A superhero origin story of sorts, A Boy Called Christmas is slightly vague about the costumed crusader it has in mind. Is it Saint Nicholas, aka Santa Claus? Or his pagan predecessor, Father Christmas, the white-bearded giftbringer who “flew” through the winter night on his fleet-footed steed possibly with a hallucinogenic aerial assist from fly agaric mushrooms?
Slight quibble to one side, this is actually a nice, sweet, middle-of-the-road story about a boy’s Christmas-y fairytale quest to find Elfhelm, home of the elves, and it builds gently and unexceptionally towards a an emotional climax that might catch you off guard.
The Princess Bride is the quasi-template, with Maggie Smith in the Peter Falk role as the storytelling aunt babysitting her three nieces/nephews and telling them a bedtime story she hopes will help them see the world more positively after the death of their mother.
It’s a story of a quest, which is set up in a funny scene whose Princess Bride tone the film half-heartedly aspires to replicate throughout. The king (Jim Broadbent) asks his subjects what they’d most like him to provide for them. They respond with suggestions like “health care”, “a living wage” and a “fair system of governance”. Instead the king offers a fanciful quest, pioneering a technique of blindsiding citizens with unicorns that works to this day.
So, off the father sets to find Elfhelm and glory, and off the motherless Nikolas (Henry Lawfull) eventually sets, too, following Dad northward once he’s escaped the clutches of his neglectful aunt (Kristen Wiig). Acting as Disney animal sidekick with Nikolas is his pet mouse, which will eventually learn to speak (voiced by Stephen Merchant, working his dopey/clever shtick). En route Nikolas will also pick up a wounded reindeer, and name him Blitzen.
You can see where this is going, which is more than you can say for Nikolas, who arrives in Elfhelm without being able to see it, because he doesn’t “believe” enough. A case of too much mainstream media? After a bit of post-truth indoctrination/revelation at the hands of a smartypants girl called Little Noosh (Indica Watson) and her great great grandfather Father Topo (Toby Jones), the scales fall from Nikolas’s eyes and suddenly there is Elfhelm, a land ruled by the angry Mother Vodol (Sally Hawkins), a fervent ethno-nationalist – “Elfhelm for the elves”.
The dips into conspiracy theorising, the politics of race and the on/off satirical tone make for uneven storytelling. Do it or don’t do it, say I, but don’t dick about. More successful is the way director Gil Kenan and co-writer Ol Parker appropriate Potterish wonder, Game of Thrones bleakness and Lord of the Rings questing tropes to tell their story, plus the excellent costume design (by Ruth Myers), who has raided the archives on what the Finns used to wear (and some Sami still do) for the last word in Nordic cold-weather chic.
Dario Marianelli’s score is a genuine problem, as if he were trying to assert himself against general indifference, like some exhausted child who just won’t go to bed. And Henry Lawfull’s performance isn’t always sure of itself either – a winsome/irksome switchback. Lawfull was about 13 at the time. The right age for a coming-of-age role, but a hard age to be playing one.
Back and forth it goes. Maggie Smith sprinkling stardust as she tells the kids their story in snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug style, Lawfull’s Nikolas on his journey towards become Father Christmas, picking up all the signifiers of office en route – Blitzen flies, a red hat is sourced and worn, the whole “Toys R Me” idea is dreamt up – while no one ever really explains where this word Christmas comes from in the first place, in what is obviously a pre-Christian world, apart from some nonsense about it being Nikolas’s dead mother’s pet name for him.
But the strange thing about A Boy Called Christmas is that for all the many niggles, it eventually does deliver the goods. The emotional payload eventually drops down the chimney but only once Kenan and Parker have dropped all the smart stuff and polical snidery in favour of a simple message of children being happy at a festive time of year. Everything suddenly clicks in to place. It is only for the last 20 minutes or so – but hey, grab ye joys where ye may.
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