Christmas is usually the most wonderful time of the year.
But when you have just lost someone impossibly near and dear to me, and you have have fond and abiding memories of Christmas, it can often feel like the land that happiness forgot, a season awash in jollity, tinsel and merry singing that suddenly feels like its mocking you with all the emotions you fear you will never feel again.
While you’re struggling to feel experience anything other than grinding sadness, and have to acquiesce to the fact that this will not be one Christmas for the books, there is a niggling sense that your mother, father, aunt, grandparent, whoever it is you have lost, used to love all the festive fun and that by not celebrating, you are somehow, weirdly enough, betraying them.
If that all sounds like a messy, confusing mess of emotions, it is, as anyone who has experienced all that grief-strewn anger and guilt in one tightly-packed month will attest, and it is all on display in Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas, the film that follows the events of the show’s second, and last season, until Roku swooped in and gave it one last chance to sing and its way through all its customary feels.
While the continuation of the show rest on the success of Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas, which puts some pressure on the movie to really measure up, the truth is that as festive films go it can well and truly stand on its own Santa-booted feet.
It absolutely and poignantly nails what it is like to be overcome with grief and then be confronted by a special time of the year that meant the world to the person who died, in this case Zoey’s (Jane Levy) dad Mitch (Peter Gallagher) and which by extension over the years came to mean everything to the rest of the family too, including mum Maggie (Mary Steenburgen), Zoey’s brother David (Andrew Leeds) and his wife Emily (Alice Lee).
Barely eighth months after Mitch died from a neuro-degenerative disease which robbed him of speech and movement, effectively trapping him inside his own body with the only means of communications, for Zoey at least, being through the “heart songs” she “hears” people singing – they are inaudible to anyone else as is their extravagant choreography and set pieces which only the audience and Jane bear witness to – the Clarke family are grappling with how to celebrate a season for which Mitch was the emotional and organisational centre.
He came up with the traditions, cooked the food, got everyone in the mood and made the whole glorious light-draped season as wonderful as the song makes it out to be, and without him, David and Emily have decided to head to a wellness retreat in New Mexico and Maggie is going away with bestie Deb (Bernadette Peters) leaving Zoey and sweetly supportive boyfriend Max (Skylar Astin), who can also suddenly hear the heart songs too, to figure how on earth they will mark Christmas.
Max, god bless his loving, caring soul does his best to make things special for Zoey, taking her to the Nutcracker ballet and even arranging for them to go on a fun RV road trip, all the better to ignore Christmas completely.
But Zoey finds it impossible to pretend that Christmas doesn’t matter this year, because it matters too much because her dad mattered so much to her, and so she convinces her family to stick around San Francisco, where Zoey works for a major tech company, vowing to recreate Christmas as it always was.
Lovely idea and understandable sentiment but as Zoey discovers with the show’s customary mix of hilarity and heart, once something as seismically cataclysmic as the death of a parent occurs, it’s impossible to have things as they were before because one very key ingredient is simply not there.
She tries valiantly but as it becomes obvious that you can’t simply line up all the usual elements and hope it all comes together just like it always did, she has to accept in ways that rip out your heart and put it back again, because there is always an after to the deeply sad before, it can just be tough to find, that maybe it’s whole new eggnog world (thanks Deb?) and it’s time, crushingly sad as it is, to accept that.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas takes us on a beautiful, fun and merry, sad and silly journey, which also includes the delightful bombastic exuberance that is Mo (Alex Newell) learning some sage lessons about being a parent with beau Perry’s (David St. Louis) daughter Amirah (Amarah Taylor) and staging the best Christmas celebration for festive orphans ever known as “Caroloke” (best name ever), through grief and Christmas, proving that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.
As songs like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (no spoilers but the scene it is in captures the original Judy Garland’s melancholic longing so perfectly you will gasp) and “We Need a Little Christmas”, and many more festive and non-festive tunes alike, fill the film with singing and dancing, much of it tinged with some understandably intense emotions, you come to realise, just like Zoey that while you want to hold on dearly to how Christmas was when your loved one was alive, that maybe it’s time to make some new traditions.
In this case, it’s an out of the box one but it works brilliantly, filling Zoey’s family with all kinds of merriness and cheer while still honouring how much Christmas meant to Mitch, and therefore, them, mirroring what his reviewer’s family went through after the death of the family’s patriarch who loved Christmas and whose absence made things feel lacklustre and small until we decided that rather than hide from the loss, we would embrace it and try to remake the season in his name.
You don’t have any choice really since you can’t bring that person back from the dead, but in the middle of enervating, all-encompassing, life-sapping, spirit-crushing grief, it’s tempting to think you can either just ignore the new reality or try to recreate things just as they were.
Neither is really an option, and it ends up being a joy in Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas watching Zoey and her family discover that you can move on, devastatingly hard though it is, and make Christmas your own thing, a time that still very much reflects how much it meant to the person you love and have lost, but which now acknowledges that it must come to mean something new, and hopefully just as special, as life goes on and you have to sing, dance and figure what the next step forward will look like.