A Guide to What to Watch During the Holidays

From soldiers caught in a World War I no man’s land to a cartoon spy pigeon who wisecracks like Will Smith, entertainment this holiday season delivers options for all different audiences.

Just a few years ago, the challenge was agreeing on what to pick from the list of holiday viewing. Now it’s agreeing on what even belongs on that list. The traditional holiday bombardment at cinemas, which includes a year-end spate of Oscar contenders, is competing with a vast menu of television and streaming possibilities.

To gauge what is out there, we consulted early reviews and industry experts as well as the fans who care the most about these screen offerings. That could be a tattooist at a “Star Wars” convention, an authority on family-friendly films or a videogame cosplayer. This invested crowd has followed every nugget of news and gossip on their favorite project. Here, a holiday guide with help from the diehards.

“A Christmas Carol” Dec. 19

This coal-dark take on the Charles Dickens classic was made for cable network FX and the BBC. The movie was written by Steven Knight, who crafted the underworld stories in period dramas “Peaky Blinders” and “Taboo.” The cast includes Guy Pearce as Ebenezer Scrooge, and Andy Serkis as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Dickens scholars fatigued by treacly adaptations of the 1843 novella are eager to see some of the author’s graver themes come to the fore. In scenes from Mr. Knight’s “Christmas Carol,” Scrooge preys on Bob Cratchit’s wife, and is forced to face his role in oppressions that extend far beyond Scrooge’s counting house.

“Radical adaptations like this one remind us that there is a complicated and dark 19th-century world behind the pretty Victorian Christmas card tableaux that more conventional adaptations have trained us to expect,” says Renee Fox, co-director of the Dickens Project, a research group based at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Viewers more accustomed to a cartoonish Scrooge might be jolted by how the new movie accentuates the character’s greed and cruelty. But after all, Dickens’s tale is a ghost story. “The novel invites this kind of horror adaptation,” Ms. Fox adds, “if you read past Scrooge’s feel-good reform at the end.”

“Little Women” Dec. 25

In an era of superhero movies, costume dramas based on novels are rare. But Sony Pictures leaned into the genre, investing in a lavish 19th-century world for its new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age story. Director-writer Greta Gerwig attempts to put a modern spin on the relationships and powers of the four March sisters by updating the book with other writing by Ms. Alcott. Will “Little Women” remain a touchstone for a new generation that already has unconventional heroines such as Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games” and Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” books? In her version, Ms. Gerwig doesn’t dwell too long on hearth-and-home coziness and instead zeroes in on the women as struggling adults. “What people don’t recognize is how the family is in danger of being torn apart,” says Anne Boyd Rioux, author of the 2018 book “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of ‘Little Women’ and Why It Still Matters.”

The stakes are high off the screen, too, with Ms. Gerwig in the mix for a best-director Oscar nomination, the category she broke into last year with “Lady Bird.” She could compete for the trophy against longtime boyfriend Noah Baumbach if he is nominated for his divorce tale “Marriage Story.”

More nominations seem likely for an often-remade movie that showcases its actresses. Ms. Gerwig teams with Saoirse Ronan, who starred in “Lady Bird,” casting her as the headstrong writer Jo. The film promises a breakthrough for Florence Pugh as Amy—a bratty irritant in other retellings and here a savvy woman in charge of her destiny. Next year, Ms. Pugh will co-star with Scarlett Johansson in “Black Widow,” a superhero movie.

“Live in Front of a Studio Audience” Dec. 18

In these live recreations of two episodes from the sitcoms “All in the Family” and “Good Times,” new actors—not yet announced—play characters who were fixtures in American households in the 1970s. The primetime special on ABC doubles as a tribute to the sitcoms’ creator, Norman Lear. Now 97 years old, Mr. Lear is an executive producer of “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” along with host Jimmy Kimmel.

ABC first introduced “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” in May with stagings of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.” The broadcast was a decent hit, reaching 10.4 million total viewers. Many critics praised it as a unique experiment, despite some cognitive dissonance caused by watching Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei embody Archie and Edith Bunker, and Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes do George and Louise Jefferson.

For people who grew up on these sitcoms or their reruns, the “Live” format works “like a museum piece” come to life, says James Comisar, curator of the Comisar Collection, a comprehensive archive of vintage TV production materials, including the entire original set of “All in the Family.

“Live” also tests the durability of Lear-ian themes of neighbors clashing and compromising over charged issues of class, gender, politics and race. Last spring, ABC bleeped the N-word when Mr. Foxx dropped it in George Jefferson’s joke about the interracial marriage of his upstairs neighbors (played by

Will Ferrell

and Kerry Washington).

ABC is keeping details about the “Live” special under wraps but given the holiday timing, expect some vintage Christmas episodes, perhaps the one where Archie’s missing work bonus makes for an especially cranky Christmas.

“Cats” Dec. 20

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s

musical dominated stages in London and New York in the 1980s and 1990s, but no one dared to make a “Cats” movie until now. Loosely built around a collection of T. S. Eliot poems, the story follows cats who gather at a ball to decide who will go to cat heaven and get a new chance at life. The cast in the Tom Hooper-directed film includes Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson and Judi Dench.

Critics haven’t seen the movie yet but the trailer exploded on social media when it was released over the summer. The sight of movie stars with fur—and cats with breasts—had viewers screaming. “This trailer made me hate my real cat,” one wrote on Twitter. Others called it nightmarish and perfect at the same time.

The latest outrage around the “Cats” movie concerns a white-furred ingenue performed by Francesca Hayward, a principal dancer at London’s Royal Ballet. Some viewers have questioned whether Ms. Hayward, a woman of color, is being whitewashed. “I’m playing a cat,” she told the Sunday Times. “I am a cat that’s white, let’s not read into it.”

Fans are waiting to see if the film will have more plot than the stage show.

“You underestimate ‘Cats’ at your peril,” says Michael Riedel, a longtime theater writer at the New York Post, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by

News Corp.

“The story has always been very thin, but it does have at its heart something that is quite profound—the story of Grizabella, who has been shunned and discarded by everyone, who is basically a homeless woman, and is going to have a chance to be reborn.”

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” Dec. 20

This is the last installment of a movie trilogy that launched in 2015 and continued the original “Star Wars” saga that began back in 1977. The plot turns on another round in the battle between rebel fighters of the Resistance and the big, bad First Order forces. But the crux of the story is how things will end for both vintage characters (including C-3PO and Lando Calrissian) and younger ones, such as former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

“There’s a lot of positivity” about “The Rise of Skywalker,” says Marc Draven, who hears chatter from people in the tattoo pavilions that he oversees at pop-culture conventions. There, he and other tattoo artists routinely ink permanent portraits of Princess Leia, Chewbacca and other characters on the bodies of committed fans.

There has been some unease in the “Star Wars” ranks lately, as fans divided over recent movies and a rotation of directors. But many perceive “The Rise of Skywalker” co-writer and director J.J. Abrams as a steady force who can satisfy the franchise’s nostalgic fans and young viewers, too.

Followers are eager to see how the movie sends off iconic characters, including Leia. She appears in footage shot of Carrie Fisher before the actress died in 2016. Resolution also is looming for two former protégés of Luke Skywalker: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the rising Jedi named Rey (Daisy Ridley).

Mr. Draven, whose company Ink Fusion Tattoo Empire is licensed through Lucasfilm to use trademarked Star Wars imagery, says, “There’s a lot of unanswered questions about Rey and Kylo. Depending on how they reveal the outcome of that relationship, that could make for some interesting tattoos.” In one potential scenario, their antagonistic chemistry turns romantic, or so a subset of fans predicts.

“Spies in Disguise”Dec. 25

Just months after Will Smith appeared as a blue genie in “Aladdin,” he is back as a blue pigeon in this animated movie about a super agent transformed into a talking bird. Tom Holland (in between Spider-Man movies) voices the scientist whose invention put his feathered partner at a disadvantage in his quest to defeat a techno-villain played by Ben Mendelsohn.

This movie might appeal to families as a low-risk alternative to other big Christmas releases. For people corralling young children into the cineplex, the new “Star Wars” might seem too intense and “Cats” too strange. “Parents are hungry for stuff that isn’t full of double entendres or peril,” says Betsy Bozdech executive editor of reviews and ratings at Common Sense Media, a site that evaluates entertainment based on its family-friendliness.

“Spies in Disguise” has a soundtrack from “Uptown Funk” producer Mark Ronson, and hails from Blue Sky Studios, the company behind the “Ice Age” and “Rio” franchises. That, along with the promise of some signature Will Smith zingers, may attract parents—or other adults deputized to get youngsters out of the house during the school break. “The kids will be entertained,” Ms. Bozdech says. “There’s definitely a place for that kind of movie.”

“The Witcher” Dec. 20

“Man of Steel” star Henry Cavill takes on the role of Geralt of Rivia, a monster slayer of few words, in this


series. Its sorcery, bloody sword fights and dense mythology are geared toward viewers with a “Game of Thrones”-size hole in their TV routine. But this fantasy world originated in a book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, which served as the basis for a line of role-playing videogames with a global fanbase.

Like many screen adaptations of beloved source materials, this TV series comes freighted with the high hopes and nitpicks of hard-core “Witcher” fans. Many are aghast that the Netflix show features Mr. Cavill’s jawline—ruggedly handsome though it is—without the beard worn by the Geralt character in the videogames. It’s yet another example of the paradox of modern fandom: “People are looking forward to it very much even though they’re complaining at the same time,” says Ben Bergmann. He’s a “cosplayer” whose Witcher costuming (beard, scars, sword) so closely resembles the character’s look in the videogame that its publisher pays him to appear at fan events around the world.

He says “Witcher” fans are optimistic that the TV series will capture the title character’s nuances. Geralt is a mercenary, yet develops a fatherly relationship with a princess with budding powers of her own. “He’s an outsider. Not good or bad, something in the middle. He fights for both sides, and people like that,” Mr. Bergmann says. Netflix has ordered a second season of the series, giving Mr. Cavill’s character plenty of time to grow that beard and accumulate some scars.

“Bombshell” Dec. 13

The #metoo movie has arrived. “Bombshell” takes on the sexual-harassment scandal that engulfed late Fox News head Roger Ailes and allegations that the network’s environment during the Ailes era was toxic for women. A power squad of actresses leads the picture, with Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson. Margot Robbie plays a composite character named Kayla, a true believer whose big plans at Fox—“I see myself as an influencer in the Jesus space”—are derailed under the aegis of Mr. Ailes (John Lithgow).

(Mr. Ailes, who died in 2017, was ousted from


The Wall Street Journal parent News Corp and Fox News parent Fox Corp. share common ownership.)

Watching the movie is like visiting a Madame Tussauds of Fox News. Aside from Ms. Theron’s dramatic transformation into Ms. Kelly, doppelgangers of Geraldo Rivera, Jeanine Pirro and Bill O’Reilly also may generate gasps.

The film takes a brisk and self-aware look at its subject in an approach similar to the treatment of the mortgage crisis in “The Big Short.” Charles Randolph, who co-wrote that 2015 movie, is the screenwriter. Director Jay Roach has dabbled in both absurdity and social commentary, with movies like “Austin Powers” and the two TV movies “Recount” and “Game Change,” about the 2000 and 2008 U.S. presidential elections, respectively.

Viewers are becoming more aware of who is behind the camera, not just in front of it. Ms. Theron was a producer of “Bombshell” but some observers predict pushback on the male director-screenwriter team at the helm of a story about women. “It seems like a movie that pretty clear-cut should have been directed and written by women,” says Jamie Loftus, cohost of the Bechdel Cast, a podcast about the portrayal of women in movies. Still, she likes what she sees so far. “We all have harped on the misery of the #metoo movement, so it’s kind of nice to see a fast-paced version of it.”

“1917” Dec. 25

In this film directed by Sam Mendes, two British soldiers in World War I cross into enemy territory to deliver a message that could save the lives of hundreds of Allied troops, including the brother of one of the runners. A fictional spin on a true story Mr. Mendes heard from his grandfather, the work is made to look like one long take in real time, though it is many shots carefully stitched together. The aim is to make viewers feel as if they never leave the young men on their quest.

Early word has it that mud, blood and futility have rarely been so powerfully communicated in a World War I movie. The epic made a late break into best-picture contention. It’s also bound to be a player in technical categories, perhaps even editing, though in this case the editor’s job was to make the movie look as if it wasn’t edited at all.

The movie is a parade of brief walk-on roles played by celebrity film actors and swoony stars from streaming series, including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott. Mr. Mendes, who won an Oscar for “American Beauty” 20 years ago, could become the first person to win two directing trophies so far apart.

“I believe the visuals of this film will be the best that we’ve ever seen of a First World War movie,” says Spencer Jones, official historian of the Royal Artillery in England. The military scholar hopes the movie captures some of the idealism usually ascribed to the armed forces in World War II. Since the 1930 movie “All Quiet on the Western Front,” most films about World War I show disillusioned men who don’t know what they’re fighting for, which wasn’t always the case, Mr. Jones says. “The soldiers themselves genuinely believed a manifest threat in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany,” he says. “It’d be nice to see a mainstream First World War movie that takes a more challenging view.”

“Uncut Gems” Dec. 13

In this film set in 2012 in New York’s diamond district, jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has tracked down a rough stone studded with precious black opals. The ancient rock, retrieved under shady circumstances from an Ethiopian mine and sent to him hidden inside a frozen fish, sparks the amiable Howard’s downward spiral of gambling, lying and begging for time. He’s the kind of guy who makes mistakes worse when he tries to fix them.

Mr. Sandler’s performance has Hollywood predicting a best-actor Oscar nomination. He is the most commercial star to appear in a movie from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, filmmakers known for gritty indie dramas about antiheroes caught up in circumstances that spin out of their control. The movie also features celebrities playing themselves, including former pro basketball player Kevin Garnett and singer-songwriter The Weeknd.

The movie’s blistering pace and near-constant music taxed some viewers. At the Toronto Film Festival, freelance movie critic Anna Swanson left a screening trembling. She called it more jolting than most horror films. “It’s so anxiety-inducing, but in the best way,” she says. “It finds this place between keeping tension up but not so much that it goes overboard and you’re taken out of it.”

Corrections & Amplifications
“Cats” will be released Dec. 20. An earlier version of this article incorrectly gave the release date as Dec. 25. (Dec. 11, 2019.)

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Write to John Jurgensen at [email protected] and Ellen Gamerman at [email protected]

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