At last Netflix releases a family holiday movie worth watching this year. I was beginning to lose hope.
“A Boy Called Christmas” continues the streamer’s run of good luck with tales that reset the Christmas myth, finding new origin stories for Santa. Like the animated “Klaus” this British (Studio Canal) production finds whimsy and delight in making up new ways give the world St. Nick, ways that have nothing to do with a real-life saint, Clement Clarke Moore or Coca-Cola ads.
A director with the animated delight “Monster House” in his credits (Gil Kenan), and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Mamma Mia!” screenwriter Ol Parker attracted an A-list cast that includes Oscar winners Maggie Smith, Jim Broadbent and Sally Hawkins, with Kristen Wiig and Toby Jones to ice the cake. That team and this cast and top drawer production design make “Boy” a “can’t-miss” kid-friendly favorite that doesn’t miss.
It’s a “Princess Bride” inspired retelling of That First Santa that features no less than Dame Maggie, as a “tactless” and “very very old” aunt relating a story to three sad, motherless kids who aren’t shy about interrupting to make sure the tale’s various dark turns don’t “trigger” them into thinking about their recently-deceased mother.
“There’s no WAY to get to a ‘happy ending’ from here,” one moppet complains, at one point. That’s OK, Auntie assures them. Not all endings are happy, and “nothing ever ends.”
She tells of a Finland before from a time before the world knew about or celebrated Christmas. Nikolas (Henry Lawfull) is a fresh-faced lad, son of a poor woodcutter, who saves a mouse from Dad’s (Michiel Huisman) angry axe so that he can teach the critter to talk.
“Moms always told me, ‘If you believe in something, you’re halfway there.”
Eventually, the mouse does pipe up, with the comically querulous voice of Stephen Merchant.
“Why would you teach me to talk if you’re never going to listen?”
This is after the kid’s aunt (Kristen Wiig, a GREAT villainess) comes to look after him while Dad’s off on a quest for the comically-overwigged King (Broadbent). Aunt Carlotta kicks the kid and the mouse out of the house, so there’s nothing for it but to trek through the snow towards “The Far North,” in search of what the father and his quest crew are looking for — proof of Elfhelm, a fabled town of elves.
Their journey gets easier when the kid removes an arrow from a reindeer who obligingly provides transport. Let’s call him…Blitzen. But the quest grows more complicated when they run across actual elves, including the downcast Father Topo (Toby Jones). The elf-queen (Sally Hawkins) is in a mood.
This movie had me from the moment Dame Maggie trots down the snowy, decorated street to her duties baby sitting. Seeing a National Treasure cover ground that fast, at 86, is impressive. And the production design — by “Paddington” veteran Gary Williamson — is just exquisite, start to finish.
Pythonesque touches pop up as the gloom-and-doom “We’re all miserable” king finds his rhetorical question about what they can do about it answered by not-quite-compliant peasants.
“A health care system?” “A living wage?”
Little kids who’ve lost their parents aren’t the only ones who might be “triggered” here.
Merchant brings an offhanded wit to his mutterings as the mouse, and Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”) is gloriously cast against type as a heavy, and shockingly scary in the part.
But she’d have a ways to go to be as wickedly fun as Wiig, who is at her very best in a tiny part, the “wicked aunt” who serves the boy Nikolas some seriously dubious soup.
“What’s it made with,” he wants to know? Aunt Carlotta’s scary eyes glitter at her punch line.
“Boy Called Christmas” peaks a bit early and sticks around too long after that climax. The movie doesn’t exactly “stick the landing.”
But in a winter of dull holiday romances and seriously unimaginative seasonal slop, this one tickles and delights and is at least good enough to put off that “Christmas Story” rerun you know you’re getting around to, because that after-all is a tradition.
Rating: PG, violence, some disturbing images
Cast: Maggie Smith, Henry Lawfull, Jim Broadbent, Kristen Wiig, Joel Fry, Michiel Huisman, Toby Jones and Sally Hawkins.
Directed by Gil Kenan, scripted by Ol Parker and Gil Kenan, based on the Matt Haig book. A Studio Canal film on Netflix.
Running time: 1:46