Tis the Season for Movies

Ebenezer Scrooge repents, George Bailey is born again and Kevin McCallister says his prayers, pounds two burglars and helps heal a neighbor's tortured soul.

It's Christmas at the movies.

Elsewhere in the mall that is America, the Starship Enterprise saves humanity, again, Cruella De Vil chases the latest incarnation of 101 Dalmatians and this year's workaholic Dad -- Arnold Schwarzenegger as a muscular sequel to Tim Allen -- searches for his inner child.

This, too, is Christmas at the movies.

It's that magic season when Americans have time and money to splurge at the multiplex. Still, it's hard to ignore that it's Christmas, which many still associate with faith and family. The result: movies that define "Christmas spirit" as family-friendly fun, with a dash of lowest-common-denominator spirituality. Throw in some snow, twinkling lights, a hint of the supernatural and at least one reference to Christmas and the package is complete.

"I think Hollywood concedes that it's good if, at the end of a Christmas movie, people are left with some kind of vague, warm glow," said Michael Medved, film critic for the New York Post. "People are supposed to hug at the end of Christmas movies, as opposed to collapsing from sheer exhaustion, like at the end of summer movies."

While it's easy to name some movies that are, in fact, about Christmas, there is remarkably little religious content in the films released during this season, said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin of Entertainment Tonight.

"I think of the words `big,' `expensive' and `family,' in about that order," he said. "The closest you get to religion in most Christmas movies is a reaffirmation of the Golden Rule. You know, love your neighbor, have a little faith, good will towards men and all of that. ... It's not going to get deeper than that, because we're talking about the mass market."

Yet almost every year, someone will go one step further -- beyond "holiday" or "Christmas" movie status -- and try to say something about the meaning of the season.

This year's entry is "The Preacher's Wife," a remake of a 1947 classic "The Bishop's Wife." The film's stars have made a concerted effort to signal that this isn't your typical Hollywood take on spirituality.

Courtney Vance, who plays the preacher, was baptized shortly before filming began. Superstar Denzel Washington, who plays the dapper angel, Dudley, told reporters he did his scriptural homework beforehand. "Yes, I believe in God and the Bible," said Washington, the son of a Pentecostal pastor. "I believe we all have angel potentiality as well. There's all kinds of angels that are talked about in the Bible." And singer Whitney Houston, who plays his wife, told Aspire magazine that the movie's gospel music had an impact. "I truly believe the Holy Spirit came down and took over because I saw people on the set affected -- people you never dreamed would be touched -- crying and sobbing," she said.

Nevertheless, director Penny Marshall clearly avoided offensive doctrinal specifics. "This isn't a film about Jesus. It's about the importance of family and community. It has a fable quality. It's very magical," she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Traditional Christians who see this film, and Hollywood's other vaguely spiritual offerings, can react in one of two ways, said Phil Boatwright, Jr., editor of the Movie Reporter newsletter. They can be offended, noting that legions of movie characters spout the name of Jesus in curses, while folks in "The Preacher's Wife" can't even seem to speak the J-word in church. Or, viewers can be thankful that some movie makers now acknowledge that there's more to life than sex, money, cars and guns.

"It isn't Hollywood's job to preach. What Hollywood can do is get us to think, maybe even think about spiritual issues," said Boatwright. "Still, Christmas is supposed to be somebody's birthday. ... If you're going to make movies about Christmas, you can either deal with that reality or you can leave that out, which makes it pretty obvious that you don't want to deal with it."