Bells, choirs, and big band brass ring in the holiday season every year as people begin to hear the familiar carols in stores and rewatch their favorite Christmas movies. Even if a movie has a great plot or great actors, it isn’t complete without an equally great score.
- Babes in Toyland, 1961. George Burns and Mel Levin base their score, songs, and lyrics on Victor Herbert’s score from the 1906 operetta. Young Mary Contrary and Tom Piper are about to celebrate their marriage when the evil miser Barnaby puts an end to their plans. Except for the toys, Babes in Toyland does not have a very “Christmassy” feeling, but its first release in December and continued production in holiday pops concerts and TV Christmas movie specials made it a Christmas classic.
- Narnia, 2005. The Pevensie’s trip into the 100-year-old winter wonderland involves treachery, betrayal, and witchcraft. While the children seek shelter and protection from the beaver family, their first glimpse of hope comes from Father Christmas. He is not as jolly as our traditional Santa Claus, but his return to Narnia marks the beginning of the end of the White Witch’s reign and the return of Aslan. Harry Gregson-Williams does not incorporate traditional carols, but Father Christmas’s happy arrival includes a choir and bell-like tinkling. The music becomes serious when Father Christmas delivers the gifts to the children—not toys, but tools critical to the triumph of Aslan and Narnia.
- Die Hard, 1988. NY City cop, John McClane, visits his estranged wife in LA and attends her work Christmas party, but it turns sinister when a group of terrorists take over the building. As the only police officer inside and aware of the dire situation, McClane must save Christmas. Composer Michael Kamen weaves “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th symphony throughout the score. He cleverly changes the tempo, instruments, and variations on the traditional melody to emphasize the film’s action and emotional intensity. “Ode to Joy” is a poem based Fredrich Schiller’s poem similarly titled “To Joy.” This significant poem has been adopted by Christmas because of its overwhelming praise for joy—a carol that celebrates the unification and peace of brotherhood.
- The Snowman, 1982. The 26-minute film, told without dialogue, relies on the creativity of Howard Blake’s score. The story follows a young boy who rushes out after the first snowfall to build a snowman. At midnight the snowman comes to life, and the boy and snowman explore the kitchen, play dress-up with his father’s clothes and mother’s make-up, and take a joy ride on a motorcycle. When the fun seems to waning, the snowman takes the boy by the hand, and they run up into the air. The song “Walking in the Air” is sung by a young boy, and while the snowman and boy fly above the sky, they admire the cities and wild landscape of the earth below them.
- Krampus, 2015. If you are someone who enjoys Christmas movies that are little off the beaten path, the horror film Krampus tells another side of Christmas. The Central European mythological creature, Krampus, accompanies St. Nicholas, and while St. Nick rewards the good boys and girls with gifts and candy, Krampus punishes the naughty children. Douglas Pipes’s score contains all the elements of horror: sinister tremelo, off beat rhythms, and moments of quiet followed by wild crescendos, all while still including fragmented pieces from traditional carols. If you know the Christmas carols well, you will be able to pick out the short phrases from “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and many others.
- Elf, 2003. When a baby is adopted by Santa Claus and raised as an elf, the realization of his true human ancestry comes as a shock. Buddy journeys to New York to find his birth father, spreading Christmas cheer along the way. John Derby creates a joyful atmosphere by incorporating big band tunes, snatches of Nutcracker, and traditional carols. The use of bells and choir introduce Buddy’s main theme. The central melody is whistled, capturing Buddy’s childlike innocence.
- The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992. This fun interpretation of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol links the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchet to the playful antics of the Muppets. The brass opening is reminiscent of the Salvation Army bands that used to frequent street corners. While Miles Goodman incorporates traditional carols into the score, Paul Williams has written endearing new songs. Even the grouchy Scrooge and the mysterious ghosts capture the happiness, friendship, family, and love we strive to feel at Christmas time.
- The Grinch, 2018. Danny Elfman maintains the joyful spirit of the 1966 “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” cartoon by keeping the original songs as part of the score. Elfman uses music box chimes, choir, whistling, and organ to help capture the magic of a Christmas in Whoville. He doesn’t hold back on the Grinch’s dark theme which makes his transition into the Christmas hero grander. Elfman doesn’t neglect to include a short clip of mission impossible as the Grinch sneaks from house to house.
- Miracle on 34th Street, 1994, 1934. Both versions tell the story of a department store Santa Claus who claims to be the real Kris Kringle. Although the scores do not resemble each other, they both capture the magic of a Santa Claus who is the bearer of not only gifts but of a Christmas where people can believe in miracles. Brilliant bells resound in Bruce Boughton’s 1994 overture, ringing in the Christmas season with the Thanksgiving Day parade. The theme introduced here mingles with “Joy to the World,” and persists in different variations throughout the film. The 1934 version uses the celesta to recreate the sugar plum fairy sound. You can hear the big band influence through the parade sequence, and Cyril Mockridge utilizes “Jingle Bells” as his recurring theme.
- Home Alone, 1990. After wishing his family would disappear, Kevin is accidentally left behind. He courageously booby traps his own home to catch two ruthless criminals, but more importantly he forms a friendship with his misunderstood neighbor. When Kevin goes to church, he meets his neighbor and encourages him to make amends with his family. John Williams creates a score with a memorable main theme and uses the music to enhance Kevin’s slap-stick antics. Willams captures the true meaning of Christmas as Kevin develops an unlikely friendship with his neighbor, and begins to miss his own family.
There are hundreds of Christmas movies that appeal to the different preferences of all audiences. The music develops themes, character, and plot through the use of familiar instrumentation and melody, but it is each composer’s unique style that forms a truly brilliant score.