While about 90 percent of Hallmark Christmas movies tend to share the same small subset of plot twists, the best ones never lose sight of what makes a great Hallmark Christmas film.
The chemistry between the two semi-strangers who are going to inevitably fall in love, the chemistry between the cast and wherever the movie is set. There has to be that bit of magic that allows the viewer to forget the unlikeliness of some of the film's details or the fact the movie always seems to take place in a small town so precious and perfect it couldn't exist in real life. Hallmark Christmas movies are all about sweeping you away, and that magic is really the determining factor between a Christmas film that is merely heartwarming and one that sweeps the world away for two hours.
"Christmas In Evergreen: Letters To Santa" is a sequel of sorts to the 2017 Hallmark holiday movie "Christmas In Evergreen." In that film, Ashley Williams (who is the Meryl Streep of Hallmark Christmas movies) played a veterinarian living in the little Vermont town of Evergreen. She wishes on a snow globe, hoping that her long-time boyfriend will finally pop the question. And of course, things work out in the end, although not the way she planned.
This film is set in the same town, but this time Jill Wagner is the lead, playing Lisa, a woman who is revisiting Evergreen for the first time since she left at age seven. On the road into town, she stops to help someone stuck on the side of the road. Kevin (Mark Deklin) turns out to be a contractor visiting the town for a week and the two not only have an instant chemistry, but they continue "accidentally" meeting in town throughout the day.
Lisa notices that Daisy's Country Store is closed, following the death of the owner Daisy. She vividly remembers the box where Daisy would encourage children to drop their letter to Santa. So when the mayor of Evergreen admits he's worried the bank will foreclose on the empty space and sell it to a chain store, Lisa, of course, offers to help stage it for a sale by Christmas. And no surprise, the one contractor in town turns out to be Kevin.
Kevin agrees to help and it turns out he might have a reason only he knows. When Lisa moves the box meant for Santa's letters, she finds an unsent one from 25 years before. A young Kevin asks Santa for a Christmas "like it used to be" and you can see this final scene coming down the tracks from twenty miles away. But in this case, the letter isn't what it seems to be. And there is the mysterious old key Lisa and Kevin found at the local hardware store. Which lock in town does it open and what will happen when they use it?
One consistent weakness in Hallmark holiday movies are the male leads. The female leads are uniformly warm and cuddly and literally glow on the screen. But the male leads aren't nearly as strong and I'm never quite sure if it's a casting issue or a conscious effort not to take the focus away from the female star. But that's not the case in this movie and Wagner and Deklin have a real chemistry. They light up every scene they're in and it's almost inevitable they would be drawn to each other.
But the film has a number of strong performances. The budding romance between Michelle (Holly Robinson Peete) and a single dad (Colin Lawrence) visiting his son for the holidays is special enough to carry its own movie. They have a real on-camera connection of their own and I'd love to see the two of them in a Hallmark movie next year. Peete is also great in these types of films, but Lawrence is a real revelation. Best known for his role as Coach Clayton on "Riverdale" and Marcus Beardon on "The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco," Lawrence shows some real leading man chops in this role.
In the end, it's honestly hard to find fault with anything in "Christmas In Evergreen: Letters To Santa." The writing is sentimental without crossing the line into groan-inducing and by the end of the film you'll feel as warm and toasty as you would after a couple of cups of peppermint hot chocolate. Hey, there's even a brief appearance by Ashley Williams, reprising her role from the original film.
If the movie has one flaw, it's that it obviously was filmed in a place that looks more like a set than a real town. And as it turns out, that's somewhat the case since the movie was produced in Burnaby Village Museum in Burnaby, British Columbia. That museum was built to reflect the early history of the Canadian province and while it makes the set production much easier, the entire place looks a bit too perfect.
Still, I'm not going to be a Grinch about a little too much perfection. "Christmas In Evergreen: Letters To Santa" is every bit as charming as the original film and I have a feeling it's going to be a Hallmark Channel staple in the years to come.
"Christmas In Evergreen: Letters To Santa" premiered on the Hallmark Channel on Sunday, November 18th, 2018.