Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of American holidays.
The stakes are never bigger, the pressure is never more intense, the highs are never higher and the lows are never lower.
I’m not saying it carries greater meaning than Christmas (for those who follow the Christian faith) or is a more significant holiday than Memorial Day or the Fourth of July.
But Thanksgiving isn’t just about Thursday. For millions, it’s a four- or five-day holiday, and can be either an annual highlight or the most torturous extended weekend of the year.
If you’re fortunate enough to not be working, there will come a time when you’ll want nothing more than to peel off on your own, find a quiet place and lose yourself in the escapist bliss of the binge-watch.
With that in mind, I’m serving up this platter of mini-reviews of streaming series and movies — some holiday-themed, some established, some brand new, some fantastic, some not so fantastic.
With ears as wide as he is tall.
In a hovercraft carriage.
From the moment this impossibly cute little dude made his entrance in “The Mandalorian,” Jon Favreau’s original Disney+ web series set five years after the events of “Return of the Jedi,” he became an instant contender for most adorable creature in the “Star Wars” universe — and launched a dizzying number of fan-geek theories about the actual identity of this infant of the same species as Yoda.
It’s easy to understand the hullabaloo about Baby Yoda, but there’s much more to love about “The Mandalorian.” This is a visually stunning, consistently entertaining space-spaghetti-Western serial.
Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones,” “Narcos”) is the title character, a bounty hunter in the far outer reaches of the galaxy, beyond the authority of the New Republic.
He’s like Clint Eastwood in Robocop armor. (Even though the Mandalorian is covered in armor, Pascal impressively creates a distinctive personality through his line readings and the physicality of the character.)
“Thor: Ragnorak” and “JoJo Rabbit” director (and supporting actor) Taika Waititi voices an IG-11 bounty droid tracking down Baby Yoda. Carl Weathers, who still has that Apollo Creed onscreen charisma, is Greef Carga, who commissions assignments for the Mandalorian. Global treasure Werner Herzog is the mysterious Client, who employs Stormtroopers as security guards, remains loyal to the fallen Empire and will pay an enormous sum to the Mandalorian if he can deliver Baby Yoda.
“Such a large bounty for such a small package,” hisses the Client.
Ah, but is it possible the mercenary Mandalorian is having second thoughts about leaving Baby Yoda in the clutches of the wicked Client?
Or should I say logged in …
The Philadelphia of the M. Night Shyamalan executive-produced “Servant” is quintessential Shyamalan Philly.
It rains. A lot.
Rooms and hallways are bathed in muted tones of brown and green and gold, as if to project a sense of joylessness and dread.
One character wears a poncho that looks like it’s from the David “Unbreakable” Dunn Collection. The house that serves as the centerpiece for much of the series could be down the block from the psychologist’s house in “The Sixth Sense.”
And yes, you can expect (but probably won’t be able to predict) some wonderfully nasty plot twists along the way.
“Servant” is a deliberately (sometimes maddeningly) paced series of 10 episodes, each roughly 30 minutes in length.
Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) is a local TV news reporter and her husband, Sean (Toby Kebbell), is a work-from-home chef of some renown. When they lose their 13-week-old son, Jericho, a therapist recommends help for the emotionally shattered Dorothy in the form of a lifelike (and oh so creepy), chillingly realistic doll.
Somehow, some way, the doll is replaced by an actual baby. WTF!
And yet that’s only about the ninth most disturbing thing to occur over the course of Season 1. (Apple TV+ has already commissioned a second season.)
Nell Tiger Free gives a classic horror character performance as Leanne the nanny, who becomes fiercely, insanely protective of the child. Rupert Grint is a long way from his days as Harry Potter’s pal Ronald Weasley in a smart and funny performance as Dorothy’s brother Julian, who’s a bit of a mess (he’s always swilling wine and he has other substance addiction issues) but also the closest thing to a character we can relate to in the story.
Julian is as freaked out as we are by the goings-on in the multistory house where Dorothy and Sean and their maybe-baby live.
But like us, Julius can’t resist opening doors better left shut, listening to conversations better left unheard and seeing things one can never un-see.
Welcome to one of the strangest Santa Claus origins stories ever. “Klaus” is a weird, meandering tale, but it has a distinctive visual style and a sly sense of humor and features brilliant voice work from the ensemble cast.
Jason Schwartzman is the indifferent Jesper, a cadet at the Postal Academy who thinks he’ll glide by without even trying because his father (Sam McMurray) is Postmaster General. But Dad is fed up, so he sends the lad to the Arctic outpost of Smeerensburg and says Jesper must process 6,000 letters within the year or he’ll be cut off.
Smeerensburg is a bleak and joyless town. Nobody is interested in Jesper’s desperate campaign to encourage mail service.
Until one little boy’s drawing finds its way to the home of the giant-sized, reclusive and scary woodsman Klaus (J.K. Simmons), a widower who has hand-crafted literally hundreds of toys for years even though he and his late wife never had any children.
The wonderful Rashida Jones voices a teacher who could become a love interest for Jesper. And any movie that casts Norm Macdonald as a cynical boat captain who sounds exactly like Norm Macdonald is all right by me.
Like “Klaus,” the Disney+ film “Noelle” offers a fresh take on the history of Santa Claus, but this is more of a lightweight, corny, tries-too-hard slant on “Elf” than a compelling origins story.
When I say corny, I mean CORNY. Characters often convey their feelings with un-ironic, non-musical line readings from secular holiday tunes, e.g., when Anna Kendrick’s title character tells someone, “You better not pout, you better not cry!”
In the world of “Noelle,” for the last 2,000 years, a long line of Kringle family men have taken on the role and the responsibilities of Santa Claus.
When Bryan Brendle’s Santa passes away, his son, Nick Kringle (Bill Hader), is expected by one and all to pick up the mantle, but Nick is an insecure and self-involved wuss, and he flees to Phoenix and becomes a yoga instructor.
Anna Kendrick is in full chipper-cheery-indefatigable mode as Nick’s sister Noelle, who is brimming with Christmas spirit year ’round and would be a great Santa Claus — that is, if the North Pole, and the world, are ready for a female Santa.
Over all, “Noelle” is subpar, but it’s silly, harmless fun. It’s so forgettable it’ll be virtually erased from your memory five minutes after the end credits roll.
Except for the appearance of Shirley MacLaine as a salty, elderly elf. That’s gonna haunt me for a while.
‘Merry Happy Whatever’
In an ever-expanding streaming content universe filled with great-looking, well-funded, bold and ambitious movies and series, “Merry Happy Whatever” is a stunningly tepid, broad, cheap-looking and cheesy throwback sitcom.
It’s so terrible you might want to check it out for yourself — one episode, or maybe half an episode — just to see what I mean.
“Merry Happy Whatever” is a holiday-set, old-school, multicamera sitcom with an intrusive laugh track straight out of a 1980s network show, actors consistently going for the “more is more” approach to punchlines and flimsy production values.
Dennis Quaid lays on the Christmas ham in a clunky performance as Don Quinn, a widower and county sheriff who takes his role as family patriarch so seriously, it’s unnerving — and deeply unhealthy.
Bridgit Mendler is Emmy, who has come home to Pennsylvania for the holidays with her nerdy boyfriend, Matt (Brent Morin), who instantly fears Don and craves his approval, just as Emmy and her grown siblings (and their partners) fear Don and crave his approval.
Every strained premise, every exchange of dialogue, every dopey misunderstanding, every contrived grab for a heart-tugging moment is straight out of a badly dated sitcom playbook from 30 or 40 years ago.
“Merry”? Hardly. “Happy”? Not really. “Whatever”?
Yeah, pretty much.
Richard Roeper reviews movies for The Chicago Sun-Times. Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate.