship re-runs, it’s been hard to miss the annual “Countdown to Christmas” series of Hallmark Card-inspired. made-for-TV movies.

Tradition outlasts glitz, small town trumps big city, and cheesy sure beats sleazy when it comes to spending Christmas break with children of all ages. Those, like me, who still find classic fairy-tales enchanting, precocious children adorable, and ‘happy endings’ irresistible, are easy marks for the Hallmark Movie Channel and its imitators.

Family fare movies and wholesome romantic comedies are big business, peaking during festive periods and the annual cycle of greeting card seasons. The leading producer of such films, Hallmark Movie Channel and its production company, Crown Media, dominate this segment of the family entertainment field.

Founded in 1951, Hallmark Cards cut its teeth with the Hallmark Hall of Fame anthology movie series, then entered the home video market from 1990 to 1996. Crown was formed in 1991 by Hallmark Cards to purchase cable television systems and to produce content.  In January 2004, the parent company split off Hallmark Movie Channel and by 2005 was on track to have 9 million subscribers within two years. Today, the Hallmark Channel regularly attracts 827,000 cable television viewers, second only to Fox News Channel.  Tens of millions more watch the patented ‘happy ending, sealed with a kiss’ movies.

Hundreds of family movies have been produced since 2006, capped-off by the annual “Countdown to Christmas” two-month-long extravaganza, starting on October 22 this year. Some 41 new movies were rolled out this season, aired in Canada on the W Network, Super Channel /Heart and Home, Global TV app., and Stack TV. Out of the 41 new flicks, 34 were filmed in Canada, with mostly Canadian actors and crew. Standing in for Chicago, Denver and Montana are Canadian locations such as Langley and Maple Ridge, BC, Ottawa and Almonte, Ontario. New Brunswick-born director Jason Bourque even brought his small-town sensibility to the 2020 film, A Christmas Tree Grows in Colorado, filmed with man-made snow during a July 2020 heatwave in Hope, BC.

Morality plays and costume dramas have always drawn me in, especially if they involve teachers, children and schools. That may explain why, since 2014, over eight seasons, my television set has been regularly tuned-in to the most theatrical of all the Hallmark confections, When Calls the Heart, aired in Canada on CBC-TV.

Pioneering school teacher, Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), descended from a wealthy Hamilton family, moves to Coal Valley, falls in love with a Mountie, and transforms the little village into a picture-perfect frontier town renamed Hope Valley. It’s a thinly veiled update of the 1924 Broadway musical Rose Marie, set in the “Canadian wilderness” and immortalized in the 1936 American film starring Jeanette MacDonald as the girl and Nelson Eddy as the Mountie.  As a regular watcher, you come to know “Miss Thatcher’s” succession of beaus (two Mounties and a saloon owner), all of the children in Thatcher’s class, and look forward to “Christmas in Hope Valley.”

Even during Christmas break, some of us cannot get enough entertainment about teachers, schools, and kids.  One of the first Hallmark offerings to catch my attention was Beyond the Blackboard, a heart-warming 2011 TV movie, inspired by a true story about a 24-year-old beginning teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, played by Emily VanCamp, who makes a difference in the lives of the homeless children she teaches in a shelter’s classroom, called, literally, The School with No Name.

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Inspiring teacher stories always get me, even if they are produced by the studio for middle-American television audiences.  Hallmark’s first movie musical, The Music Teacher, which premiered in April 2011, fit that description. In it, a Kansas City school music teacher, Alyson Daley (Annie Potts) fights back when the local school board cuts funding to her after-school music program. Coming together to rehearse for a final production, –you guessed it – the ensemble forms “new bonds to repair old ones – just in time” and give their “beloved teacher renewed strength to heal her heart.”

Rallying to save a school or its programs is one of Hallmark’s favourite story lines.  One recent offering, A Christmas Break, first aired in 2020, was less successful. School principal Addison Tate (Cindy Sampson) attempts to save Mission City Middle School by reaching back-in-time to parachute-in a former high school boyfriend, scandal-plagued, ego-centric movie star Dylan Davidson, played by Canadian actor Steve Byers. Students and teachers rally with Dylan to “Save Our School” and naturally succeed. Rather implausibly, the sedate and responsible-looking principal loses her head and agrees to join the Hollywood star on his next shoot in Bulgaria.

Children in such family movies often look too good to be true and some are reminiscent of what is termed the “perfect child syndrome.” Next time you are watching one of those Hallmark kids, see if they fit this description: “Perfect children try hard to be good enough from the perspective of their parents.”  In short, they listen to their often-single parent or guardian and don’t cause any problems. Some play matchmaker for widowed parents, helping them to find new loves, to complete the bifurcated nuclear family.

One glimpse at the faces of the “Children of Hallmark Movies” page on Pinterest confirms such perceptions, presenting you with a full page of smiley faces, cuddling children, and picture-perfect parent-child scenes. Judging from the family life fan magazines, Christmas movies also generate ‘child stars,” including Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis, who shot to prominence in the 1989 comedy, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

One of the most memorable scenes, for me, was a small vignette involving a Middle School Student, Kelli Watson (Caitlin E.J. Meyer), caught “cheating” in class.  It appears well into the rather obscure modern fairy tale movie, Belle and the Beast (Wisen West Films, 2011), a Christian romance film shown periodically on Super Channel’s Heart and Home Network.

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Stepping in to help Kelli out of a jam, Eric Landry (The Beast/ Matthew Reese), finds himself mistaken for her father and covers for the teen by meeting alone with a stereotypical ‘by-the-book’ principal (Byron Critchfield).  “I’m so dead,” Kelli confides in him. “Dad will ground me [and sister Belle will lecture me]. Do you ever feel like your life is over? And it’s not fair, because I didn’t mean it to happen. It just looked wrong.” It turns out that Kelli never even got the answer she sought from her seat-mate and her older sister, the angelic and exquisitely beautiful Belle (Summer Naomi Smart) forgave her minor indiscretion.

Family movies certainly appeal to people who are, at heart, ‘goody-goodies’ in real life. That’s why most normal teens, including the real-life children of current Hallmark stars like Candice Cameron Bure wouldn’t be caught dead watching such ‘cheesy’ and ‘lame’ TV movies.

It’s been a rough year or two for all of us. Watching Hallmark movies is what ‘home-bodies’ do and it’s now considered ‘campy’ in COVID-19 times when we are essentially quarantined for days on end with the Omicron virus swirling around outside the sanctity of our personal dwellings. Staying home, keeping in our family bubbles, and logging television screen time makes you crave a warm cup of cocoa.

Do you watch Hallmark Family Movies and similar imitation family-friendly programs?  (Be honest). What explains the appeal of such family entertainment?  How realistic are the teachers and children depicted in such shows?   If you ‘swear-off’ watching Hallmark movies, how have you managed to kick that addiction?

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