When the Christmas Eve blues are descending, and you need a good cry or a quiet background while you mix the eggnog, the creators of "The Juggler of Notre Dame" have one holiday answer.
This dramatic special, produced by Paulist Productions and airing tonight at 8 on Channel 5, is a giant sentimental tug, filmed with attractive lyricism and performed with spare dignity. Like many others in the holiday goodwill genre, this story -- based on a French medieval folk tale of a juggler searching for self-esteem -- offers the same fleeting satisfaction as snowflakes that melt when they hit the ground.
Carl Carlsson is Barnaby, the despondent juggler, withdrawn from the world because of the death of his wife, who fell from a high wire. He roams the streets of California, performing for money and sleeping on park benches and along railroad tracks. His solitude is interrupted by a good-natured wanderer, Sparrow, who becomes Barnaby's juggling partner and helps rekindle his faith in people. However, their prosperity and joy is ended by the robbery and murder of Sparrow, deftly portrayed by Patrick Collins.
Now, burdened by two deaths, Barnaby pitches his juggling gear over a bridge and walks until he is stopped by an artist who wants to sculpt his face.
Here the mood of the story changes as Barnaby's reclusive nature, and the filmmaker's gentle and fanciful images, clash with some of the attitudes of the artist colony. A group of artisans is helping to restore a church named after the famed French cathedral. The sister of the sculptor (Melinda Dillon) makes snide remarks about Barnaby, wondering what he really is up to, and what gift he has for the church. Others are mystified by his silence. Summing up how the group regards Barnaby, the priest says, "That's the saddest man I've ever known. He wanders the face of the earth thinking he has never made a mark."
Then, on Christmas Eve, Barnaby sees Sparrow in a vision, and that alters his view of himself and brings him into the artist colony's celebration. While Barnaby kneels by a statue of a madonna that reminds him of his wife, Sparrow encourages him to juggle for the statue. "Do it," he urges, "for me, for Beatrice, for other people, for yourself. There is still love in the world."
Barnaby does, finally resolving that his gift is one of magic, and is rewarded by the statue, which gives him a rose. "The Juggler of Notre Dame" is an imaginative filler for Christmas Eve.