Christmas Movie Smackdown: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ vs. ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’

To read more of Sharp’s Christmas Movie Smackdown, click here.

Something about the central conceit of It’s a Wonderful Life has been bothering me recently. You know how it goes: Kind, hardworking George Bailey is drunk and contemplating suicide, driven to the brink by a long series of deferred-then-dashed dreams. Fortunately, prayers for him reach Heaven and a folksy angel named Clarence comes to the rescue, walking George through how much his thankless sacrifices have changed the world for the better. It’s a wonderful life because George is a wonderful person.

But wait a minute: What if George weren’t so consistently, unimpeachably good? What if he’d let his brother drown? What if he’d sold his soul to Mr. Potter? What if he’d been a shitty father? What if he inspired no prayers? What if his net effect on the world had actually been negative? Would Clarence have bothered to save him then, or would the formless angels from the movie’s first scene have shouted “I’ll see you in Hell!” and then clocked out early for the day, in time for a few rounds of two-for-one eggnog at heaven’s happy hour? (I’m guessing God has a stiff pour.)

According to the moral logic of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey deserves to be saved because he is good — which when you think about it is kind of a fucked-up, Ayn Rand-ian premise for our most beloved Christmas movie to hinge on. “Gather round, children, let’s celebrate the birth of the savior who died for our sins by watching a movie about a man who never does anything wrong.”

You know how super-attractive people sometimes Instagram “ugly” selfies, then sit back and wait for the stream of “omg no ur sooo pretty”s to come in? It’s a Wonderful Life is like that. It consoles those least in need of consolation.

The moral question posed by The Muppet Christmas Carol — and holy shit, is that a phrase I never thought I’d type — is a lot smarter, trickier, and, ultimately, more relevant: Do terrible people deserve salvation, too?

The movie’s answer to that question is a resounding “yes,” but that has a lot more to do with Charles Dickens than Kermit the Frog. The Muppet Christmas Carol is fine. It’s funny, it’s sweet, and it gets the job done in 86 minutes. But frankly, the Dickens source material is such a perfect distillation of what Christmas is all about that making a terrible movie out of it would take real work.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is far from terrible, but I wouldn’t call it inspired. On the other hand, It’s a Wonderful Life IS kind of terrible, thematically, but it’s not a classic by accident. Watching it feels so good that it’s hard to get too upset by the story’s more un-Christmas-y implications. Christmas cookies are bad for you, too, but who lets that stop them?

So what to do? We have, more than a little improbably, The Muppet Christmas Carol appealing to my brain and It’s a Wonderful Life clinging to my heart. If this were any other contest, I’d choose my brain in a second — but it’s the Christmas Movie Smackdown, celebrating a holiday that is loud, dumb, garish, commercially compromised, and still, somehow, the most wonderful time of the year. I have no choice: The heart wins.

THE WINNER: It’s A Wonderful Life

08A_xmas bracket