PLOT: Based on the 2015 book of the same name, the story serves as a reimagining of the story of Father Christmas and follows a young boy with a loyal pet mouse and a reindeer by his side, setting out on an extraordinary journey to find his father who is on a quest to discover the fabled village of Elfhelm.
REVIEW: Sometimes it’s hard for me to review films I’m clearly not the target audience for so when I went into A Boy Called Christmas, I was expecting to sit at my keyboard and tell everyone this is a Christmas tale that wasn’t for me, but your kids might like it. Well, color me surprised because once the credits on A Boy Called Christmas began to roll, I found myself caught up in its whimsical charms. The film is very much geared towards a younger audience but, like many Christmas movies, it taps into something inside of us that only someone with a heart of stone could dismiss as not being worthy of your time. It’s not like A Boy Called Christmas is going to be on your daily rotation of movies but as one to be revisited once a year, Netflix should be proud that it could be a newer offering that is worthy of being thrown into the mix with Home Alone or A Christmas Story.
Directed by Gil Kenan, the helmer behind the criminally underrated Monster House, one of the biggest strength’s in the film’s arsenal is the immersive power of its storytelling. Kenan has mentioned that he was driven to direct the film because he was transfixed by Matt Haig’s novel of the same name and that’s completely evident in Kenan’s approach. There is a sense of magic that Kenan captures and that’s through a mix of captivating visuals and just the genuine nature of the Christmas spirit. The tale is told much like the stories we grew up with. Aunt Ruth (Maggie Smith) frames the story by telling her grandniece and nephews in present-day about a young boy named Nikolas (Henry Lawfull), a poor boy from medieval Finland. Nikolas is full of giving spirit that is bestowed upon him by his father Joel (Michiel Huisman) and he is also emersed in a story of his own. His father frequently retells a story about a young girl named Lumi and her journey to a magical land called Elfhelm. The land of Elfhelm intrigues Nikolas and he soon embarks on a journey of his own to find it when the king (Jim Broadbent) orders the villagers to travel beyond the borders of their kingdom to bring back something that inspires some hope. Joel takes the journey because his family needs the money and soon enough, after it has been weeks since his father has returned, Nikolas leaves to track down his father and maybe bring back a bit of that hope with him.
All of the heart of A Boy Called Christmas belongs to Henry Lawfull’s Nikolas. We believe in his optimism and we admire his bravery. There are several obstacles in his way whether it’s his truly terrible aunt Carlotta (Kristen Wiig) or Sally Hawkins’ Mother Vodal, whose staggering delivery of villainous dialogue should be enough to break Nikolas’ spirit but he remains unwavering in his search for the spirit of Christmas. He could give the most cynical person hope and a major credit goes to how newcomer Henry Lawfull portrays him with such great confidence.
Another joy of the film is its handsome imagery. When Joel describes Elfhelm to Nikolas, his words come to life in enchanting shadow silhouettes around their cabin, and, similarly, whenever the movie moves from Nikolas’ snowy terrain and Aunt Ruth’s present-day bedroom setting, Kenan doesn’t cut and he creates a seamless camera pan that never takes you out of the story. It also shows us how some of our best stories, for both children and adults, are experienced as something real and tangible. Nothing about the film’s visual palette feels artificial. If the goal is to make you believe in magic, it has done its job.
Mixed in with all of the hope for a Christmas miracle is some truly hilarious voiceover work from Stephen Merchant as Miika the Mouse. Miika is Nikolas’ travel companion on this journey and he provides the film with the bulk of its comic relief. Merchant does a great job making Miika feel like a living and breathing character that wasn’t created on a computer. The dialogue exchanges between Miika and Nikolas feel organic and the character offers some levity when the film briefly goes to some darker places. While the film never threatens to lose its whimsical good nature, there are moments that pay off on an emotional level that offer up some of the film’s more sad moments.
Despite knowing how this will all end from the moment it begins, A Boy Called Christmas is too charming to dismiss as a diversion and you really have to be a bit of a scrooge to not be charmed by it, at least a little bit. The film doesn’t reinvent the genre by any means but it does just enough to put you in the Christmas spirit.