There’s nothing better than firing up a Christmas classic while sitting around a crackling fire or getting your tree decorated. These days, which indeed are merry and bright, can be made merrier and brighter with the right visual accompaniment. And there’s just something about a Disney Christmas movie or special that is even more powerful. Below are 11 great options for a snuggly night in, embroidered and made bolder by that specific Disney magic.
Behold, our list of the best Christmas movies to watch on Disney+ right now.
“Iron Man 3” (2013)
Yes, “Iron Man 3” is a Christmas movie. In fact, “Iron Man 3’s” Christmas setting is an example of one of the few Marvel Studios movies to be set in a specific time; the rest of them are all part of a nondescript sometime that allows the movies to bleed into one another (or crossover, if need be). This is also why “Iron Man 3” is one of the very best Marvel Cinematic Universe movies – it actually feels like it was the product of its writer/director Shane Black, who has a history of setting muscular movies at Christmastime (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” etc.) And there is a fair amount of Christmas in it – Christmas lights, Christmas trees, snow, Christmas songs on the soundtrack (although even the almighty Kevin Feige couldn’t land Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis”). So if you want to scratch your Marvel itch while also getting into the holiday spirit, throw on “Iron Man 3.”
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992)
Not just a great Christmas movie, not just an excellent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal “A Christmas Carol” (there are two more versions of the tale on this list alone!), not just one of the very best Muppet movies ever, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is all of the above. The first Muppet film following the tragic death of Jim Henson (and the equally tragic death of longtime Muppet performer Richard Hunt, who died in 1992 of complications related to AIDS), there is something bittersweet about “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” which was adapted by Jerry Juhl and directed by Henson’s son Brian, two people who were directly impacted by these tragic losses. Anchored by the very human performance of Michael Caine as Scrooge and a very good collection of songs by frequent Muppet collaborator Paul Williams (we’re tabling the “When Love Is Gone” discussion), “The Muppet Christmas Carol” faithfully retells the original story, with all sorts of fun Muppet asides (Gonzo and Rizzo as the narrators are a particularly fine flourish) and some nifty, new-for-the-time digital effects that maintained Jim’s commitment to technological innovation and restless creativity. A true Christmas classic, through and through.
“Home Alone” (1990)
Disney+ will undoubtedly try to sway you into watching this year’s “Home Sweet Home Alone,” a tepid retread that only succeeds in reminding you just how wonderful the original “Home Alone” really is. And, truly, “Home Alone” is revered as a yuletide favorite for a reason – it’s that good. Everything from John Hughes’ airtight script to John Williams’ immortal score, to the way that future “Harry Potter” architect Chris Columbus was able to get such a natural, hilarious performance out of Macaulay Culkin and several of the other kids is still mind-boggling after all these years. And what makes things even stranger is how the film is now part of the vast Disney portfolio; when it was released in 1990 it famously wiped the floor with Disney’s animated would-be blockbuster “The Rescuers Down Under” on its way to becoming one of the most successful live-action comedies of all time. (It was finally beat by, of all things, “The Hangover, Part II.”) Skip “Home Sweet Home Alone” and watch the original again (and again).
“The Santa Clause” (1994)
Here’s what’s fascinating: “The Santa Clause” was almost not a Disney movie at all. It was produced under the company’s cheaper, more adult-oriented Hollywood Pictures. (Trailers released in the summer of 1994, some attached to “The Lion King,” contained the Hollywood Pictures logo and a more adult-skewering tone.) Joe Roth, then an executive at Disney, saw an early cut and (according to Michael Eisner’s autobiography), lopped 15 minutes out of the runtime, added some visual effects, toned down some of the rougher language and turned it into a Disney movie. The experiment was a success; not only was the movie a smash but it turned into a reliable little franchise, with two sequels (both also on Disney+). (Why haven’t they done a legacy sequel to this on Disney+?) It’s such a fun premise, and Allen really is great in the role of a man who accidentally kills Santa Claus and is forced to take over his role. It’s still funny, too. Of course, back before he was a right-wing tool, Allen’s working-class humor went a long way. Ah, we were so naïve back then.
“Prep & Landing” (2009)
During a somewhat fallow period in Walt Disney Animation Studios history, they worked on “Prep & Landing,” a half-hour TV special with beautiful animation from the studio, a great concept from writer/directors Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers-Skelton, and a lovely holiday score from Michael Giacchino. In the film, Dave Foley plays a disgruntled elf (in this story they are envisioned as black ops spies instead of clumsy fairy tale creatures), who gets passed over for a promotion and saddled with an inexperienced rookie as a partner. Of course, he learns valuable lessons with a little help from “The Big Guy” himself, in a special that is as touching as it is exciting. The following year, there was an animated short set in the same universe (“Operation: Secret Santa”) and in 2011 a full-on holiday special sequel, “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice,” featuring a standout performance by Rob Riggle. Everything is on Disney+, and the world is so rich and fun that you could make a whole night out of “Prep & Landing” goodness, while wondering to yourself why Disney doesn’t promote these specials more/incorporate the characters into the company’s yearly celebrations.
“Mickey’s Christmas Carol” (1983)
Released in 1983, “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” might seem like a marginal Christmas featurette (theatrically it was released with the Christmas 1983 re-release of “The Rescuers”), but it is a pretty stunning accomplishment (it was nominated for an Oscar), full of dazzling animation and completed by a murderer’s row of animation talent. To explain, this was one of the last Disney projects that featured the original generation of Disney animators as well as the rush of new animators who had just come to the studio. It was directed by the great Burny Mattinson, whose first movie was “Lady and the Tramp,” and included fresh work from young Turks like John Lasseter, Glen Keane, Mark Henn and Randy Cartwright, many of whom opted to work on the featurette instead of the studio’s troubled fantasy epic “The Black Cauldron.” The final product is frequently moving, with all of your favorite Disney standbys playing characters in Charles Dickens’ classic (something the Muppets would do, with similar success, a few years later – see above). As one of the last movies before the new Disney regime (ushered in the year after “Mickey’s Christmas Carol”) would reemphasize the importance of animation at the studio, it is a remarkably beautiful oddity.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)
Tim Burton had originally conceived of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as a half-hour stop-motion animated special like the ones he adored as a child. But this was when he was still toiling away as a Disney animator. When he was approached by Disney about restarting the project, he was now the director of offbeat blockbusters like “Batman” and “Beetlejuice,” and instead of a special, the studio wanted an entire stop-motion feature. The eventual movie, directed by Burton confederate Henry Selick, is the rare movie that is an annual watch for two holidays – Christmas and Halloween. (And even if you just watched it for Halloween, it’s worth another spin.) The story follows Jack (voiced by Chris Sarandon), the king of Halloween, who falls in love with Christmas and wants to give Santa Claus a break this year. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a sort of reverse “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” centered around a character who loves the holiday so much that his love ends up smothering the thing that he thinks is so special. And the stop-motion mastery is still a sight to behold. Initially viewed as a disappointment, the movie serves as one of the company’s crown jewels, particularly around the holidays, when the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland are transformed into the Haunted Mansion Holiday.
“A Christmas Carol” (2009)
The last mo-cap movie Robert Zemeckis made in his ill-fated arrangement with Disney was “A Christmas Carol,” a whirligig adaptation of the Charles Dickens story that saw him pushing all of the technology (computer animation! 3D! motion capture! Actors playing multiple roles!) in service of attempting to make the definitive version of the tale. It didn’t work. It was a box office disappointment and Disney doesn’t even acknowledge it in a list of Christmas favorites on the service. It’s a shame, too, because it is really good. Some of the impact is robbed due to the format (just imagine, when the camera zooms through London, that you’re watching it in eye-popping 3D), but the animation is solid, and Jim Carrey’s performances as Scrooge and the three ghosts are actually enthralling (Gary Oldman also plays several roles). And it’s fun to see Zemeckis reunite with Bob Hoskins one last time before the actor’s passing. This one might be too intense for the youngest viewers but is otherwise a rip-roaring good time. And with any luck, Alan Silvestri’s twinkly score will one day become a Christmas staple like John Williams’ “Home Alone” music.
“Decorating Disney: Holiday Magic” (2017)
If you’ve ever wondered how Disney Parks are transformed into glittering yuletide utopias, then this is the special for you. “Decorating Disney: Holiday Magic,” narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and featuring appearances from Disney regulars Sofia Carson and Jordan Fisher, is both a slickly produced puff piece meant to generate interest in the various parks and resorts, and a genuinely eye-opening look at how the parks can literally be changed overnight. You also get a behind-the-scenes peek at the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay and the entertainment offerings for the holiday (soon you too can boogie like an elf). It’s also worth noting that the Disney-speak term for the holiday period is “wintertime enchantment,” which is both magical and vaguely unsettling. At the very least, this is the best special to watch while decorating your Christmas tree or putting up your lights.
“The Small One” (1978)
Released with a 1978 Christmas re-release of “Pinocchio,” “The Small One” is an engrossing featurette that, at the time of its initial theatrical exhibition, was (at least according to marketing) “destined to be a Disney holiday classic.” That didn’t happen, exactly, but it probably should have. (That same year it debuted on HBO.) This somewhat low-budget production (see if you can spot the recycled animation from “The Jungle Book”) still feels visually ravishing; the character animation for Small One, a donkey, is particularly impressive. And it served as a testing ground for the crop of new animators that would soon come to dominate the field – not just at Disney but in western animation as a whole. Director/producer Don Bluth would soon be dubbed, by some, as the next Walt Disney, and his dramatic exit from the company would send the animation division into chaos. Other animators who worked on the project included Gary Goldman, who would soon become Bluth’s longtime creative partner, Jerry Rees, and future “Nightmare Before Christmas” director Henry Selick. And while some of the, er, ethnic stereotypes are enough to make you cringe, particularly in the section set at a Nazareth marketplace (it’s shocking this doesn’t have one of those Disney+ disclaimers), the story is really very sweet, particularly when the story reaches its conclusion. If you’ve never seen “The Small One,” give it a whirl. Maybe it’ll be destined to be a Disney holiday classic, at least in your house.
“Babes in Toyland” (1961)
At the very least, this deserves to be a part of your holiday rotation, for the kitsch value alone. Disney Mouseketeer Annette Funicello leads a very 1961 cast that includes Ray Bolger, Tommy Sands and Ed Wynn, adapting the 1903 operetta in the most “early live-action Disney movie” way possible. (The project had been developed, for at least five years, as an animated feature directed by Disney legend Ward Kimball. Kimball continued developing it in live-action but was dismissed after clashing over casting.) Watching the movie, you can feel Walt chasing “The Wizard of Oz” (something that he publicly admitted at the time), but it doesn’t quite have the razzle-dazzle to pull it off, feeling much stagier and stiffer than the yellow-brick-road-lined classic. Still, there are some terrific musical numbers and everybody seems to be having a good time (it was a particular favorite for Funicello). It’s particularly fun to watch the behind-the-scenes episode of “The Wonderful World of Color” that was timed to the movie’s release (it’s called “Backstage Party” and it is sadly not on Disney+). Even if you’ve never seen the movie, chances are you know of it, since the toy soldiers from the film have become an iconic part of the year “wintertime enchantment” (their words) at the various Disney theme parks.