The name Eddie Murphy isn't exactly synonymous with "wholesome family entertainment." But as executive producer of the made-for-television movie "The Kid Who Loved Christmas" (tonight at 8 on Channel 20), the superstar comedian has come up with a surprisingly tolerable holiday melodrama.
As baldly sentimental and as simply written as its title would suggest, "The Kid Who Loved Christmas" is elevated by a first-rate cast, including Cicely Tyson, Esther Rolle, Della Reese and Sammy Davis Jr., who is frail but full of joy in his last film role.
Michael Warren stars as Tony Parks, a jazz musician who, with his wife, Lynette (Vanessa Williams), adopts a young orphan named Reggie. When Lynette is killed in a collision with a drunken driver, a hardhearted bureaucrat named Mrs. Clayton (Rolle) revokes the adoption, arguing that a traveling jazzman can't provide a stable upbringing for a youngster. The rest of the movie concerns Tony's battle with Mrs. Clayton to re-claim Reggie, and the boy's adventures in foster homes and on the snowy streets of Chicago as he seeks the intercession of Santa Claus.
His years as laid-back Bobby Hill on "Hill Street Blues" didn't quite prepare Warren, a collegiate basketball star, for the emotional range demanded of him here. He is much more comfortable in Tony's tender scenes with the kid and in his playful interaction with fellow musicians than in his moments of anguish and mourning or in his explosions of anger at Mrs. Clayton. And Warren's hilarious neck-wrenching, brow-flexing saxophone solos demonstrate how tough it is for anybody to fake horn-playing on film.
As Reggie, Trent Cameron is plenty adorable, but as child actors go, he's not exceedingly graceful. Cameron is at his most convincing and endearing when he squares off against tough, cynical older kids in the orphans home and in one particularly regimented foster home. "Get hip to the program," one world-weary youngster tells Reggie. "People just want those cute little babies. And you're too old and ugly, and every day you're just going to get older and more uglier." Then he pushes little Reggie to the ground.
But Reggie isn't worried. He's got a letter in his pocket addressed to Santa, and it says, "All I want for Christmas is my daddy," and once it's delivered everything will be okay. Reggie, it seems, is the most optimistic, psycho-socially well-adjusted orphan you're likely to find. He showers affection not only on his adoptive parents and the benign social worker played by Tyson, but on his pet hamster, Molly, and a stuffed dinosaur named Alberto too.
Awwww, kinda makes you feel all toasty, doesn't it? Actually, depending on one's susceptibility to seasonal schmaltz, which may in turn have something to do with the presence of young viewers in the room, "The Kid Who Loved Christmas" does work. Screenwriter Sam Egan and director Arthur Allan Seidelman know how to push the buttons, even in the movie's most unlikely scene, in which Mrs. Clayton is humanized and redeemed.
The proceedings are bolstered considerably whenever Della Reese sings. Playing the vocalist in Tony's quintet, she gets to do nearly full renderings of "Isn't It Romantic?," "I Remember You" and "God Bless the Child." During the funeral scene, Reese unfurls a powerful a cappella "Amazing Grace."
To hear Sammy Davis speak, though, is almost painful, his voice abraded by throat cancer in his final months of life. But as an old musician known as Sideman, Davis brings buoyancy to his few scenes. He tells Reggie the tale of a Christmas goose (and somehow works in the word "groovy"); he gives Tony some touching rooftop counsel, describing the wonder of children; he delivers a fine parting shot to Mrs. Clayton when the quintet comes to Tony's defense. "You made me come this close to saying 'humbug,' " Davis tells her. "But no way." And then he smiles. "Merry Christmas."
A word of warning to parents with young children who still may be trying to hold the line against bad language on TV. (Anybody else out there scandalized by the "ass" that popped up last week on "The Simpsons"?) "The Kid Who Loved Christmas" contains more "damns" and "hells" than a holiday family movie ought. But considering this is An Eddie Murphy Television Enterprises Production, maybe that's getting off cheap.