PrancerStarring: Rebecca Harrell, Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman, Abe Vigoda, Ariana Richards, John Duda, Rutanya Alda.
Writer: Greg Taylor.
Composer: Maurice Jarre.
Cinematographer: Misha Suslov.

Producer: Raffaella De Laurentis.
Director: John D. Hancock.
1989; rated G.

Kid Grade: A
Mom Grade: B+

Review by Jen Walker.

An open letter to parents from Jen Walker.

It's the most won-der-ful time... of the year...

Ah, I love Christmas. I love the lights, the music, the tradition, everything! I'm one of those crazy people who start plastering their homes with decorations before they've even had pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving. Through the month of December, I torture my husband with holiday CD's blasting from the stereo--the lamer, the better--like The Beach Boys' Christmas and Christmas with Neil Diamond.

I also own an extensive collection of Christmas-themed movies. There are the classic holiday TV specials such as A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, and everybody's favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I even break out the movies that just happen to take place around December 25th. Both Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are guaranteed to put me in a festive holiday mood.

Then, there are the actual Christmas movies. It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, and yes, even National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation are essential viewing. The season just isn't complete without them. Nothing makes me more content than turning off all the non-Christmas lights, curling up on the sofa, sipping some hot spiced apple cider (with brandy, of course), and watching a sentimental holiday movie with my family.

Last year, we discovered a real gem. My daughter had received the video, Prancer, from her grandma as an early Christmas gift. I'd seen it in the video store over the years, but never felt particularly inclined to rent it. Now I wish I'd seen it sooner.

Prancer contains all of the ingredients that go into any holiday movie. It is liberally laced with sentiment and corn, with a good dash of "if you only just believe" thrown in there for good measure. But, to my pleasant surprise, at its heart, Prancer is one of the finest family dramas I've seen in years.

Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) is a fanciful little girl who loves Christmas. During her school's holiday production, hers is the loudest voice of the bunch, her heartfelt carols echoing from the rafters. At 8 years old, she still believes in Santa and his reindeer, even though her peers have long outgrown such notions. Her bedroom walls are permanently adorned with Christmas decorations, and she plays old holiday recordings year-round.

Her father, John (Sam Elliott), is a man in crisis. A struggling independent farmer, he is buckling under the pressure of financial stress. He is at a loss when dealing with Jessica, her enthusiasm for everything Christmas grating on his nerves at a time when he's preoccupied with his own worries. Impatient with her, he often snaps at her in a menacing, angry voice, telling her to get her head out of the clouds and concentrate on reality.

He subjects her to a particularly harsh tirade when, one evening, he nearly runs over her, accidentally, on a secluded, wooded road. Not only is she not home safe in bed where she belongs, but she's trying to approach a wounded reindeer, oblivious to the hunter that is still out there in the woods tracking it. When he reaches into the cab of his truck for a rifle, explaining that he's putting the animal out of its misery, a deep rift opens up between father and daughter that even the deer's escape can't repair.

Jessica determines that the animal she encountered was Santa's reindeer, Prancer. He has a distinct marking on his head that corresponds with a picture she has on one of her decorations. When Prancer finds his way to her farm, she hides him out in the tool shed, determined to nurse him back to health. Distrustful of her father, and of her brother, Steve (John Duda), she sneaks around, skips school, and steals feed from her family's own cows and horses.

A widower, John feels completely inept at raising a little girl, and makes plans to send her to live with her aunt. When Jessica gets wind of this, she prepares to run away, convinced that her father doesn't love her. She makes detailed plans to reunite Prancer with Santa Claus, even while she neglects to plan for how she will take care of herself.

I know it sounds melodramatic, and it is. As I sit here trying to find a way to describe this plot, I can't believe that I actually enjoyed this movie. I mean, can a movie be any more cornball?

That's just it. On paper (and particularly on the video jacket), Prancer reads like just another cheesy kiddie-movie, gathering dust and taking up space in the family section of the video store. Unfortunately, that's exactly where you'll find it, neglected and mixed in with all the other crap that's aimed at children.

Please, don't just pass it by. Go ahead and pay the 99 cents and give it a chance. Elliott and Harrell have managed to create an on-screen relationship that is the closest to real-life father-daughter dynamics that I've seen in a long time.

Harrell is a real find, and I was disappointed to discover that her acting career basically ended after Prancer. She makes Jessica a real person. It is rare to find child characters in the movies with complex personalities, who behave like real children.  And it is even rarer to find a child actor who can pull it off. She shines in this movie and gives it its spirit.

Elliott is riveting as her haggard father. Like it or not, parents are not always kind to their children. In fact, at times, the very traits that make a kid special and precious can be incredibly irritating and tiresome to a parent. John is so busy trying to keep a roof over Jessica's head that he sees her more as a nuisance than as a gift. He loves her, but he's too busy to let her know it.

Jessica's discovery of Prancer is the starting point of an extraordinary series of events that force both she and her father to take a step back, to look at their lives from a different angle, and rediscover each other. There's no better time of year than Christmastime to experience such a story. Prancer will inspire you to contemplate what you have, and realize the danger of focusing too hard on what you don't have.

Moreover, it's always a good time to look at your children with fresh eyes, and love the things about them that drive you crazy.  And just as importantly, it's good for kids to get an intimate look into a fictional parent's life, to realize that a father loves his little girl, even when it seems like he doesn't.

And if all you  really want is some good ol' holiday schmaltz, Prancer delivers that too.

Happy holidays!

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Image © MGM Home Entertainment, Inc.

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