Starring: Rebecca Harrell, Sam Elliott, Cloris Leachman, Ariana Richards and Abe Vigoda
Written by: Greg Taylor
Directed by: John D. Hancock
Running Time: 1hr 43mins
NOMINEE – Young Artist Awards – Best Young Actress Starring in a Motion Picture (Rebecca Harell) and Best Young Actress Supporting Role in a Motion Picture (Ariana Richards)
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood. – from an editorial by Francis Pharcellus Church titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” which appeared in the New York newspaper, The Sun, on September 21, 1897
Fun Fact: The poster for this movie appears in a Seinfeld episode.
PRANCER is a movie that I discovered by chance. In late November 1989, I found myself standing outside a mall movie theater in Tuscon, AZ, with some time to spare and decided to go to a movie. Looking at the marquee, I noticed only one film available that wouldn’t leave me with a 2-hour wait. It was a small holiday movie that I had never heard of. It started in only five minutes, so I decided, “what the heck” and ventured in. Being a family film from the director of a low-budget psychological horror movie called LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, I figured it would at least be interesting. Fortunately, it was more than interesting; it was a fantastic little gem that emotionally moved me in a way I didn’t expect and to this day, I still refer to this underexposed cinematic treasure as my all-time favorite holiday movie.
The story is simple. Jessica Riggs is a sweet eight-year-old girl with a special love for Christmas. Her mom passed away years earlier and she now lives on an apple farm with her brother and father. Times are tough, but she keeps her spirits up. Her father, on the other hand, is having his own issues. The apple farm isn’t doing well and he struggles to make ends meet while also having a tough time raising his two kids. Then, one day, Jessica discovers an injured deer in the woods and becomes convinced that he is one of Santa’s – Prancer, to be exact. Wanting to nurse the deer back to health in time to return to Santa for Christmas, Jessica finds her faith in the spirit of Christmas challenged.
PRANCER is not your typical family Christmas film. Hearing the premise, the viewer might assume it will be a sugary sweet tale filled with cartoony scenes that rely heavily on Christmas magic. This assumption would be wrong. Except for one very important shot, there are no signs of fantasy or magic. There are no ghosts/angels to help characters see the error in their ways and Prancer never takes to the sky for that fantasy flight around the town. Writer Greg Taylor and director John Hancock have set a realistic tone where everything that happens feels genuinely true to life. The characters all feel like people we know and they live in the kind of small town that still exists in different parts of the United States. This is a movie that the average viewer will find easy to relate to because they will recognize themselves in the characters that are being presented. The lessons learned don’t come from the fantastical kind of magic present in other Christmas movies but instead from real-life situations and emotions.
The film deals with themes regarding the importance of family and faith. It doesn’t try to convince us that everything will be okay. At one point near the film’s end, Jessica’s father tells her, “I can’t tell you things are going to be all right. I wish I could. But things are always going to be hard around here.” Even as he says the words, the viewer will realize that even if life is hard, it doesn’t mean we can’t get through the tough times to find some peace. PRANCER stresses the importance of maintaining the strength of what we believe in. Without this, life can be hard to deal with. Most of the characters within the film have a piece of this struggle within themselves and they must all find a way to deal with it. That is the true magic of Jessica’s story.
This may have been nine-year-old actress Rebecca Harrell’s first feature film, but she steals the show. The viewer’s acceptance of Jessica is the key to the movie’s success. Audiences will immediately fall in love with her. Jessica is a girl who is still dealing with the loss of her mom. Her strong belief in Santa Claus comes from the fact that her mom is the person who told her about him and maybe, just maybe, holding onto this belief keeps a little bit of her mother alive inside her. Jessica’s need to take care of Prancer is infectious, and watching how she affects everyone around her helps us all believe that the Christmas spirit may still be alive in the world. Harrell never misses a beat; her final talk with her dad in Jessica’s small bedroom will break your heart while also putting a smile on your face.
Sam Elliot is especially good as Jessica’s father, John Riggs. He effectively portrays John’s tougher side as he struggles to keep control of a life that is beating him down. Yet, Elliot is at his best in the scenes that force him to show viewers John’s softer side. As he talks to his daughter late in the film, we witness a vulnerability in his character that the viewer might not expect.
The supporting cast is made up of veteran actors who all interject some real heart into the smaller characters they inhabit while adding some real dimension to the film’s emotional tone. Abe Vegoda, best known for his three-time Emmy nominated role as Fish on the popular 70’s sitcom BARNEY MILLER, is great as the vet Jessica attempts to convince to help Prancer, but it’s Academy Award Winner Cloris Leachman that stands out. She plays Mrs. McFarland, an older woman who sees the town’s children as a nuisance. This is the kind of character that would normally come off as cliché, someone we have seen in movies many times before. But, Leachman interjects Mrs. McFarland with some real humanity. When we first meet her, she’s the kind of character that the viewer might expect to become the story’s villain. Instead, she’s a real person with real emotions who, through her interactions with Jessica, is forced to rediscover the better side of herself.
I can’t conclude this recommendation without mentioning a specific scene that has become one of my all-time favorite moments in any movie I have ever watched. It’s a scene between Jessica and her best friend Carol, played wonderfully by Ariana Richards. Carol has begun to grow up and question Santa’s existence. I won’t spoil the scene for everyone but it’s one that tests the two girl’s friendship as the viewer witnesses why it is that Jessica needs to believe as strongly as she does. I have seen PRANCER at least eight or nine times and this scene always gets to me. That’s the strength of PRANCER as a movie. Whenever I hear people talk about their favorite holiday films, the same movies are always mentioned: MIRACLE ON 34th STREET, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, SCROOGED and THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL. The one film I never hear mentioned though is my personal favorite. A movie that gets better with every viewing. PRANCER.
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