directed by John D. Hancock
(MGM, 1989)

The best Christmas flicks invariably boil down to this: A good person suffers a crisis of faith that leads to a rebirth of his or her spirit. To make it Christmasy, the crisis, which can be long-term or short, must occur on Christmas Eve, or as close to it as is humanly and divinely possible, and the rebirth must involve either Jesus Christ or his secular stand-in, the guy in the red suit.

So it is that Scrooge wrestles with the spirits, George Bailey wishes he'd never been born and Natalie Wood almost gives up her new-found faith in Santa, all before the sun sets on Christmas day.

What we look for, then, in a great Christmas film, isn't so much a new theme as a novel variation on the old one. And so it is that 8-year-old Jessica Riggs tackles not one, but three crises of faith for the little northern town of Three Oaks in the 1989 film Prancer.

Crisis No. 1 belongs to her father, a farmer who's seen tough times since his wife died and who finds it increasingly difficult to be a good dad to an imaginative 8-year-old while fending off real-world problems.

Crisis No. 2 belongs to her wealthy neighbor, Mrs. McFarland, once the toast of the Christmas season, who's become a hermit for reasons of her own.

And crisis No. 3 is Jessica's, or, rather, hers and Prancer's.

Prancer is a reindeer who shows up inexplicably in the woods around Three Oaks shortly after the town's decorative Prancer falls from its perch and shatters on the street below. The "real" Prancer is nursing an injury, too, a bullet wound, and Jessica, with an assist from a local veterinarian, takes it upon herself to secretly nurse the reindeer back to health.

Given what's going on around her, and given that she's a Christmas addict from way back, it doesn't take Jessica long to decide that the "real" Prancer is the real Prancer, and she promises Santa she'll make him flightworthy and return him to active duty before Christmas Eve.

What follows is often touching, sometimes hilarious and occasionally sappier than the worst Christmas tree you ever brought home.

What makes Prancer work is not hard to spot. First, it views Christmas through eyes of an 8-year-old on the brink of a great discovery. Will it reaffirm her faith, or send her into the world a bitter adult?

Second, it offers solid performances by people who are fun to watch: Sam Elliott as the struggling farmer/dad; Cloris Leachman, who plays Mrs. McFarland as a cross between Scarlett O'Hara and the Wicked Witch of the West; and Abe "Fish" Vigoda as the sleep-short vet who has to be guilted into treating Prancer.

Mostly, though, Prancer succeeds because it captures the essence of northern-clime Christmases: the frosty feel of the blue-brittle cold; the glassy tinkle of icicles in a snow-blown thicket; the rhythmic slamming of wind-driven barn doors; a flashlight beam landing on a horse's eye.

Prancer is that rarest of things: a collection of memories both soothing and haunting, a Christmas film to watch with the lights out, a magnet drawing us back to the faith of a child.

On the whole, Prancer probably runs about 10 minutes too long and includes a subplot or two it could do without. Some of the minor performances are only passable, and the ending may be too explicit for anyone over 8.

But as a variation on a 2,000-year-old theme, Prancer is well able to stand on it own four feet. And sometimes, it flies.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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