Stars Shine But Dimly in By-the-Book Buttons: A Christmas Tale

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Buttons a Christmas Tale

I will say this for Tim Janis's BUTTONS: A CHRISTMAS TALE: it's heart is in the right place, and it delivers familiar faces -- and voices -- at every turn. Beginning with narration from KATE WINSLET and ROBERT REDFORD, we waste no time in being introduced to legendary actor DICK VAN DYKE, leaving a note at the doorstep of Mr. & Mrs. Hill (PAUL GREENE, ABIGAIL SPENCER). A child is at the hospital awaiting adoption, and the Hills are too eager to rush there to fill that role.

At that same time, Emily (NOELLE PARKER) is brought to the hospital, brought to Mother Genevieve (ROMA DOWNEY), to the chagrin of the doctor (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION's JOHN De LANCIE). He makes it clear that she can't stay past the night, as this is a private hospital for paying patients.

That night, Emily is awakened by Rose (the timeless ANGELA LANSBURY), who offers comfort to the orphan girl and begins to tell her a story about a young girl named Annabelle (ALIVIA CLARK). We see Annabelle's life unfold from infancy, suffering scarlet fever and having her first encounter with her guardian angel (VAN DYKE). Her father (FOREVER's IOAN GRUFFUDD) is a sea captain, and her mother, Sarah (JULIA BURROWS) takes care of the house. But when Sarah is widowed, she can no longer keep up with the expenses. Appeals to her stepsister, Catherine (KATIE McGRATH, SUPERGIRL), are coldly rebuffed; but Catherine does allow her husband (ROBERT PICARDO, STAR TREK: VOYAGER) to give Sarah a job at his mill. This apparently being set during the industrial revolution, working conditions were poor and soon enough Sarah leaves Annabelle an orphan, to work in the mill herself as a child.

Catherine's greatest concern is that her connection to Annabelle will be discovered by the prominent and wealthy Browning family (portrayed by THE NANNY's CHARLES SHAUGHNESSY and DOCTOR QUINN: MEDICINE WOMAN's JANE SEYMOUR). Annabelle's hardships threaten to turn her colder toward life, but at every step her guardian angel appears to help her, particularly when she needs him the most.

Despite having on hand such a talented cast, BUTTONS: A CHRISTMAS TALE doesn't give them much to work with. Alivia is cast to be a hybrid of Little Orphan Annie and Pollyanna, and keeps her happiness through musical numbers performed with her angel. LANSBURY excels as a storyteller, and McGRATH is practiced enough at villainy that she can phone in uncaring evil without batting an eye. But the dialogue and the pacing leave much of the narration too wooden to accept, too many "posed moments" that go on just a bit too long, too many scenes that are just too pat, both bland and saccharine. The title of the film, BUTTONS, refers to a nickname given Annabelle that comes over halfway through the film, and lasts less than a minute, never to be heard again. And most of the musical numbers lack imagination, lyrically, or are otherwise forgettable -- save for the exceptional ensemble piece, "Work."

The film is worth watching, at least once, on the basis of the casting alone, but some better editing of the script and of the final cuts would go a long way into turning BUTTONS into a repeat experience.

3.5 / 5.0