Warmth spreads, kindness catches and even the bleakest of circumstances can feel brighter with family. These are the poignant themes behind Angela’s Christmas, a heartwarming animated film based on Angela and the Baby Jesus, the only children’s book ever written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt. The DVD of this animated holiday film was just released and can be purchased at Walmart.
Set in Limerick, Ireland in 1914, the film recounts the story of six-year-old Angela, as she worries about the well-being of the baby Jesus statue in her church’s nativity scene manger. What follows next is best summarized by the narrator (McCourt’s own brother, Malachy): “Little ideas are often the seeds of big trouble.”
Parentology spoke with Ellen McCourt, Frank’s wife, who served as executive producer and consultant on the project. We discussed Angela’s Christmas, life in Amsterdam, where she now resides, and how kindness – during the holidays and throughout – may indeed be catching.
Do you feel the film’s director and crew stuck to your husband’s vision for Angela’s Christmas?
I told them to go to the old Limerick Almanac to see what it looked like during that period. Then I found out they actually went to Limerick and took photos of St. Joseph’s Church. While they have it situated in a square in the film (the actual church resides on O’Connell Avenue), the church is, in every respect, accurate.
They spent endless hours selecting the clothing and ensuring details like the insignia on the policeman’s helmet and buttons of his uniform were correct. They researched what Angela’s mother’s hair should look like. Did you know they have groomers whose job it is to make the hair move properly? It’s a very exacting art.
While they [the film’s characters] lived very modestly, you know, they were not as ‘raggle-taggle’ as Frank’s family had been, and they made those distinctions in the film.
Damien was also very careful to build the underlying theme of cold and warmth. You can see, for example, the whole color palette change from the beginning of the film to the part where Angela is born. The room is so cold, and he was very deliberate to represent that with the blueness of the light in that room. I was very pleased with his efforts.
The film departs a bit from the original book. What story elements were you careful to preserve?
It does depart a bit. There are a few reasons for that. One reason is the demands of time on television. There wasn’t enough story (in the book) to fill out a 30-minute show, so we did take some liberties.
One story element that was really important was the scene where Angela is born and she’s described as having “her head in the New Year and her arse in the Old.” That’s not in the original children’s book, but we took that from Angela’s Ashes. She had to be the glue in the center of the story and in her family.
There’s also that bit about the father having been put in the Limerick jail, which wasn’t in the original story. Extending the film becomes a real challenge when you don’t have a lot of written material.
Angela’s Christmas isn’t just a ‘Christmas’ film. It explores the dynamics of family and the bonds that hold them together. What else do you hope the audience will take away?
It’s the story of a very plucky, determined little girl and her desire to ‘mother’ this statue of the baby Jesus. It’s really about love and it’s definitely about family. The film was created to feel ageless, even in the pacing; younger kids, for example, who are accustomed to the rapid-action, noisy cartoon universe, really get sucked into the story.
So yes, definitely love, family, compassion and caring — and a little girl that takes it all upon herself. And let’s face it — I definitely think girls should be central characters and have more air time!
What advice do you have for young people who want to show a little kindness over the holidays?
One should always present kindness in life, regardless of whether it’s the holidays or not. As Frank would say, “kindness in life is a very underestimated virtue.” I think that is part of the message.
I’ve noticed here in Amsterdam that while people have cell phones, I rarely see people on the street staring at their phones. I never see people in restaurants staring at their phones.
Dutch people will tell you their favorite time of the day is at mealtime, when you have conversations and sit together. You don’t knock on someone’s door for a visit at mealtime; you don’t call at mealtime. They really observe old-fashioned values. There’s an old-world sense of values here; a kind of innocence which is sweet.
Angela’s Christmas is now available on DVD in-store at Walmart and online at Walmart, Amazon, Target, Best Buy and Barnes & Noble. It is also available on Netflix.