A Boy Called Christmas (2021)

Despite its best efforts, A Boy Called Christmas is a fantastic movie. It tries exceedingly hard not to be - there are tonal issues, its themes are out of alignment, the structure is poorly conceived, some of the CG doesn't work - but for all its faults... it still works. Really well, in fact. This is one of the best Christmas fantasy offerings out there.

Let's back up and discuss what this is. A Boy Called Christmas is a British movie based on a young adult novel that came out six years ago. I should note I haven't read the book it's based on. Lindsay has, and her review is already up. But this review will be looking at the movie in isolation: I don't care what's changed, nor will I overlook stuff they included just to placate fans.

The movie comes off as sort of blend of Harry Potter, the Narnia movies, and Princess Bride, with maybe a touch of Paddington tossed into the mix (though I assume pretty much every British family film is going to feel at least a little like Paddington for the foreseeable future). The provides an alternate origin for Santa Claus (okay, technically it's supposed to be Father Christmas, but aside from the name and using Finland as the characters' residence, there's not much difference at this point).

This seems to be getting a theatrical release in Britain and several other markets, but Netflix bought US rights, making it incredibly easy to see here.

The movie opens with a frame story where an old woman shows up to look after three young relatives who lost their mother the prior year. She winds up telling them a story that's of course the actual movie. The movie occasionally cuts back to them to show us the kids arguing, complaining, and getting invested in the story. I don't think I'm reading too much into it by suggesting this was most likely intended as an homage to The Princess Bride. I didn't catch any lines repeated verbatim, but some of the exchanges feel extremely similar.

We don't spend a lot of time with these characters, but the movie manages to make the kids likeable. The writing's fun and quippy, and the old woman - played by Maggie Smith - is intriguing, particularly before we learn what's with her (hint: she tells us several times she never lies, so it's pretty much just a matter of time until a girl shows up in her story with the same quirk).

The movie's main story opens in some unspecified past, with the main character living with his father in a shack in the woods. I should note this character sort of has two names: he's generally known as "Nikolas," but prior to her death his mother called him "Christmas," a word that means nothing to anyone living in Finland.

Needless to say this isn't going for historical accuracy. Despite ostensibly taking place in Finland, the story is clearly set in a fantasy world that operates according to fairytale logic. As far as I can tell, Christianity doesn't exist, and Christmas is an elven invention. And that brings us to the elves.

Well, technically it brings us to a story-within-a-story about elves, as we learn Nikolas grew up with legends about a magical people who lived in the north. These stories mostly originated with his mother, though we get a recap from his father. This sequence is told through animated shadows on the wall, and it looks absolutely beautiful. I don't have really have any notes about this part - I loved it.

Soon after, Nikolas and his father are summoned to see the king, along with a sizable number of other people. The king is a sort of bumbling and out-of-touch but well enough meaning monarch who feels like something's missing from his life and the life of his subjects. He offers a sizeable reward to anyone who can travel afar and return with some magic.

Nikolas's father agrees to join an expedition to search for the legendary home of the elves. He leaves Nikolas with an aunt, played by Kristen Wiig, who's... ugh. Okay, We're reaching the first serious issue in the movie. It's not Wiig specifically, but she's the first in a series of tone-breaking, over-the-top characters who don't work. Arguably, the king could be viewed as fitting this mold, as well, but he at least feels like he stepped out of a storybook, as opposed to a comedy skit.

That said, there is a brief sequence during his proclamation where bystanders call out modern issues as a sort of satire/comic relief. That bit definitely feels a bit Monty Python-ish, so I guess Wiig isn't technically the first time they break tone for a laugh. Her sequence is more drawn out, though - she's sort of a generic, sadistic parody of evil stepmothers.

Also, her character is the first part of another trend they probably should have skipped. Women don't come off very well in this movie. There are a few counter-examples, and I'm being a bit uncharitable in my characterization, but for the most part even the female characters who are portrayed positively are depicted as erratic. Hell, this movie features a literal manic pixie dream girl (and I mean literal - more on her later).

I should probably also mention Nikolas's companion, a small mouse he befriends and tries to teach English. Eventually, the mouse actually does start speaking, though I'm getting ahead of myself.

Nikolas finds a map to the elf village in his hat. That, along with the fact his aunt is a literal sociopath who forces him to sleep outside and tricks him into eating soup made from one of the few remaining things Nikolas has to remind him of his mother, is enough reason to sneak off and try to help his father.

Along the way, Nikolas finds a reindeer who was shot by a member of his father's party. Nikolas removes the arrow and befriends the deer, who he names "Blitzen," in case any of this was unclear. Riding the deer turns out to be more efficient than stumbling through the snow, so Nikolas reaches his destination fairly quickly. At first he can't see the village, and he nearly freezes to death until a kindly elf finds him, magically heals him, and helps him learn to BELIEVE, because sometimes BELIEVING is the only way to see....

All right. Let me stop here for a minute. I honestly love this movie overall, and while this is a recurring theme, it's just a secondary one, and all that. It's just... I honestly hate this trope with all my heart. "Believe so you're rewarded" is one of the most common and least fulfilling themes in Christmas entertainment.

Regardless, he's finally able to see the village, though the elves he's with need to hide him for reasons that won't become clear for a few minutes. They avoid some guards and bring him to a secret celebration, which gives Nikolas his first experience with Christmas.

After a couple minutes, the guards break in and arrest everyone, because it turns out Christmas is now illegal. Also illegal: humans! Because not long before, a bunch of humans (including Nikolas's dad) kidnapped an elf child, so the elves elected Mother Vodal (played by Sally Hawkins), who is basically trying to make the elf village great again. Not an exaggeration: her politics are pretty explicitly nationalist and anti-immigrant.

Nikolas is banished to the tower, where he meets the aforementioned pixie who is incredibly manic. Like aggressively so, to the point I have to wonder the manic pixie dream girl thing is an intentional reference they're making. If you can ignore all that and look past the lack of major female characters who aren't crazy, she's honestly a lot of fun, particularly thanks to her obsession with explosives. 

Also, she's physically incapable of telling a lie, so try and act surprised at the end when we discover the old woman from the frame story has pointed ears and tosses some fireworks into the air. Honestly, I was mostly just relieved they didn't feel the need to show us her wings.

The pixie helps Nikolas get out of the prison by blowing up a troll's head in a sequence that was a bit more comical than it probably should have been. She also both unintentionally hinders and intentionally helps him get out of town. He receives some additional help, as well, after vowing to retrieve the kidnapped elf child, a task that winds up being a bit too simplistic for my tastes.

Simplistic, but not without cost. Nikolas finds the expedition camping in the woods pretty easily, but they capture him almost immediately when they realize he wants to free the elf. Actually, the leader of the expedition wants to kill the kid, but Nikolas's dad convinces them to just tie him up. Nikolas is naturally furious with his father, though it turns out that tying him up was a ruse. As soon as everyone's asleep, he frees his son and helps him free the elf.

It should be noted that Nikolas's father frees the elf for his son, not because it's the right thing to do. I really like this detail - Nikolas's dad has a sense of right and wrong, but at the end of the day he always does what he thinks is best for himself and his son, even it's ultimately wrong. This is a tough lesson for Nikolas, who'd never given up faith that his father must be an unwilling participant.

Nikolas's father winds up sacrificing himself so Nikolas and the elf can get away. Also, the reindeer can fly now, but let's try and remain focused. Nikolas brings the kid home, and everyone is ecstatic. The village all supports Nikolas and wants to reward him with gifts, but rather than accept them for himself, he has a revelation. He enlists the elves to make enough presents for as many kids as possible.

Around this time Mother Vodal shows up to stop him, but at some point she realizes he's the son of a girl who came to their village decades earlier, and she has a change of heart. Now that everyone's on the same page, they're ready to share Christmas with humanity.

Nikolas returns to the palace from the start of the movie to pick up the king, who accompanies the boy as he delivers toys to kids all over the kingdom. Or maybe the world - they weren't all that specific. At the end of it, the king appoints Nikolas to ensure the holiday lives on.

The movie kind of wraps up after that. There's the obligatory wrap up to the frame story, of course, but I already let you in on the twist there (not that you'd have needed my help - I'm pretty sure four-year-olds will be able to spot this coming an hour in advance.

It's an easy movie to pick apart. Structurally, it doesn't have much of a through-line. There's no overarching plot or goal - more a series of mini-quests strung together. Nikolas wants to help his father, then he wants to escape the elf village, then he wants to return the kidnapped child, then he wants to deliver toys... These are basically episodic adventures. I don't think that's a bad structure for a book, but it's hard to make a movie compelling without a clear goal that remains more or less intact (at least until the third act, at which point you're free to re-evaluate). You can structure a film as a series of adventures (road trip movies often do), but in these cases it's customary to have escalating stakes, increasingly intense sequences, and/or progressively impressive spectacles.

This doesn't do any of that. Rescuing the elf seems to fill the role of the most impactful sequence, but the whole thing was pretty small. Really, escaping the elf village was a larger episode in terms of scale, visuals, pace, and danger. He had to avoid numerous magical beings as he made his way through a labyrinth of streets to get out alive, and that's after nearly being eaten by (an admittedly comical) troll. In contrast, the expedition was just a handful of guys with bows who never actually managed to hit anything (unless you count Blitzen, who sustained only minor injuries).

Then, there were still multiple sequences after that, none of which really landed with the kind of emotional impact that came from seeing his dad fall off a cliff so Nikolas would be light enough to escape. Structurally, this just shouldn't work.

The designs and visual effects are kind of hit-or-miss. Some of this is gorgeous, other aspects are too cartoonish, and still others are just weirdly generic (Mother Vodal's magic looks like it's straight out of the MCU). And while I'm complaining about stuff, I also didn't think the mouse's voice was right. They went too comical, rather than lean into the cuteness of the concept.

That a long list of problems, isn't is? And, to be clear, these aren't minor: they're errors that do limit the impact of the movie. And yet...

God, this thing is great, start to finish. Yes, I know what I just said, and I stand by all that, it's just... this is really good stuff.

It acknowledges grief and pain without being saccharine or feeling fake. Both the frame story and the primary plot center around kids who have lost a mother (and Nikolas's father doesn't make it to the end, either). The movie doesn't placate us with platitudes about people watching over us or resurrect anyone as ghosts - it shows us characters living with loss and learning to find joy again.

The main characters are likeable. Nikolas isn't deep or complex, and he doesn't undergo a major internal journey in order to overcome a character flaw. Yes, I know conventional wisdom holds your main is supposed to go through something like that, but we've reached a point where that template is nearly universal. Nikolas's journey is one that opens his eyes to complexities of others. He discovers his father is more complicated - and not entirely in a good way - than he expected. His final goal of drawing out the goodness in people follows naturally.

And, yes, I harped about some of the visual effects and designs feeling underwhelming. But you know what the operative word is in that sentence: some. Because for every shot that feels flat, there's another that pulls you in. Yes, some of the magic is less than awe-inspiring, but when this transitions from frame story to fairytale and back with lingering images or shadows dance around Nikolas's hut... it's gorgeous. Same goes for the fields and forests of winter, and the first few shots of the wounded reindeer... there's real magic in this thing.

That goes for the writing, too. Yes, yes, I whined about tonal shifts, comic relief, and misplaced satire - that's all there. But the rest of the movie feels like a storybook, full of wonder and beauty and loss. Laughs, as well - most of the dialogue itself is fantastic and fun.

Yes, this faltered. Yes, it had limitations it couldn't overcome. But these didn't come close to ruining the experience. This isn't the only time this year I'll be making this comparison, but I found this extremely reminiscent to Jim Henson's Storyteller. It's weird and lovely and ingenious in its approach, even if it sometimes gets itself into trouble.

Would have been better with a more streamlined story, less modern references, and a different actor voicing the mouse? Yeah, probably. But what's here is anything but a total loss. For all its flaws, it's a beautiful, touching film that belongs on the list of fantasy Christmas classics. Highly recommended.