I hate to sound like a grinch but I doubt many viewers will make it all the way through Stan’s klutzy new Christmas movie – a low budget and rinky-dink slice of schmaltzy yuletide sentiment.
When a kindly toy shop owner and one of his staff members are taken hostage, and the shop held at ransom by a pair of goons who make the Beagle Boys look like criminal masterminds, the stage is set for a homage to John McTiernan’s 80s classic Die Hard, albeit (like the underrated Paul Blart: Mall Cop) from a far more kiddish perspective. There’s even a dialogue reference spoken by Miranda Tapsell’s pregnant security guard Gladys, who exclaims during a tense altercation with the baddies, “So this is what it means to die hard!”
But, like a lot of moments in this film, directed by Adele Vuko and written by Elliot Vella, Gretel Vella and Timothy Walker, that interaction feels only half thought out, and as a joke it doesn’t land. From a comedic perspective, in fact, it’s confusing: we know the interaction is intended to be humorous but what exactly about it is supposed to be funny? Like Home Alone, that wonderfully prankstery ode to mischief-making about a young ’un left home alone for the holidays, the premise underpinning Christmas Ransom taps into an appealing childhood fantasy: of being trapped in a large toy shop and defeating criminals using the merchandise at hand.
But the writers appear to forget the simple, tangy appeal of that concept and deviate from it in various ways. An extraneous prologue is dedicated to the toy shop’s history, a wholesome-sounding narrator painting it as a utopian place that “kids never wanted to leave” because it was “chock-a-block full of the best toys ever”. The owner was Clarence Harrington (Cleave Williams), a “real-life Santa Claus” who “was beloved by every kid who knew him”. And yeah yeah yeah, we get it: the guy was great, the store was great, everything was great – including the giant inflatable kangaroo outside that stored the kids’ letters to Santa.
But note the past tense. The narrative jumps forward in time to follow Clarence’s son Derrick (Matt Okine), now the owner of the store, which isn’t what it used to be. This bloke is the opposite of Scrooge, reeking of decency and goodwill. Early in the runtime Derrick takes pity on a poor mother and daughter, giving them free toys, before imploring his employee Pete (Ed Oxenbould) to knock off early.
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But alas! The goons – Shez (Bridie McKim) and Nan (Geneviève Lemon) – burst upon the scene, waiving around pistols and tying Derrick and Pete to chairs using golden tinsel. Unbeknown to them, others are in the building: Gladys and two young shoplifters Wombat (Evan Stanhope) and Brady (Tahlia Sturzaker), who we assume will hatch a clever plan and save the day, but instead just kind of bumble around. The writers never decide whose narrative this is, initially suggesting Derrick (who gets a family backstory in the prologue) is the protagonist but seemingly getting bored of him pretty quickly. It’s not really Gladys, Wombat and Brady’s story either; they frequently disappear and are usually reinserted to propel the narrative forward.
Okine rehashes his friendly, likable guy shtick (see also: The Other Guy), imbuing a largely uninteresting character with trademark lo-fi vibes. McKim and Lemon are badly miscast and completely unbelievable as the two villains, bringing jokiness but no comic menace – which is important in these kinds of roles. In Home Alone, for instance, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are criminals you love to hate; you really want to see them get hit on the noggin by a bucket of paint swinging from a string. McKim and Lemon don’t evoke any strong feelings at all – they’re nothing characters, like thin air in human form.
Tapsell, Stanhope and Sturzaker fare better but no one is a show-stopper or scene-stealer, and many of the side characters (including firefighters and a police negotiator played by Vuko) are neither plausible nor amusingly implausible.
Family-oriented Australian Christmas movies include 1987’s Bushfire Moon and two versions of Bush Christmas (from 1947 and 1983 respectively – the latter featuring Nicole Kidman’s first film performance). There are few others, though Stan has added a couple to the canon, with Vuko’s production and 2020’s A Sunburnt Christmas. Like Ransom Christmas, that much sharper and funnier film (penned by the same writers) is zany and sweet, but doesn’t make you want to reach for the vomit bag. In Ransom Christmas, one can sense the stench of schmaltz coming a mile away. I felt inclined to shield my eyes and block my ears, trying not to notice lines such as, “It wasn’t just a store, it was a family.” Yeck. Or maybe that should be: Bah humbug!
Christmas Ransom is streaming on Stan in Australia