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Is 'It's a Wonderful Life' still the greatest Christmas film of all time?


For many generations of families and movie lovers, It’s a Wonderful Life has long occupied the top spot of festive favourites, with Frank Capra’s film of hope and inspiration defining the ‘perfect Christmas movie’ for many decades. Loosely based on Charles Dickens’ iconic short story, A Christmas Carol, the film is a moral tale that follows a downtrodden businessman who is contemplating suicide on the eve of Christmas. 

Of course, the character in question, George Bailey (James Stewart) never actually commits the deed as this would make the festive film rather bleak, with a heavenly angel forcing him to consider what life would be like without his considerable impact. Co-starring Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Henry Travers, It’s a Wonderful Life celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2021, though does it still deserve its crown of the greatest Christmas movie of all time?

Creating the blueprint to which countless other films have been conceived, It’s a Wonderful Life is certainly one of the most influential Christmas films of all time, with its message of hope and moral dignity being held in high regard. Such can be seen replicated in the likes of Richard Curtis’ Love Actually, whose saccharine soppiness undoubtedly is rooted in some sort of wholesomeness, as well as the original Miracle on 34th Street from George Seaton. 

Radiating the themes of community, sacrifice and kindness over selfishness, It’s a Wonderful Life carries a timeless message, though, as the fabric of community seems to be ebbing away with the threat of social media and online networking, does Capra’s film really represent the values of today? The answer is certainly subjective, though what’s for certain is that often it is the likes of films such as Elf, Home Alone and The Muppet Christmas Carol that are uttered as the modern greats of the holiday season. 

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Granted, this may simply be due to the continued disinterest in old black and white movies as the industry has grown to not only embrace colour but also impressive CGI, snappy editing and a frenetic pace too. When it comes to the modern Christmas film, audiences want a family affair, and getting any young person to sit through It’s a Wonderful Life would be a tricky sell indeed, particularly with a Netflix option just another click away. 

For all its quick wit, fun-loving humour and central star, Will Ferrell, Elf is often touted as the best Christmas film of all time when you ask the question to contemporary audiences, and it’s a difficult stance to argue with. Prioritising the themes of family and personal identity whilst mocking the commercial aspects of the Christmas holidays, Elf is, in many ways, the perfect festive film for modern times where people are feeling ever-more disconnected in a digital world. 

Like any given favourite film of a certain era, it depends on the changing tides of a cultural zeitgeist, and whilst the message of It’s a Wonderful Life remains relevant, the sentiment of other films are simply more compelling. From the familial focus in Elf and Home Alone to the modern reimaginings of The Muppet Christmas Carol or Klaus, one wonders where It’s a Wonderful Life fits in.

Sure, Christmas is a time of traditions, though, perhaps, this one is due for a change.