Editor’s note: The following is the second in a series of reviews of randomly selected, low-quality, made-for-TV Christmas movies.
In the first scene of “The Mistle-Tones” (2012), our heroine—running late for an audition—slips in the shower, tumbling into a pratfall that deposits her uninjured on the bathroom floor, the torn-down shower curtain handily covering her nakedness. It’s our first glance at Holly (Tia Mowry of “Sister Sister” fame), and somehow, her hair and skin are completely dry, and her makeup has already been applied. The absence of realism in this moment—whose comic mayhem relies on the tired TV trope of a prankish toilet flush, executed in this case by a mischievous cat, drastically altering the water temperature in a shower, a phenomenon that I’ve never once experienced—is so striking as to seem deliberate, as if reassuring anxious viewers that the world they’ve now entered definitely is not real life. It is a fuzzier, sillier place.
Holly aces her audition, but the Snow Belles’ insecure leader (Tori Spelling, the cartoon diva-villain of the story) rejects her for fear of being upstaged, even though it was Holly’s late mother who long ago founded the group, now a legendary institution in the small Utah town of the film’s setting. The Snow Belles’ entire act revolves around Christmas songs, which they perform publicly only once a year at a concert inside the Ridgefield Mall (apparently the sole performing arts venue within the fully commercialized Christmas landscape in which ABC Family movies take place).
Joining their ranks has always been Holly’s greatest dream, and their rebuff leaves her devastated. This drama resembles nothing more than a high school cheerleading movie, in which a likable “nerd” or “dork” is cruelly dismissed by the perfect and popular snobs against whom she must, then, take up (figurative) arms. Obviously, since Holly is a woman in her thirties, it’s wildly inappropriate for her to dream all-consumingly of the quintet of insane ladies who constitute a musical group that, given its hyperlocal nature and seasonal specificity, effectively doesn’t even exist; she should have other stuff going on in her life by now, but somehow she doesn’t, and the movie makes no sign that this should be considered pathetic or even strange.
Like the heroine of “12 Dates of Christmas,” with whom she shares a generically deceased mother and a white-collar career so mundane that her screenwriters never bother to specify her job title or explain what her company does, Holly exists in a world stripped of detail. The filmmakers know that this is all just the background noise for a gift-wrapping session and that nobody is really paying attention.
What Holly must do now is create a musical group of her own, recruiting coworkers to form the Mistle-Tones. Out for blood, she marches over to the mall to ask whether they might consider holding a tryout for the annual holiday concert instead of yielding the stage automatically to the Snow Belles. That she makes this request of the actor impersonating Santa Claus, as though his mythical North Pole sovereignty extended to mall management decisions, suggests a disturbingly childlike worldview, but somehow, yes, the guy playing Santa really is in charge of things at the mall, and he thinks Holly’s plan is fantastic—they’ll hold a public audition in a week, thus drawing additional crowds to the shopping center.
This gives Holly just enough time to whip her ragtag group into shape. Since the film features no live singing—only lip-synching set to sugary professional pop music—Holly’s insistence that her coworkers’ initial efforts are awful have no basis in actuality (of course, they are awful, but not in the way she means it). Theirs is perhaps the first training montage in which no visible (or, in this case, audible) improvement occurs. It’s the same Auto-Tuned Christmas music either way, and we must simply take Holly’s word that they’ve gotten better.
The Mistle-Tones don’t truly hit their stride, however, until Holly discovers that her button-down boss is, by night, a karaoke king at the bar on Main Street—and a consummate showman. Somehow Holly is the first of Nick’s office minions to discover his wild side at this popular watering hole (seemingly the only one in town) at which he regularly sings, and she uses a video of his performance—which he fears would compromise his dictatorial image at their workplace—to blackmail him into teaching her and her friends some dance moves. Now the Mistle-Tones are ready to take on the Snow Belles. But now that Holly has seen past Nick’s no-fun exterior, is she falling for him?
I’ve been told that “The Mistle-Tones” is a yuletide rip-off of “Pitch Perfect,” which I’ve never seen. But “Pitch Perfect” was released in September of 2012; “The Mistle-Tones” came out in December of the same year. Is it possible to write, cast, direct, edit, and release a feature-length copycat in only three months? Based on the quality of “The Mistle-Tones,” the answer is probably yes.
One slightly interesting aspect of the movie is that, for the first half hour, it looks like Holly’s love interest will be the laid-back wiseacre AJ (Andy Gala), who works in the cubicle next to hers—until Nick steps in, and everyone remembers that Asian-American men are more or less legally prohibited from playing romantic leads in Hollywood movies. AJ, an Indian man, is ultimately assigned to another supporting character, and he seems happy enough about it. Yet apart from Holly’s lack of natural rapport with Nick (a requirement of the rom-com genre—the woman must “come around” on the guy rather than like him from the beginning), she has no reason to prefer him over AJ, and AJ’s demotion feels like an injustice—even though, given his slangy manner of speech, his chest-bumps, and his dance moves, it kind of feels like the character was actually supposed to be an offensive African-American caricature, and someone cast an Indian by mistake.