The Christmas origin story has taken a real beating on television in recent years.
The film factories don’t follow a script. The have a playbook. There are fixed characters, types. There are predictable situations. There are tried and true bromides. There are fixed plays. And there are utterly predictable endings in which the “true meaning” of Christmas is disgorged just before credits roll.
And the sudden appearance of the much-anticipated snowfall at the end is a complete surprise to everyone but the audience.
And you, poor viewer, trundle off to bed with the feeling that something in the rum cake you snacked on was vaguely poisonous.
Well, I bring you good news!
There is a new Christmas origin story on the tube and it not only wipes the slate clean of all the turgid, formulaic, Hallmark sludge — it has “CLASSIC” written all over it.
It is titled “A Boy Called Christmas” on Netflix, and it is a delightful mix of grit, charm, fantasy, crafty storytelling, and memorable cast and visuals.
Let’s start — as the film does — with the bundled figure dressed like Mary Poppins, and walking as purposefully down a wintery street as Arnold Schwartzenegger in “Jingle All the Way” in the hunt for a supply-chain impacted toy.
“Have a nice Christmas,” shouts out a guy with way too many trees left on his lot for Christmas Eve.
“I’m working on it,” she huffs and walks on — to what very well may have been the row house at which Hugh Grant found his one true love and personal secretary in “Love Actually.” (Not actually, but close.)
But you’re not thinking of that. You’re thinking, “That voice. Can it be? Yes, it can: Maggie Smith as the cranky old auntie. In the house, she finds three rather miserable children — miserable with good reason — and a Dad who has to go to work on Christmas Eve. What she does not find is any hint that in a few hours, it will be Christmas.
Maggie’s Aunt Ruth, not perceived as a lovable aunt by the children (adorable all), bundles the little tykes off to bed and offers to tell them a tale. They decline but come around when they are reassured it does not have a tragic ending. (Clever Aunt Ruth: The tragedy takes place much earlier than the ending.)
Aunt Ruth hustles the children’s imaginations off to merry old Finland, a not-so-merry but very remote region. Here a woodcutter and his young son struggle to survive in what feels like a perpetual winter. The young boy is Nikolas (Henry Lawfull), a redhead with expansive and mesmerizing eyes the likes of which we have not seen since Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit.” Not unlike all their neighbors, the father, Joel (Michiel Huisman) struggles to put food on the table. The mother met a tragic end about one year before.
When the king (Jim Broadbent) assembles the townspeople and offers a reward to anyone who can bring back proof of the existence of the distant elfin village called Elfhelm, Nikolas’s father jumps in. The king’s intent is to stir up hope among the downtrodden townspeople by organizing a quest. Nikolas’s father and the dodgy bunch that he falls in with see only the prospect of money.
Because Nikolas is barely 12 years old, his father engages his sister as a babysitter while he goes questing, a thing that will take several months at least. (Bad choice. One of several the father seems to make.) The sister (or aunt) is about as duplicitous, selfish, and hideously mean an aunt as you’ll ever find in a fairytale. She makes Nikolas sleep outside in the snow, denies him food, and treats him horribly. She is so monstrously good as Aunt Carlotta that it never dawned on me that it was Kristen Wiig.
Nikolas soon has enough of the mean auntie business — she boiled his only toy, a turnip doll, into a soup and then looked on with a maniacal grin and he slurped it up.
The young boy and his pet mouse Miika set out across the frozen landscape, which is a better place to be than under Aunt Carlotta’s thumb, in search of his long-absent father. Nikolas wears the pointed red hat that his father had left behind, his one memory of the boy’s mother. She’d made the hat with the fur trim and the tassel at the peak.
Along the way, they pick up a wounded reindeer whom Nikolas names after the frozen lake where they found him — Blitzen.
Yes, Blitzen. (This is as good a place as any to mention that Nikolas had trained his mouse to talk and Miika turns out to be a sarcastic little companion, voiced by Stephen Merchant.)
Did I mention that Nikolas’s mother had a pet name for him? It was Christmas.
Nobody knew what it meant.
Also, Nikolas discovers that stitched into the lining of the hat is a map — to Elfhelm. The journey is long, cold, and without food and eventually, Nikolas succumbs to the demands of the snowswept and unforgiving landscape.
Two elves rescue Nikolas, Miika, and Blitzen and take them to Elfhelm, where they are not greeted warmly by the town officials. Nikolas is thrown into a tower jail which he shares with a hungry ogre and a Truth Pixie.
Apparently, a band of human men had come through the town earlier and kidnapped a little Elf child, whom they planned to take back to the king as proof that Elfhelm exists. The abduction sends the town into a whirl of fascist behavior during which the duly elected dictator, the high-strung Mother Vodol (Sally Hawkins) who espouses heightened vigilance, superior military forces, and a ban on all dancing and other frivolous behavior. The townspeople organize against her in an underground movement (literally) called The Resistance.
With the help of the Truth Pixie, Nikolas escapes the ogre, the tower, the town and goes in search of his father and the abducted child.
I think you have enough clues as to how this all ends, so I won’t bother you with the rather exciting and tragic details which lead Nikolas to his destiny. Suffice to say, it is a great ride.
Occasionally Aunt Ruth and the sad children reappear to seamlessly disrupt the tale and establish just who is spinning the yarn. Just the way Peter Falk was interrupted by young Fred Savage in “The Princess Bride.”
The fact is, “A Boy Called Christmas” has as good a shot at becoming a perennial favorite as “Klaus,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” or one several versions of “A Christmas Carol.”
It is a beautifully told story, filled with wit, adventure, and tragedy. And in the end, it is as uplifting as any Christmas story — without the contrived plot of a Hallmark movie. It is also based on a very popular novel of the same name, by Matt Haig.
It appeals to all ages in just the same way that “The Princess Bride” has bridged generations for decades.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on young Henry Lawfull. His character, Nikolas, carries the entire movie and he manages it like a veteran, though his only other credit was “Les Miserables.”
This is one that appeals to all ages and leaves a satisfying feeling in the hearts of the most cynical and sour of holiday curmudgeons.
Welcome to the classics, “A Boy Called Christmas.”