Gil Kenan’s A Boy Called Christmas is a sweet, gorgeous winter fantasy – perfect for children if somewhat lacking for adults.
A Boy Called Christmas, based on the children’s book by Matt Haig, adapted by Gil Kenan (Poltergeist) and Ol Parker (Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!) and directed by Kenan, tells the story of how a young boy, Nikolas, (as in Saint Nicholas), attempts to find his father in the harsh, hostile north of Finland. Additionally, he finds that some people local to him, including his father, have kidnapped an elf, so he must return him safely home to improve elf-human relations and because it’s the right thing to do. Many years later, Maggie Smith (Gosford Park) narrates Nikolas’s story to a trio of children before their bedtime.
Kenan’s Monster House (2006) and City of Ember (2008) were two of my favourite films as a child, and looking back I am astonished at just how distinctive and striking each were visually – despite not having seen either for over a decade I can still remember so many images from each! This film isn’t as intelligent or witty as either of those, but it’s still fun. Kenan attempts to achieve a similar result with the Christmas aesthetic by depicting ornate, complicated architecture and contraptions in the elf land and by marrying past (Nikolas’s story) with present (the children at bedtime) by representing Nikolas’s story with their wallpaper. It makes for a more inspired-looking film than most Christmas films which lazily equate snow and Santa hats with Christmas.
Most of the acting is great – young Henry Lawfull impresses as Nikolas, and has great chemistry with Zoe Colletti, who plays a ‘truth pixie’. They have a very fun dynamic together, and his mission is made much harder, as he, a human hiding from elves in a city full of them, is accompanied by someone who cannot lie! However, I thought that the children in the present day, who listen to the bedtime story told to them by Maggie Smith’s wise Aunt Ruth, were weak. I didn’t really care though, and I can’t imagine any children watching the film would, either. It didn’t compromise my enjoyment in any way.
The supporting cast are all delightful – Jim Broadbent (Paddington) appears briefly as the clumsy yet somewhat benevolent King, and Toby Jones (Happy End) as a feeble elf. Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), in a rare villainous role, plays antagonist Mother Something, an elf who wants to rid her land of any human influence, a prejudice formed from past bad experiences with our species. Hawkins is one of the best actors in British cinema today, but I will confess I didn’t find her character very menacing – this wasn’t to do with performance, but rather with the Mother’s silly way of punishing dissenting elves (namely just lifting them into the air against the ceiling!).
The film is quite funny; I wouldn’t say it’s laugh-at-loud funny, but at worst it’s mildly amusing. Most quips come from Miika the mouse, Nikolas’s precocious rodent friend voiced by Stephen Merchant (The Outlaws), who becomes Nikolas’s companion after he begs his father to spare Miika’s life when he is caught scurrying around the house. Additionally, Toby Jones is a master of subtle comedy and achieves this through his pathetic yet ultimately sympathetic character as Father Topo, a respected elf that attempts to help Nikolas enter Elfhelm (the elf’s home) without being detected.
There’s a fine line between a children’s film and a family film, and though I (a 21-year-old) did enjoy A Boy Called Christmas, I do think it straddles that boundary and could have done more to appeal to adults. It’s nice, of course, to see such brilliant actors as Hawkins (is there anything she cannot do?), Jones, Smith and Broadbent, and there are a handful of jokes that adults will appreciate (such as when the King asks his people what they really want in society, and they respond with things such as ‘universal healthcare’) – none of which are vulgar or risqué at all. Despite this, however, it lacks the social commentary and menace that director deftly integrated into City of Ember and Monster House and leans more towards ‘children’s film’ than ‘family film’. Regardless, it’s still fun for its target audience, and it has a good message – that we should do the right thing (shown through Nikolas’s eagerness to return the elf) and that the thought behind a present matters more than the actual contents of the present itself.
A Boy Called Christmas mythologises the creation of Father Christmas in a way that is enjoyable for children, though I do think it could do more to entertain the adults accompanying them. It’s sweet, generally well-acted and looks great on the big screen – something I never thought I’d ever say for a Netflix production! I can’t see it joining the canon of It’s a Wonderful Life, Gremlins or Love Actually as the type that masses will rewatch every year at Christmas, but it’s good quality entertainment that does its job well, is not mean-spirited and is actually about promoting the Christmas spirit rather than flagrant Christmas commercialism. Perfect for children, and worth seeing on the big screen.
A Boy Called Christmas will be released in cinemas and on Sky Cinema in the U.K. on November 26, 2021. The film will be released on Netflix in the U.S. and select territories from November 24.