Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama Movie Review of ‘Prancer’ (1989)

Movie Review of ‘Prancer’ (1989)

In the grand pantheon of American Christmas movies, Prancer is one of the most undeservedly overlooked and underrated, with its sweetness and realism placing it above the unspectacular norm for these types of endeavours. Released in 1989, it’s a mild Christmas classic which deserves more attention than it receives, and it’s unfortunate that the picture failed to find an audience during its initial theatrical run. Far better than the dreck we’re given so much of in this day and age, Prancer gets credit for its smart scripting and clever premise, not to mention it’s also driven by an array of exceptional performances. Even though it’s imbued with some heavy themes, it’s perfectly suitable for family consumption around the festive season.

Still dealing with the death of her mother, Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) is struggling to connect with her stern father John (Sam Elliott), who’s buckling under the pressure of financial stress. The eternally optimistic Jessica is 8 years old, and still believes in Santa and his reindeer even though her peers have outgrown such fantasies. One night, Jessica encounters a reindeer that she believes to be Prancer, as he carries a distinct marking that corresponds with pictures of Prancer that Jessica has seen. Finding the deer wounded, Jessica becomes determined to keep Prancer alive, hiding him in a tool shed and nursing him back to health, all the while hoping that her father doesn’t find out. She writes a letter to Santa to inform him that Prancer is in good hands, but the letter is picked up by the local newspaper, turning Prancer into a local celebrity.

Although the premise is creative, it admittedly does sound silly, and could’ve been the set-up for a cloying fantasy movie soaked in Disney-esque saccharine. But in the hands of director John D. Hancock and writer Greg Taylor, Prancer is far more proficient than expected, as it possesses a realistic edge akin to Miracle on 34th Street. The story for the most part takes place in a grounded reality, and the film follows Jessica doing ordinary things on a day-to-day basis. John is a hard father figure too, and he’s seen scolding Jessica and dealing with depressing real-world issues. This content has attracted some criticisms, but the lack of sugar-coating is appreciated, and the big payoff feels earned when it arrives at the end. Indeed, the final scene is cheesy, but it works more than it probably should. Prancer also packs some honest-to-goodness emotion, with some tear-wringing that, again, feels wholly earned.

Great child actors are a rare commodity indeed, but Rebecca Harrell is really something here, giving the role a tremendous amount of heart and gumption. She looks the part as well, with a cute, round pixie face and plenty of palpable childhood innocence. Harrell is adorable, and she sells the character’s emotional moments extraordinarily well, tearing up when necessary, putting most of her contemporaries to shame. Sam Elliott is just as good, showing yet again why he’s a talent to be reckoned with. Elliott is a tough-as-nails father, but while he at times acts unreasonable, you feel warmth beneath his tough exterior, and you do get the sense that he loves Jessica even if he cannot figure out how to handle her. There are several other strong performances here, including Cloris Leachman as a town recluse whose cynical ways are melted away by Jessica’s kind heart. In more minor roles are Ariana Richards (of Jurassic Park fame), and Big Bang Theory veteran Johnny Galecki as Jessica’s classmates.

If there’s anything to really criticise about Prancer, it’s that it feels a bit long in the tooth at about 100 minutes, and it noticeably drags from time to time. Nevertheless, once the picture gets into its groove, it’s difficult to resist the sense of charm and magic, not to mention its old-fashioned vibe. Even though it dabbles in the blatantly fantastical as it approaches the finish line, this is not a Christmas movie which outright insults anyone’s intelligence. Smaller kids will find the sweetness hugely appealing and will identify with Jessica’s mission to get Prancer back into action, while the older demographic will appreciate that the story appears to take place in the real world.


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