We all have our holiday indulgences. For some, its a buffet of cookies, cakes, and candies. For others its cozy sweaters, hot seasonal cocktails, and comically fuzzy socks. For me, it’s binge-watching holiday movies.* Good or bad, theatrical or direct-to-video, I can’t get enough. Which is why this child-free adult saddled up for Elliot the Littlest Reindeer, the animated adventure of a miniature horse who dreams of leading Santa’s sleigh.
The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson lends his voice the plucky little pony who dreams big. When it’s announced that one of Santa’s eight famous reindeer is retiring, Elliot winds his way into the auditions with some false horns and a little help from his goat Friday (Samantha Bee). But this is more than a story of an underdog reaching for the stars. It’s also the story of Eliot’s owner, a disgraced baseball pro who aims to reclaim success by turning his inherited petting zoo into an elite reindeer training facility. It’s also the story of a cocky young reindeer desperate to step out of the shadow of his famous, high-flying father. And it’s also the story of a crackerjack journalist who is chasing down the intrigue at the North Pole, uncovering a curious cove full of automated sleighs. And it’s also the story about a maniacal jerky impresario who plans to buy the petting zoo to turn all its furry residents into savory treats. Basically, Elliot the Littlest Reindeer is Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer meets The Bad News Bears meets The Paper meets Okja. But as bonkers at that sounds, it’s nowhere as fun or exciting as any of the above.
The plot is overloaded for a 90-minute kids movie, which means every thread is threadbare. Most characters will stay thinly sketched stereotypes (the goofy comic relief, the arrogant jock, the tenacious reporter). So humor won’t come from a place of character, but of lazy visual gags and lazier allusions. For instance and no apparent reason, Peanut Butter, another petting zoo resident, is a miniature horse version of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart hero, down to the dubious Scottish accent and blue war paint on his face. He will, of course, give the rousing, but nonsensical speech, “You can take out goats but you’ll never take our goat run!” Other less-than-timely references include cribbing from Dirty Dancing and Gwenyth Paltrow’s infamous divorce announcement. With jokes this tired, Elliot the Littlest Reindeer feels a long-shelved movie that’s finally gotten dusted off for release.
Aside from Bee and Hutcherson, it offers a voice cast that includes Martin Short, John Cleese, and Jeff Dunham. But hold your miniature horses, because that’s not exactly great news. Dunham’s the Bravehorse and a gruffer Clydesdale, neither of which earn many laughs. Cleese phones it in as a pretentious reindeer who pops by for a couple of short scenes. And while Short takes on two roles, one of them feels like a half-hearted reprisal of his oddly accented Franck from Father of the Bride. But hey, that bit from 1991 will probably be freshly funny to kiddos who weren’t even a glimmer in their momma’s eyes back then, right? Still, it’s got its charms.
Elliot the Littlest Reindeer is cute and harmless, offering a playful variant on the “don’t judge a book by its cover” narrative. Many of its story choices are strange and some downright confounding, but it’s hard not to be amused when Blitzen bails on the North Pole to open that juice bar he’s always dreamed of. (Sure. Why not?) It doesn’t boast the high production values of Pixar or DreamWorks, but it works. The design has some imagination, presenting a battered pick-up/hover-mobile, a hipster Santa, and Mrs. Claus in a tracksuit that’d please Wes Anderson. The characters are quirky and almost adorable. And it’s downright fun to watch Samantha Bee’s snarky bravado in the form of a scrappy goat with a penchant for eating and talking trash. All in all, this weird holiday movie is not a winner. It’s middle of the pack at best. But when your craving holiday cheer and switch-your-brain off fun, you could definitely do worse.
*And everything else listed above.