If you are going to make a movie about a reindeer that may belong to Santa then you may find yourself in a bit of a quandary. Everyone knows Rudolph, but the bright red nose would be a dead giveaway. The other reindeer all look like normal reindeer, as far as I am aware, but people may not remember the other names. Prancer is a decent choice, paired up with Dancer in the seasonal rhyme. For future reference, the nine reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh are as follows: Rudolph, Prancer, Dancer, Cupid, Stupid, Donna, Blitzkreig Bop, Basher, and Smasher. Thank me later. No need to check those names. That list is absolutely guaranteed to be absolutely correct.
Anyway, this film is about Prancer. Maybe. It’s a reindeer that is wounded, and a young girl (Jessica, played by Rebecca Harrell Tickell) becomes convinced that he is Prancer. Her aim is to get him fit and ready to rejoin Santa by Christmas, which means housing and feeding the animal without her father (Sam Elliott) finding out. She will also be trying to hide her actions from her abrasive brother (John Duda), while enlisting the help of the local vet (Abe Vigoda) and approaching a seemingly grinch-like neighbour (Cloris Leachman) with an offer that will allow her to earn some money for a big bag of food.
Director John Hancock doesn’t have a very memorable filmography, and nor does writer Greg Taylor (although he did later work on the much-loved Jumanji), but I have to say that both men do some great work here. It’s not groundbreaking, and it is completely predictable, but this is a comforting watch, feeling very much like a seasonal special episode of something like The Waltons or Little House On The Prairie.
That’s not to say that all is sweetness and light throughout. Times are tough, very tough, and there’s extra tension, and extra risk for our young lead, when Jessica finds out that her father is planning to send her away to stay with an aunt (played by Rutanya Alda). Hiding a reindeer isn’t likely to get her in the good books, but Jessica considers it to be an invaluable service, not only helping a wounded animal, but also ensuring that Christmas goes ahead as planned.
The cast all do a very good job, and make the film much better than it otherwise would have been. Tickell is a well-rounded young girl, as swift to pout and sulk as she is to widen her eyes and plead for help. She’s very cute, but also has moments of entertaining cheek/meanness (a highlight being the scene in which she believes she has been betrayed by her friend, played by Ariana Richards). Elliott has a strong fanbase for good reason, and he’s very good as the strained father who doesn’t realise why his children cannot understand his pragmatic way of dealing with the harsh reality threatening their home and way of life. Duda is enjoyably irritating, from his snide insults to his ear jewelry, but he gets to improve a lot in time for the grand finale. Then you have the mighty Vigoda and Leachman, both giving wonderful little turns in their respective roles, and both allowed to show how our lead helps to soften their sharp edges and turn those frowns upside-down. Alda does well enough in her small role, and eagle-eyed viewers will spot a very brief turn from Johnny Galecki.
Technically, nothing really stands out. The score from Maurice Jarre is pleasant enough, although not that memorable, and there’s sparing use of special effects implying those little moments of Yuletide magic that are often accompanied by a twinkly sound effect. This is all about the gentle joy of a talented cast helping to deliver a tale that effectively mixes some good humour (special mention of the sequence that has Elliott constantly just missing the sight of the reindeer walking around his property) with a lot of heart.
I know that some will find this a bit dull, and maybe not festive enough, but I ended up liking it way more than I expected. I recommend it as a bit of a gem to people who have already worked through their usual selection of festive film fare.
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