Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 17, 1989
Directed by: John D. Hancock
Rating: 3 out of 5
The moment when a child stops believing in Santa Claus is one of the classic signs of growing up. In director John D. Hancock’s holiday classic, “Prancer,” the ideas of childlike faith and optimistic belief take on new resonance.
Although barely any of her peers still believe in Santa, young Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell Tickell) hasn’t let go of her trust in Christmastime magic. Jessica is something of an outcast in her quiet farming community. Despite her cute pigtails, she is stubborn, headstrong, and unafraid to be different. Christmas is her special sanctuary, and she celebrates it even when the other kids of her age are starting to outgrow babyish pastimes.
Jessica’s own father, John (Sam Elliott), has trouble dealing with his little girl’s fierce optimism. John’s been struggling lately. His wife passed away and his business, an apple farm, is not faring so well. John can’t seem to look past the grim realities of adult life to experience Jessica’s innocent enthusiasm for the Christmas holidays. Jessica has an older brother, Steve (John Joseph Duda), but he’s not in the mood to celebrate Christmas with his dorky, eccentric little sister.
Although she is unflaggingly courageous, it seems obvious to viewers that Jessica Riggs is lost and alone. So, it’s only fitting that she feels an affinity for the abandoned reindeer she discovers. The reindeer is just as out of place in this hearty rural setting as Jessica is among her more cynical, careworn community. Noticing the animal’s injuries, Jessica decides to nurse the lost reindeer back to health. She’s not just a bleeding heart; Jessica also has an ulterior motive-she believes that this reindeer is actually Prancer, one of Santa’s faithful steeds. If she can get Prancer back in flying condition before Christmas Eve, she will have accomplished the ultimate goal of most holiday movies. Jessica will save Christmas.
Fortunately for the young girl, the reindeer is fairly docile and well behaved. It’s her own community that Jessica needs to worry about. If she wants to heal Prancer in time for his big voyage, she’ll need a lot of help. To properly feed the reindeer, Jessica needs to earn money for oats, leading her to do chores for a local recluse (Cloris Leachman). Jessica also draws on the help of a grumpy and uncooperative veterinarian, Orel (Abe Vigoda). Although initially reluctant, Orel eventually decides to assist Jessica in helping the lost reindeer. In a quest to help Prancer find his North Pole owner, Jessica also approaches a mall Santa (Michael Constantine) and asks him to deliver a message on her behalf.
As she pulls more and more locals into her plot, Jessica starts creating a chain reaction of goodwill and peace throughout the town. Her reclusive neighbor warms up to her community, and the veterinarian finds his soft spot.
No matter how many neighbors she charms, though, Jessica still has to contend with the film’s main antagonist. Her own father doesn’t approve of Jessica’s fanciful scheme. When he discovers that Jessica has been secretly tending to Prancer in the shed, his reaction is not one of Christmas cheer. The relationship between the overworked widower and his precocious, stubbornly happy daughter is the main crux of the movie.
Many holiday movies aimed at children are high energy and fast paced, with little pop culture jokes tucked in for the adults. “Prancer” follows a different pattern. Almost old-fashioned in its simplicity of storytelling and its warm, unpretentious message, the movie is as comforting as a fire in the fireplace or freshly baked cookies. At the same time, also like Christmas cookies, the overall film can seem a little too saccharine. The tale of a sweet, determined little girl who makes a whole town believe can feel corny and slightly unrealistic at moments. The slow pace could lose the attention of some of the younger children, while the earnest message might be too much for older kids.
If there’s ever a time for a message of optimism and steadfast belief, though, it’s the holiday season. For many people, Christmas is a time to reflect on the enduring power of faith in things unseen. Though not a flashy or trendy movie, “Prancer” is true to its own message. The story is powerful enough to transcend time periods and last through the decades. Harrell turns in a lovable and sympathetic performance. In her first major role, the young actress manages to make Jessica cheerful and determined without being too prim or pious. Elliott, Leachman, and Vigoda flesh out the cast of characters. The overall result is a genuine, timeless story of simple Christmastime miracles.