Movie Review: “A Boy Called Christmas”

All too many Christmas movies are infused with a saccharine sweetness – a cloying, fake, forced sense of happiness and joy. Every year there are new entries into this disappointing cadre of works and 2021 is no exception, one only need look at Netflix’s new “A Boy Called Christmas” to see as much.

Yet another take on how Santa Claus came to be Santa Claus, directed by Gil Kenan, this movie is based on the book of the same name by Matt Haig. It, as the name indicates, features a boy known as “Christmas.” You will not be surprised to learn that this is a nickname and his real name is… wait for it… Nikolas! Played by Henry Lawfull, Nikolas is a poor lad who lives in the woods in Finland with his father, Joel, played by Michiel Huisman. When the King (Jim Broadbent), decides there’s no hope left in the Kingdom, he sends intrepid adventurers off to find some.

Naturally, Joel leaves the boy in the care of his horrific aunt (Kristen Wiig) and goes to search for the elves (Nikolas’s deceased mother was a big fan of telling stories about the elves). Nikolas suffers under his aunt’s care and eventually follows his father into the woods to find Elfhelm and restore joy to Finland.

For reasons that are entirely unclear, this tale is told within a “Princess Bride” sort of frame, with an allegedly mean aunt (or great aunt), Ruth, played by Maggie Smith, telling the story to three kids when their father (Joel Fry) has to go to work on Christmas Eve. Those kids, too, have lost their mother and aren’t happy that their father has gone out and left them with such a sitter.

Clearly we are meant to glean something from this doubling, but what precisely that is, except maybe that Ruth isn’t a very inventive storyteller, is unclear. That said, even if this conjecture is unintended, there is actually plenty to support it. In fact, it is possible to build an argument that the real problem in the film is Ruth’s abilities.

There are multiple portions of the story she tells that make no sense, have no payoff, and are generally without purpose. Nikolas seems to traverse the unforgiving wilderness—the wilderness his father thought would surely kill the boy even if the boy was with a group of adults—without any issues at all. A character I will not name specifically, for fear of spoilers, has not one but two complete turnarounds, the second of which almost makes sense because the first doesn’t make any whatsoever. The actions of the group of men Nikolas follows are inane. Elfhelm itself is full of political problems that are more than a little silly in their presentation.

This last item is almost interesting as there are moments that “A Boy Called Christmas” seems to want, on the whole, to be political. When the King is explaining the task at the film’s outset, commoners in the hall suggest that the problems in country could be fixed with stuff like healthcare and a living wage before the King dismisses such nonsense with the more ethereal explanation that the true issue is a lack of hope. In Elfhelm, the main problem is a fight between Father Topo (Toby Jones) and Mother Something (Sally Hawkins) over fear of foreigners (in this case, humans).

The movie doesn’t bother to explore any of these issues, but their inclusion is notable if only for their dismissal. It is played as a joke that the King doesn’t understand that healthcare and a living wage might actually make people happy, but at the same time, the message of the film is that once Nikolas goes out and brings presents to people in the country they are in fact happy even without medicine and doctors and the ability to feed themselves. The King, even if he is a fool, is proven right.

Watching this all play out, one doesn’t really believe that this result is the what the film intends to put out there, but it is what the film offers. What an horrific message to deliver and not in any way acknowledge

This exemplifies a massive problem in the movie (it’s not the only time we see this sort of thing here) – things occur in “A Boy Called Christmas” without any consideration whatsoever with what they mean. The whole movie simply exists so that Nikolas can become Santa Claus and who gives a damn who lives or who dies or what happens to anyone at all as long as, by the time the credits roll, that change has taken place.

“A Boy Called Christmas” is an overstuffed mess, with a massive cast of notable names and faces in service of a story no one seems to have thought about in the slightest. Nikolas traverses this world of alleged impossible hardship with ease and no amount of Stephen Merchant voicing a mouse makes it better. It is a Christmas movie without magic, a holiday film without heart.

Wrapped in fake warm glow with bright colors and rosy cheeks and appropriate music, it is a movie best avoided lest it ruin your holiday. The only thing that would make it more disappointing is if anyone remembers it fondly next year.

photo credit: Netflix

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