A Boy Called Christmas comes to us from Gil Kenan, who previously directed Poltergeist (2015) and helped with the screenplay for Ghostbusters: Afterlife. So basically, Kenan is still more or less the “It Boy” for revitalizing retro properties in a way that’s kid-friendly with a darker edge, even though he’s yet to even remotely deliver any of the potential he showed with Monster House fifteen years ago. Yet here he is, directing and co-writing a whimsical origin story for Father Christmas (aka Nikolas, played as a boy by Henry Lawfull).
We open with a framing device in which Aunt Ruth (Maggie Smith) tells a Christmas Eve bedtime story to three young kids (played by Isabella O’Sullivan, Eden Lawrence, and Ayomide Garrick). On the one hand, of course Maggie Smith is more than welcome to serve as our narrator, and the framing device does provide a convenient excuse to include some brown faces in what’s otherwise an overwhelmingly white movie. Moreover, the kids are still grieving their dead mother, and that helps provide a bit of connective tissue to show how the themes of this supposedly ancient story might apply to the modern day.
On the other hand, the framing device serves little purpose but to grind the film to a screeching halt, and the story itself is loaded with more than enough allegories to make it work in the modern day. And of course Aunt Ruth is a character in the actual story, anyone with a brain cell would’ve guessed that from the first word out of her mouth. On balance, I’d argue the film would’ve been better with the framing device on the cutting room floor.
Anyway, Nikolas is the young son of a woodcutter (Joel, played by Michael Huisman) and the both of them are grieving the loss of Nikolas’ mother. In fact, the both of them live in a nation so impoverished and desolate that the king himself (played by Jim Broadbent) has offered a significant monetary reward to anyone who will go beyond the boundaries of the kingdom and bring back any possible cause for hope. Joel takes up the challenge, leaving on an expedition for places unknown with a band of fellow villagers.
Meanwhile, Nikolas has been left alone at home with his wicked Aunt Carlotta (played to the rafters by Kristen Wiig). Long story short, Nikolas discovers that his mother’s old fairy tales are indeed real, the magical lost kingdom of Elfhelm does exist, and she left him a map to the place. Thus he leaves his abusive babysitter to learn the truth about Elfhelm and what really happened to his father, and we’re off to the races.
I might add that Nikolas is accompanied in his quest by a pet mouse who eventually learns to talk with Stephen Merchant’s voice. This is never explained, beyond some vague hand-waving about magic and faith and persistence, blah blah blah. Oh, and we also get to meet Blitzen, who does indeed learn how to fly as the plot unfolds. I’ll happily give the film kudos for some solid creature effects. I might add that Blitzen makes himself impeccably useful as a means of conveyance, and Stephen Merchant makes for a sweet comic relief sidekick.
But then we actually get to Elfhelm, and the supporting characters take a notable dip in quality. We’ve got the unnamed Truth Pixie (played by Zoe Colletti), a sprite who can only tell the complete and unvarnished truth, yet she also has a penchant for mischief with colorful fireworks. Her inability to lie makes her a powerful moral voice for the film, and her explosive shenanigans make for great fun. The roles should’ve been handled by two separate characters. Trying to fit them together into one pixie makes for a painful disconnect.
Then we’ve got Toby Jones, sadly underutilized as the exposition machine who fills us in on Elfhelm. He’s assisted by Indica Watson as “Little Noosh”, who sadly doesn’t leave much of an impression. The other elf child of note — Little Kip, played by Rishi Kuppa — is little more than baggage to be stolen and passed between the other characters.
Easily the standout is Mother Vodol (Sally Hawkins), the recently-appointed ruler of Elfhelm. Here we have a character so distraught by the perceived betrayal of human interlopers (That’s a long story I won’t get into here.) that she outlaws all dancing and parties and any other pleasantries that might cause any kind of distraction from constant vigilance. She rules with an iron fist, cementing her power through fear, and that makes for a surprisingly potent modern allegory. Too bad it’s resolved through some hand-waving last-minute bullshit.
Sally Hawkins stands out for exactly the same reason as Kristen Wiig and Jim Broadbent: They all understand exactly what movie they’re in. No joke, the best actors in this movie are the ones who don’t even bother trying for nuance, leaning hard and heavy into the four-color archetypes that comprise this whimsical high-flying fable for kids.
That being said, Gil Kenan’s trademark has always been his ability to bring family entertainment with some degree of bite. That’s a huge part of what made Monster House so great, and why (on paper, at least) he was the ideal choice to direct a Poltergeist remake. And sure enough, this movie does go to some dark places. We even get an onscreen death that’s seriously potent, and with no possibility that the death will be reversed.
Yet precisely because the film goes to these dark places without flinching, it makes the brighter spots so much more fantastic and heartwarming. In particular, Maggie Smith gets a line about how grief is the price we pay for love, and that one line justifies the entire movie’s existence.
Yes, this is very much a film about hope and belief. And yes, this is a movie in which hope is used as a source of magic with virtually no other explanation as to what that magic can do or how it works, and I feel compelled to dock points for that. Yet I’m giving this movie a pass because it directly ties these themes into the practice of giving presents at Christmastime. It’s all about giving what we can to our loved ones and sharing in that joy, because where there is joy, there’s hope. And everything we have — our very notions of family, home, community, of the world and life itself — is lost and worthless unless we have some measure of hope for a brighter future.
(Side note: Incidentally, this is a huge part of why I gave Jingle Jangle — another Netflix original Christmas movie — such a negative review last year. There was another movie that leaned heavily on themes of faith and hope, but it never developed those themes into anything valuable, certainly not like this one did.)
I have a difficult time judging A Boy Called Christmas, because it was clearly made for a much younger audience. Yet while the filmmakers greatly favored their younger viewers, an effort was clearly made to make this entertaining and enlightening for the older family members, and I respect that. Yet the balance doesn’t always work — in particular, I’m not sure how traumatic that onscreen death would be for kids of a certain age, and the Truth Pixie simply doesn’t work anywhere near as well as she should have. The allegories to real-life politics are clear enough for the adults to get, but subtle enough to make nicely implicit themes for the kids to grow into later on. Though honestly, the point would’ve been made just as clearly without the superfluous framing device.
There’s no way this is ever going to be a new all-ages holiday classic, certainly nothing on par with The Muppet Christmas Carol or the Chuck Jones take on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (both of which this movie owes a great debt to). And I’m still waiting for Gil Kenan to deliver that slam-dunk success he’s been promising for nearly two decades now. It’s a sweet little movie, not bad at all, but if you’re looking for a Netflix movie about the origins of Santa, Klaus is still a much better bet.