Movie Review — “Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer” joins the X-Mas Also-Rans

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Make an animated Christmas tale for kids and the world will beat a path to your door.

But for every “Christmas Carol,” every “Arthur Christmas” or “Polar Express,” there are a hundred also-rans. Even starring Mickey Mouse in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” is no guarantee your movie won’t end up in the bargain bin, condemned to fill a little-watched seasonal queue on Netflix.

“Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer” gives us the crisp, clean lines of CGI animation, dazzling production design enhanced by sweeping, swooping tracking shots through a dazzling digital North Pole, and a voice cast that includes Martin Short, Samantha Bee, Josh Hutcherson and John Cleese.

What it doesn’t have is much of a story, or much that’s funny for that voice cast to say or do. Writer-director Jennifer Westcott word processed another “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer” variation, without the warmth, wit or a classic children’s song to recommend it.

What she cooked up was a dull, oddly anti-reindeer riff on not letting birth or circumstance keep you from your dreams. “Elliot” has the usual snobby reindeer games business, a reindeer meat subplot and reindeer meat gags built into its “We’ve got to SAVE Christmas” agenda.

“I like reindeer. Good and GAMEY. I mean, good at GAMES!”

And that’s the funny stuff.

There’s a problem on the North Pole. The veteran reindeer immortalized by Clement C. Moore’s famous poem — Dasher, Blitzen, Comet, Cupid etc. — are retiring to the suburbs, defecting to Russia, joining ashrams to “find myself” or quitting to open “Blitzen’s Juice Bar” in the Florida Keys.

Santa has to round up new recruits. And that could be good news to Whittick’s Witty Bitty Farm and failing  Petting Zoo in snowy North Dakota.

They have reindeer, a holiday favorite of the local kids, and their fastest and strongest are prime candidates for the Reindeer Games — a survival of the fittest elimination competition at Santa’s Workshop. DJ (voiced by Christopher Jacot) is sure he’s about to meet his destiny.

But the movie isn’t about him. It’s about the pony — “Miniature HORSE!” — Elliot (Josh Hutcherson), who trains and trains with his pal Hazel the goat (Samantha Bee) for that day when he’ll crack the reindeer sleigh-pulling monopoly.

Hazel repeats the bromides   of Coach (Darren Frost), who owns the failing farm and trains the reindeer (not Elliot) with  “Success trains, failure complains.” “If it’s important, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”

Elliot believes “Big dreamers dream BIG,” and won’t let go of that dream, no matter what the Braveheart-painted Shetland pony Clyde (Jeff Dunham) says. “That’s what ye get for tryin’ to be something you’re not,” he growls in a dark Scots burr.

Elliot and Hazel stow away when Coach takes DJ north for the three day competition and fake their way in with phony antlers and an assumed name (Glitzen). Elliot gets his shot.

But Santa’s got a reporter (Morena Baccarin) nosing around and a bit of a coverup underway. No, there won’t be a repeat of “what happened last year. We have nooo problems with the reindeer…Everything is UNDER control.”

The head elf (Martin Short) is trying to keep a lid on things and keep the “jerk” reindeer in line — “Save your whining for the sports psychologist!” But about “last year…” And about those mechanical sleighs being stockpiled.

The sight gags include the Witty Bitty Farm’s annual “running of the goats,” and other attempts at humor involve cheating Russians (sneaking extra “magic cookies” to enable their reindeer to fly long) and elf-expletives.

“Oh, sugar cookie!”

“Oh for the love of Keebler!”

Bee’s goat gets into the magic cookies, and gets caught eating a can.

“Goats eating cans is a VICIOUS stereotype!”

At least she has something to play. Hiring Monty Python’s Cleese and wasting him like this is borderline criminal.

None of it is any funnier than a greased North Pole climbing contest, which is also tossed in here.

 

The main villain is Ms. Lutzinka (Martin Short again), a vamping Eastern European who covets the Witty Bitty farm — and its livestock. She gets the funniest line, which I’ll repeat as there are no other candidates.

“I like reindeer. Good and GAMEY. I mean, good at GAMES!”

Lump “Littlest Reindeer” in with “The Star” and every other released and forgotten animated half-hearted holiday hit that never was.

It’s pretty enough, with enough incidents and “action” to hold the attention of those too young to get Global Warming and reindeer (and goat, horse and llama) meat dehydration gags. And pretty much charmless to any viewer over six.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG for some suggestive and rude humor

Cast: The voices of  Josh Hutcherson, John Cleese, Samantha Bee, Martin Short, Jeff Dunham, Morena Baccarin

Credits: Written and directed by Jennifer Westcott . A Screen Media release.

Running time: 1:29

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