God rest ye merry gentlemen?
Don’t make me laugh. Christmas is no time for rest. Not when you live on Candy Cane Lane in lovely El Segundo, California, at least.
It may not officially be in the local HOA’s guidelines, but owning a house on Candy Cane Lane comes with certain responsibilities, shall we say. Certain expectations. One does not say “bah” or “humbug” come the holiday season. One does not simply throw a weak string of Christmas lights on one’s tree and call it good.
No, the residents go all out for Christmas. Lights! Music! All those blow-up character balloons! No, it’s not the Christmas season unless neighborhood visitors are temporarily blinded by holiday cheer; assaulted by tidings of comfort and joy. One assumes that El Segundo has a seasonal power plant that it recommissions every December—just to power the homes on Candy Cane Lane.
Chris Carver fits into the lane’s holiday vibe perfectly. Every year, he trots out his hand-carved décor—reindeer, nutcrackers, angels—and covers every square foot of lawn with the stuff. Every year, he hopes that his house will be recognized as the most Christmassy (Christmessy?) on the block. And every year, he loses to his neighbor, Bruce—that blasted Bruce and his army of blow-up decorations that he probably just bought on clearance at Costco.
Yeah, Chris would like to give that merry gentleman a little rest. You bet he would.
But this year, things’ll be different.
Why? Well, for one thing, they need to be.
See, Chris was just laid off from his job. The $100,000 grand prize for being the most Christmassy house on Candy Cane Lane (ponied up by a local cable company) will go a long way toward taking the sting out of unemployment.
Plus, his kids are getting older. His daughter, Joy, is about to bolt for college. His son, Nick, isn’t far behind. This might be the last Christmas that this five-member family (including wife, Carol, and youngest daughter, Holly) will be all together. Chris wants to keep his layoff a secret from the kids and make this Christmas the best Christmas ever.
But Chris also has a holiday ace to play, too.
He and Holly just discovered a strange-but-fantastic Christmas store called Kringle’s, and it’s stuffed to the rafters with the greatest holiday décor Chris has ever seen. And the biggest? The best? The veritable Taj Mahal of Christmas kitsch? A 20-foot expandable “tree” that unpacks the “12 days of Christmas” in a light-and-sound display that would make the Las Vegas Strip envious.
Chris bought the tree, naturally. He paid for it with a credit card and signed the receipt and everything.
Was it odd that the store’s proprietor—a strange lady named Pepper—told Chris to ignore the fine print? (“Legal mumbo jumbo,” she says with a giggle. “It’s like you’re signing your life away.”) Or that she seemed particularly filled with comfort and joy when she took the receipt?
But Chris has other things on his mind as he straps the tree to the roof of his car. He wants to show the neighborhood—no, the world—just what Christmas cheer looks like. He wants the money. And he wants to rub Bruce’s face in a big ol’ figgy pudding, too.
Now, that’s the Christmas spirit.
Candy Cane Lane satirizes Christmas commercialism and the strange, seasonal-decorating arms race, of course—a phenomenon that could probably use a little ribbing. We briefly see an apt quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” But the film is far more about family, and it has some really nice things to say about that subject.
As you might have guessed, Chris didn’t just spend way more money than he should’ve on that 12 Days of Christmas tree; he kinda signed away his soul. If Pepper has her way, Chris will become another ornament in the Kringle’s shop. It takes some time for Chris to figure out what’s going on—and even longer to tell his family. But when fesses up to Carol, she assures him that she’s got his back.
“We show up because we’re on the same team,” she says, pointing at her wedding ring. “We show up for each other, no matter how strange.”
The kids hop on board, too—but not before they have a heart-to-heart with their dad about his so-called Christmas spirit. Chris may say that every decision, including his extravagant decorating, is all for the kids. But eldest daughter, Joy, says that ultimately, he’s being selfish: He doesn’t want the kids’ help. He just wants them to ooh and ahh and tell him what a great job he’s done. “You do this for yourself,” she tells him. Chris takes the criticism to heart, tries to heal some lingering hurts and, most importantly, encourages the family to work as a team to save him from Pepper’s duplicitous clutches.
“It’s not about what you have on the outside of your house,” Chris says, neatly summing up the movie’s moral. “It’s who you have on the inside.”
And later, he adds another little refrigerator-magnet-worthy statement. “If you have family and love, you can get through anything. And it’s always better to get through it together than on your own.”
When Pepper asks Chris what he thinks the true meaning of Christmas is, he says, “Christmas is about giving! And it’s about the power of a child’s imagination. And it’s about giving the least popular reindeer with a red nose a chance to be great. Unless you want to go for the religious angle.”
Pepper smiles and says, “Jesus Christ, no.” It’s a statement meant to be taken both as a simple namecheck and a blasphemy.
That’s perhaps the most alarming statement found in Candy Cane Lane—a film that otherwise seems to give the religious underpinnings of the holiday a nod of acknowledgement before it concentrates on other things.
One of the houses on Candy Cane Lane underscores the holy in the holiday. The elaborately decorated house includes a sign on the front yard that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” which we read as “Joy to the World” plays. (The next house on the block is festooned with Hanukah decorations. The unveiling of all the neighborhoods’ décor is being televised by a cable outlet, and the hosts remind everyone that “Jesus was a Jew” as the cameras move on.) We hear some references to the Wise Men’s gifts to Jesus. A couple of religiously themed Christmas carols play in the background. Someone dresses as an angel.
For families looking to put a more religious spin on the film, though, Candy Cane Lane offers a strong (and I think intentional) opportunity.
We learn that Pepper is an elf who once worked at the North Pole. In fact, she was “Santa’s favorite,” we’re told. But she was a stickler for rules; and if anyone made even one mistake, Pepper would throw them on Santa’s naughty list. “Her standards were impossible,” someone tells us. “One strike, and you’re out.” So Santa demoted her “all the way down to the reindeer stable.” In a huff, Pepper quit.
You don’t need to squint too hard to see elements of Lucifer’s relationship with God in this, or to notice the push-pull between living a blameless life and the necessity of grace. The film underlines these (admittedly inconsistent) echoes: When we first meet Pepper, she wears an antlered headpiece that looks ever-so-slightly like a set of horns. And someone later refers to her as “Santa’s little devil.” someone quips that “she going to hell.”
Without giving too much away, the film returns to the theme of grace and second chances—albeit second chances seasoned with a more Catholic smattering of punishment and penance.
We meet several sentient holiday figurines (once people who fell for Pepper’s nasty schemes), and one takes a liking to Carol.
“Hey, watch it,” Chris says. “That’s my wife.”
“For now, brother,” the figurine, a lamplighter named Gary, says. Later, Gary invites her to check him for batteries (wink wink) and makes a few other mildly suggestive comments.
A milkmaid is dressed a little provocatively. Joy wears a top that exposes cleavage. When Chris says that he wants this to be the “best Christmas ever,” he amends that to say that nothing can top the first one, “which was obviously a biggie.” He could be referring to the very first Christmas …. but the way Carol smiles and says, “That was special,” makes me think the reference had a more personal, romantic meaning.
Candy Cane Lane is peppered with some double entendres that will likely pass right over younger viewers’ heads. Chris and Bruce talk about his “blow-up dolls” (meaning his Christmas decorations). There’s a bit of dialogue about “rubbing the partridge.” Someone says he was hit “Right in my coccyx.” It’s the technical term for the tailbone, but it obviously sounds risqué in context. There’s a reference to a character’s three marriages. “Those were annulled, and you know it!” the character shoots back. There’s a reference to touching “another man’s stick” (meant quite literally in the movie).
Slapstick violence plays a part in several scenes, though no one seems particularly injured.
A sentient figurine suffers a strong electrical shock. Two figurines are thrown about. (“I hurt my bustle,” one says. “I hurt my everything,” another says.) Someone is hit with a water bottle and tripped by a javelin. Chris looks like he’s about ready to rumble with several would-be assailants.
A character gets caught in a rope snare and hangs, for a time, upside-down. We see people fight over stuff in a Christmas buying frenzy. Carol tells her children never to split up, because that’s how you die in horror movies. “The Black person always dies first,” Gary the lamplighter says. “And y’all black.” Someone wishes another character could be flogged. Another person gets kicked in the shin.
The Carvers (and others) are attacked by the people and creatures name-checked in “The 12 Days of Christmas.” As such, people are pelted by newly laid eggs (from the geese a-laying); someone nearly drowns in milk (from a maid a-milking); and so on. But when those entities themselves are defeated, they transform back into their wooden forms that originally decorated the tree.
We hear more language than you’d expect for a PG film, including six uses of “a–,” along with “p-ss,” “crap,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused nearly 25 times.
In addition, we hear plenty of stand-ins and nods to harsher profanities. “Freaking” and “flipping” are both used as f-word substitutes, as is (oddly) “yolking” and “elfing.” And when someone looks ready to utter the f-word in earnest, a group of carolers conveniently chimes in with “fa-la-la-la-la.” The s-word is also nearly uttered a couple of times before trailing into inoffensive nonsense. After someone’s kicked, he exclaims, “son of a Blitzen!”
We hear several running jokes about box wine, including a quip from Chris saying that he could drink a whole box himself.
A couple of very light references to drug use turn up, too: When Chris asks Holly for some materials to further his decorating habit, for instance, Holly hands some to her dad and says, “I got a supplier. I can hook you up with more if you need it.” Later, Chris tells Holly to ignore him, because he’s “trippin’.”
We hear a few references to cleaning out reindeer stalls. A character complains of motion sickness. Chris pulls Holly out of school to help with his decorating obsession.
As mentioned, the movie riffs on the stress and commercialization of Christmas. As such, we see a lot of unhealthy attitudes on display throughout the film.
Ah, ‘tis the season … for holiday comedies.
We’ve already seen several slide down the chimney during the 2023 Christmas season, with each hoping to be unwrapped by families hither and yon. Most thus far have come with sweet little message, a few laughs and a handful of issues.
And compared to its family-centric peers, Candy Cane Lane is both this season’s king and krampus.
Candy Cane Lane is funny. Not just funny for the kids, or funny in sort of an obligatory, Christmas charity sort of way. It’s positively laugh-out-loud funny. Give some credit to star Eddie Murphy, and give more to costar Tracee Ellis Ross (familiar to many from the TV show black-ish). While not quite the equal of Apple TV+’s Spirited, in my opinion, it is a sharp, entertaining diversion.
And I love some of the messages the movie gives us. Chris and Carol Carver’s marriage clearly isn’t perfect, but they know what marriage itself is about. It’s about better or worse, richer or poorer, ‘til death or Christmas curse tear us apart. It’s got some unexpected theological heft to it, as well.
But as nice as all that is, this isn’t a PG-level movie as we typically understand it these days. While it might technically qualify, to call it such is like unwrapping a bicycle-shaped Christmas present and finding an alligator underneath.
This film features curse words and winks at them; it’s got veiled sexual asides and drug-reference nudges. We hear a use of Jesus’ name that will raise many a parental eyebrow—and put the film right out of bounds for some.
And that makes Candy Cane Lane a lot like many a Christmas present, right? It’s fun. It’s colorful. It has its merits. But be careful how you handle it, or it might shoot yer eye out.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.