Thomas Kinkade is well known to many as a commercial artist. His colorful paintings of idyllic countryscapes, lush gardens, and houses lit warmly by sunshine have found their way into thousands of American homes, but they have also drawn criticism from serious art critics who view them as empty, overly sentimental, all looks and no substance. Kinkade has certainly offered no apologies for his work, which he has defended as being comforting and nostalgic, evoking memories of a simpler and perhaps romanticized past. The artist brings those same qualities to "The Christmas Cottage," a mostly autobiographical film inspired by one of his best known paintings. Coming as a direct-to-DVD film, Kinkade's first venture as producer appropriately debuts just as mass-produced as his artwork.
The film takes place one winter in the late 1970s as 21-year-old Thomas Kinkade (Jared Padalecki) returns to his hometown of Placerville, California from Berkeley for the Christmas holiday. He and his younger brother, Pat (Aaron Ashmore), find things not quite as they left them when they discover that their single mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is in danger of losing her home to foreclosure. The boys decide to get jobs over the break to help out, but in such a small town there are not too many opportunities for quick cash. An art student still looking to find his inspiration, Thomas agrees to paint a mural of the town for Placerville's Christmas festival for $500. The drab little community is not the subject he has been waiting for, but it offers him a way to build his skills and earn a little money at the same time.
Living near the Kinkade home is an elderly artist named Glen (Peter O'Toole), who is still struggling to cope with the death of his wife. The once prolific painter is now bitter, reclusive, and in poor health, and only the Kinkades keep him company by bringing him food and checking on him regularly. Thomas goes to him for inspiration and advice, and when he tells him of the mural, Glen encourages him to use this as an opportunity to bring honor to and illuminate the community. But finding positive qualities is difficult for Thomas as Christmas draws nearer and his mother has little hope of keeping the family cottage.
Although based largely on real events from Kinkade's youth, "The Christmas Cottage" follows many of the familiar paths of typical Christmas-themed films. In the middle of the family's financial troubles, his mother helps out with the local church's annual Christmas pageant, which is in shambles as the cranky members of the community bring their personal grudges into rehearsals. The film is populated with the kinds of lost characters in need of some holiday spirit we are all so familiar with, and the cast of character actors bring them to life with considerable liveliness. Richard Burgi plays Thomas' estranged father who refuses to help with the family finances. Chris Elliott is enjoyable as the mayor who desperately but ineffectually tries to attract tourists. Richard Moll plays a hulking electrician locked in an eternal contest to top his neighbors' Christmas display. Edward Asner has a fairly unmemorable cameo as an art collector and old friend of Glen's. Kiersten Warren is an aging beauty queen who still thinks she has the goods to be a star. And Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett of TV's "The Facts of Life") goes all out as the tipsy church organist. All of these characters are classic Americana, and they are largely duplicates of similar figures from other Christmas classics, most notably Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life."
That very familiarity is both the virtue and the flaw of "The Christmas Cottage." It has all of the warm fuzziness of a Hallmark TV movie and the saccharine sweetness of a candy cane. It is comforting, low-key, wholesome entertainment, perfect for Christmas viewing and sure to satisfy viewers emotionally. On the other hand, it falls flat when compared to those same films that it recalls. It is not dramatically compelling like "It's a Wonderful Life," lacks the historical authenticity of "A Christmas Story," and fails to deliver the poignant messages of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" or even "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." It's a little like holiday leftovers—still warm and filling but not as fresh or tasty as the first Christmas Day meal.
Taken on its own, the film has a sweetness to it that is missing from much of today's rather cynical holiday entertainment. This sweetness can be largely attributed to the central performances of Jared Padalecki and Marcia Gay Harden. Padalecki gives a sensitive and unassuming portrayal that is refreshing for an actor of his generation. His emotions ring true and never seem forced. Somewhat less successful, surprisingly, is Peter O'Toole. This is not to say that O'Toole is bad. It just seems that we have seen him play the wise old mentor before (and we have certainly seen the character before). His character's plight is so utterly predictable, as is the rest of the film, that it is hard for the viewer to really muster any genuine involvement because we already know what is going to happen.
Lions Gate brings "The Christmas Cottage" to DVD in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer. The film looks perfectly adequate. Colors are nicely saturated, not overly vibrant but matching the story's low-key essence. Skin tones look natural throughout. There is some fine grain that gives the transfer a good film-like appearance. Black levels are generally solid, if perhaps not pitch. Overall, this DVD presents a very pleasing image.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 track delivers the dialogue-driven soundtrack well. There is not a lot going on with the audio, so even the 2.0 stereo track would be fine. Voices and music are always clear. There is nothing really worth noting about the sound, except that it sounds fine. English and Spanish subtitles are available.
Director Michael Campus and Thomas Kinkade provide an audio commentary track that is just as low-key as the film. Kinkade takes the opportunity to discuss the film's autobiographical aspects. It is a generally interesting commentary, if not very exciting.
Up next are four deleted scenes, lasting a total of 12 minutes. Campus and Kinkade provide optional commentary for these as well. These are all worth watching, as they provide some insight and further details on Thomas' life and particularly his relationship with his father.
"Building The Christmas Cottage" is an 18-minute behind-the-scenes featurette boasting interviews with the main cast and crew members. Most of it is rather fluffy, with everyone saying how great everyone else is. The last part of it is spent with Campus and Marcia Gay Harden reading poems on set.
"Home for Christmas: A Conversation with Thomas Kinkade" is an 11-minute interview with the painter. He discusses the origins of the film, repeating some information from the commentary. This is the most substantial featurette, providing not only background information but also a glimpse of Kinkade emotionally discussing his childhood.
A three-minute feature called "On the Set with 'Extra' Ed Aknik" is a peculiar piece with Kinkade dressed as his alter-ego Ed Aknik, a biker who took a correspondence course in film. It's all intended for laughs.
Finally, there are nine minutes of the cast revealing their favorite Christmas memories.
I do not wish to disparage "The Christmas Cottage" for fear of sounding like a Scrooge. It is a nice little film, and it captures the spirit of the season well. But it does so in such a formulaic way as to be cloying. There are times when its innocence begins to look like naïveté, and the predictable story wears thin as the inevitable conclusion becomes all too apparent. While it may not duplicate the visual aspects of Kinkade's paintings, the film ultimately matches their fundamental nature. It is pleasing and heartwarming, but there are better holiday films that will produce the same effect.