Ah yes, Yuletide. That magical time of year when families gather together near the flaming log and bask in the spirit of forgiveness and the warmth of remembrance. Holiday wishes are bestowed upon friend and foe alike, as we put the past behind us and look forward to the promise of a happy and healthy new year. What better time than Christmas to luxuriate in the soft, blue glow of the TV screen and let our favorite holiday movies flicker across our minds in the comfortable narcotic buzz of grandma’s sinister eggnog and medical marijuana.
And who doesn’t have a favorite holiday movie or two? On Thanksgiving, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 documentary The Last Waltz always springs to mind. The Last Waltz chronicles the final live performance of The Band on Thanksgiving Day at San Francisco’s historic Winterland Ballroom. There is a laidback holiday ambience to the whole affair, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, a veritable who’s who of the music industry, AND a cast of thousands celebrate The Band’s career San Francisco-style; with a full Thanksgiving meal for the audience and performers alike, followed by much music-making and merriment.
One of the best moments of the film is watching Neil Young perform with an enormous boulder of cocaine hanging precariously from his nose, while Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko sort of laugh it off as the cameras capture this special holiday moment in all of its glorious detail. Priceless.
Christmas films invariably begin with It’s a Wonderful Life, but there is quite a large list to choose from; Miracle on 34th St., A Christmas Story, some or other version of Scrooge, (Scrooged perhaps?), maybe even Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or A Nightmare Before Christmas, who knows?
What is it about these films that keeps us coming back year after year? Is it the music, is it the morals, is it the feeling of knowing that for just one day everything is going to be alright, and that God will bless us, everyone?
But, what if life is not working out for us as well as we had planned?
Every Christmas tale must have some form of tension, some obstacle or enemy to overcome, in order to remind us of how grateful we are for the good things in life. What if our Christmas story starts on the downside and sort of stays that way for a good, long while? What do we turn to then? Hence, Prancer, the 1989 Christmas film which reminds us that no matter how bad things get, faith and belief can eventually dispel a lifetime of doubt.
Prancer is sly in how it embeds existential adult themes and dilemmas into its traditional holiday setting. Ostensibly a film about an 8-year-old girl, Jessica, who witnesses a wooden reindeer fall to the ground and shatter while her small town is being decorated for the holiday season, Prancer evolves from being a childhood fantasy about that reindeer coming to life, to a morality tale about taking control over our lives when there is very little we can control.
Jessica becomes haunted by the wooden reindeer who tumbles from the sky and materializes as a real reindeer at inopportune times throughout her wanderings. It turns out that the reindeer is wounded, and although her father offers to shoot it and put it out of its misery (ouch), Jessica becomes attached to the animal and takes responsibility for its well-being. Along the way, we learn that Jessica’s mother has died, and that her father, who is experiencing a downturn in business on his apple farm, is going to send her away to live with his sister.
So good, so sad.
Jessica further encounters a crotchety old veterinarian who, in another life, would be a nasty pirate, and a hateful neighbor who resembles, in appearance and demeanor, a wicked witch, complete with a spooky old mansion. In fact, many of the situations in Prancer appear prepared for a horror film and not a children’s fantasy. This might be because Prancer’s director, John Hancock, directed the 1971 horror cult classic Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Hancock also directed Robert DeNiro’s 1973 breakout performance in Bang the Drum Slowly, as well as co-wrote and directed Nick Nolte’s tour-de-force performance in 1987’s Weeds.
Before venturing into film, Hancock was immersed in 1960’s theater, directing plays as divergent as Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo and William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as running several different theater companies. Overall, Hancock brought a mature sensibility to Prancer that may not have been considered by another director. Prancer could have easily become just another example of children’s holiday entertainment, but Hancock crafted a thoughtful, contemplative family drama that asks serious questions and can still be considered a children’s movie.
One of the primary questions the film seems to ask is: when is it appropriate to be honest with children?
Obviously, eight-year-old Jessica has already been dealt a losing hand, and everything around her seems doomed to failure; her mother is dead, her best friend has begun doubting the existence of God, she thinks all doctors are liars, her teacher tells her, in no uncertain terms, that she can’t sing, and, at one point, she threatens to attack her brother and his friends with a scythe. Even her hometown newspaper runs the headline “Drug Deaths Increase.”
What kind of rural small town Christmas setting is this anyway???
Jessica begins to feel as if she has been lied to all of her life. She realizes that talk is cheap, and tells her department store Santa, “I’m sorry. I don’t have time for chitchat. I know you’re not the real Santa.” She’s got more important matters at hand then childish illusions.
Prancer begins with an elementary school Christmas pageant where a teacher intones, “And the moon shone with a special brightness, and, as if by magic, animals who were natural enemies, when they saw it, lay down together…the leopard with the chicken, the lion with the lamb.” By the end of the film, this sense of equanimity pervades as the townspeople band together and share Jessica’s vision of the true spirit of Christmas. As Prancer ends, one can’t help but feel a sense of relief that everything she believed is true.
With Abe Vigoda as the pirate, Cloris Leachman as the witch, and Michael Constantine as Santa, Prancer is filled with legendary character actors. Sam Elliot, as the grief stricken father is taciturn and befuddled in equal measure. Rebecca Harrell, who has gone on to co-direct and co-produce the BP oil spill documentary The Big Fix and alternative energy documentary FUEL, as well as own the world’s first algae powered car, is perfectly cast as the film’s angel Jessica.
Prancer’s publicity poster promises, “Something magical is about to happen,” and on the full moon of Christmas Eve in Three Oaks, Michigan, something magical does.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.