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‘Angela’s Christmas’: Two hidden gems for kids on Netflix



Matthew Becklo - published on 12/23/21

The films are based on the writing and life of the Irish author Frank McCourt, best known for his memoir about growing up in Limerick, Ireland, 'Angela's Ashes.'

Christmas movies for kids, like movies for kids generally, tend to fall into two categories: works of classic animation, usually older tales, that are calm, wholesome, and winsome, and works of digital animation, usually crazy, which have all the charm of a fever dream or a hallucinatory heave into the metaverse.

A welcome exception to the rule is found in two hidden gems on Netflix: Angela’s Christmas (2017) and Angela’s Christmas Wish (2020). These heartwarming short films from Damian O’Connor pair digital animation with classic storytelling—all wrapped in a beautiful Catholic bow.  

The first film, Angela’s Christmas, is based on a children’s story by Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes. In fact, the author’s family was closely involved in its creation: McCourt’s widow Ellen executive produced the film, and his brother Malachy narrates it. Ellen said, “It was my husband Frank’s dream to see this delicate little Christmas story transformed into a classic Christmas tale. With persistence and care, Brown Bag Films and 9 Story have made that dream a reality. He would be thrilled with Angela’s Christmas as is the entire extended McCourt family!” 

Set in 1910s Limerick, Angela’s Christmas tells the story of a poor Irish family—a mother, voiced by Ruth Negga, and her four children, Tom, Pat, Angela, and Aggie—on Christmas Eve. During Mass at the church down the street, the nearly six-year-old Angela gets it in her head that the baby Jesus in the Nativity set must be cold. She stays behind and takes the statue from the church, embarking on a fraught journey to secretly bring him home and keep him warm in her bed. Upon discovering the theft, Angela’s mother recalls a story about their father, in their own cold house, when Angela was born—prompting the little girl to make a difficult decision: “He needs to go home.” 

The sequel, Angela’s Christmas Wish, is not based on a McCourt book, but O’Connor checked the work against Malachy’s own memories to ensure it was in keeping with his legacy. The result is a slightly longer and even more heartwarming story: Angela and her brother Pat decide to surprise their mother for Christmas by bringing their father—who, we learn, has embarked for Australia to work—back to Limerick. They first contrive to dig their way there; when that fails, they join forces with a local veterinarian’s daughter to sneak onto a boat. But their mother has a Christmas surprise of her own in store—and when Angela and Tom return home defeated, the kids make a Christmas wish that, in a beautifully executed moment, comes true. The story ends where Angela’s Christmas began: at Mass with the baby Jesus (Angela is thrilled to show him her Christmas surprise) and in their humble home. 

The frenetic lunacy of so much children’s entertainment is entirely absent, but (speaking from experience) O’Connor’s two films have an authenticity and thoughtfulness that will hold the entire family’s rapt attention. For one thing, the music is wonderful, especially the two lead songs from Darren Hendley. In the first film, we hear the tender “Angela’s Song” (a version of which is performed by Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of the Cranberries, over the credits—her last recording before her death in 2018). In the second, we hear the melancholic, Gaelic-sounding “Place In Your Heart.” In an effort to raise money, Angela and Tom sing this tune to gruff Irish men in a bar drinking pints under an image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary—promptly splitting their hearts in two like firewood:

These are children’s films in which deep themes of anxiety, suffering, and separation are handled with a deft touch and peppered with moments of smart laugh-out-loud (even giggle fit) comic relief. And all of it is finally a celebration of the great Christian love, hope, and faith of Angela and her family, gathered together in their humility around the baby Jesus—which, it bears repeating, is what Christmas is all about. 

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