Reel Review - A Boy Called Christmas (2021)
It’s a timely and touching tale. It’s a prescient and poignant plot. It’s a fun and funny fable. It’s A Boy Called Christmas and it’s a must-see holiday movie this year.
Adapted from Matt Haig’s 2015 book of the same name, A Boy Called Christmas is a reimagining of the origin story of Santa Claus, Old Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle or whatever you call him. A boy named Nikolas sets out on an adventure to a mythical land to find his father but finds hope instead.
There’s a lot to like about A Boy Named Christmas. Even if it doesn’t have the seasonal sentimentality of 2004’s The Polar Express or the rib-busting humour of a classic like Home Alone, A Boy Named Christmas nevertheless delivers on all of the Christmas movie must-haves. There’s a quest for hope and magic, an appeal to childlike joy and a family story at the heart of it all. And, of course, there’s lots of snow.
Stephen Merchant, as the voice of the animated mouse Mika, is unmistakable. He delivers most of his laughs in the film’s second act but does best when he has some room to try out a few of his patented awkward one-liners. All the same, Merchant is the source of many of this film’s laugh out loud moments but that’s not to say that other characters and cast members didn’t get their moments under the camera’s mistletoe. Zoe Margaret Colletti as The Truth Pixie lives up to the wise and witty writing for her character. Her humour is far more physical than Merchant’s but she no less has great one-liners—ranging from the wise to the wacky and all the way back again.
With more than a few of these colourful characters scurrying and whizzing their way around the frame, our titular character gets a little lost. Henry Lawfull as Nikolas isn’t nearly as large a character as some of his little helpers—or as large as his eventual alter ego’s jolly belly. But then, it’s not clear that he was supposed to be. Lawfull does a respectable job of carrying the film’s action and sentiment without ever losing sight—how could he with those snow-globe-sized eyeballs?—of the fact that he’s in a children’s movie. With the help of director, Gil Kenan, Lawfull keeps the emotional range of the film within the appropriate parameters.
Dame Maggie Smith doesn’t get much time on the screen but she is this film’s North Star. Her character’s lines are, without question, some of the best in the film—a delicate balance of truth and tragedy that Smith breathes to life with dry humour.
The wonderful characters and their equally hilarious and heart-warming moments are, however, simply the ornaments and decorations on the full and healthy Christmas tree of writer Ol Parker and director Gil Kenan. And this is where, I confess, I perhaps begin to overanalyze this film.
Over the past two years, it’s been difficult not to see everything through the lens of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. And, should the broader audience’s or critics’ perspective differ vastly from my own, I’ll readily confess to having politicized what is simply an enjoyable children’s Christmas movie. However, it feels like Parker and Kenan made A Boy Called Christmas as their treatise on the COVID-19 pandemic—or, at least, with full knowledge that they were releasing this film into a cultural and political space saturated with COVID talk and policy.
Our protagonist’s, Nikolas’, quest for hope is not dissimilar to our quest for hope in the midst of this pandemic. His world—the world within the film—is beset by a nebulous but no less pervasive sense of malaise—kind of like an invisible pathogen floating around in the air. As Jim Broadbent’s character remarks, nearly in surprise to himself, “I can’t remember the last time I smiled.” I imagine many in the audience can relate to the feeling of suffering underneath a not-too-dissimilar COVID-cloud, albeit that the “pandemic” in this film is a psychological one. One might argue, so is ours. Regardless, Nikolas’ quest for hope mirrors our own quest for the light at the end of our pandemic tunnel.
Even the villain in this movie feels too similar to literary and psychological tropes for this reviewer to simply write it all off as a coincidence. Parker and Kenan—and Matt Haig, possibly, though I haven’t read the children’s book—could have pulled Sally Hawkins’ Mother Vodol out of a Carl Jung textbook on the archetype of the Devouring Mother. In her effort to protect her community, Mother Vodol implements an authoritarian police state that is out of all proportion to the threat posed by the outside world. She takes her legitimate democratic mandate and the powers given to her by her peers and wields them, with callous and frightening zealotry, against the very people she claims to protect. The archetype of the Devouring Mother embodied in Mother Vodol is one that real-world audiences have become all too familiar with—even if only subconsciously—throughout this pandemic.
As it should, this movie delivers its most powerful message during its climax. Nikolas defeats Mother Vodol not by overpowering her or even outsmarting her. But simply by reminding her of her humanity—or, more accurately given that she’s an elf, by reminding her of her love for humanity. With the devastating and well-documented effects of pandemic-related measures on our society’s economic and mental well-being, it’s a little difficult to believe that our public health dictators and politicians have any humanity in them, or love thereof. But perhaps, that’s the point of this film: belief. Ultimately, it is Nikolas’ belief in benevolence that brings hope back to his afflicted world.
Whether or not A Boy Called Christmas will warm our hearts in years to come when—hopefully—this pandemic nonsense is behind us, only time will tell. For now, at least, it’s a heartfelt and heartwarming Christmas movie that the whole family can enjoy. So, sit back on the sofa with your friends and family and watch A Boy Called Christmas and maybe, if you believe, there will be some hope in your stockings this year.