A Boy Called Christmas, 2021.
Directed by Gil Kenan.
Starring Henry Lawfull, Stephen Merchant, Maggie Smith, Zoe Colletti, Michiel Huisman, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent, Kristen Wiig and Joel Fry.
The story of Father Christmas is reimagined as a tale of kidnapping, pixies and a secret elf village hidden in the snowy wilderness.
A Boy Called Christmas is one of many festive films that will no doubt be let down by its title. It feels like you’ve seen it before because it sounds like one of the umpteen Hallmark Channel monstrosities that land on Channel 5 – or, increasingly, Netflix – every December. In fact, this new fantasy adventure from director Gil Kenan – co-writer of the recent Ghostbusters: Afterlife – is exactly the sort of movie that Christmas at the cinema should be all about. It’s charming, schmaltzy and ultimately a little bit naff.
Adapted from Matt Haig’s novel of the same name, the film version provides a framing device in which Maggie Smith’s curmudgeonly Aunt Ruth – when she’s chirpily wished “merry Christmas”, she snaps back that she’s “working on it” – tells the story to her family on Christmas Eve. Nikolas (Henry Lawfull) lives with his woodcutter father (Michiel Huisman) in a poor part of Finland. Along with many of the local men, Nikolas’s dad is sent by the king (Jim Broadbent) to bring back something which conveys hope, sending them off in search of the mythical kingdom of Elfhelm. When the expedition stretches on, Nikolas and his mouse friend Miika (Stephen Merchant) venture off to find them.
The idea of a revisionist Christmas origin story isn’t a new one, with Netflix’s stunning animation Klaus perhaps the most notable recent spin on the concept. As a result, there’s something a little stale at the heart of A Boy Called Christmas that it can’t ever quite get past, despite its fairy tale spirit, amiable tone and an ensemble cast of performers with the strength to whet the appetite of any fan of recent British cinema.
Chief among the standouts is Sally Hawkins, getting a rare opportunity to clad herself in black and amp up the villainy as the tyrannical ruler of Elfhelm. She was seemingly voted in on the delightfully evil electoral pledge of “no more joy and no more Christmas” and hisses up a storm with malevolent relish, in stark contrast to Toby Jones at his most pleasant and avuncular as an elf resistance activist who takes a huge risk by bringing the human Nikolas into the village. It’s a shame, meanwhile, that we don’t get more of Maggie Smith, given how much fun she is on irascible form in the framing segments.
But as for the leading man, newcomer Henry Lawfull does a solid enough job. He doesn’t have oodles of natural charisma, but he’s believable as a wide-eyed innocent stepping into a world shaped into something ugly by the cynicism of his father’s generation. You don’t have to reach too far for the real-life parallels there. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the back and forth between Lawfull and his mouse sidekick, voiced with incongruous Bristolian wit by Merchant, though the movie spends a lot of time wandering around in the snow without ever pushing its story forward.
And that, ultimately, is what scuppers A Boy Called Christmas. Deliberately or otherwise, it reflects the feeling of Christmas afternoon, when everyone is full of food and too lethargic to ever do anything, despite the surplus of brightly-coloured decorations and red hats with fluffy, white bobbles. It’s a film that leaves you yearning to delve into the riches of its unknown worlds, but lacks the propulsion to actually get the audience there.
The movie is undemanding Christmas fare and it’s certainly not without enjoyable spectacle and fun moments of comedy, as well as some standout performances. In fact, it might be the ideal comfort blanket to reach for during that weird week between Christmas and New Year when time seems to stand still in a liminal muddle of leftover turkey, relatives hanging around slightly too long and finding pine needles everywhere. Otherwise, though, it might be better to just watch Klaus again.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.