Sunday, December 25, 2016

Magic in the Air

Director: John D. Hancock
Cast: Rebecca Harrell, Sam Elliot, Cloris Leachman, Abe Vigoda, Ariana Richards
Released: November 17, 1989

My final Christmas movie (for this year!) concludes with Prancer. I don't remember seeing this in the theaters, but I'm sure I must have because I would have been the perfect age and what young kid doesn't love movies with animals? Especially magical, Christmas animals? I do know I have seen this before, but it's been a very long time and watching it again was like watching it for the first time. The basic premise of the movie is an eight-year-old girl finds a reindeer and believes it to be Prancer, THE Prancer of Santa's eight reindeer. And that was the only thing I remembered. OMG, I cried SO many times during this movie! This probably isn't a big surprise since Christmas comedies like Home Alone and Elf make me tear up when I watch them, but this movie (NOT a comedy, BTW!) just gutted me.

Jessica Riggs (known as Jessie to her family and friends) lives in a very rural area called Three Oaks (the welcome/goodbye sign says, "Happy to Have You, Sad to See You Go") with her dad, John (Sam Elliot), and older brother, Steve, who's probably twelve or thirteen. She's played by Rebecca Harrell who is very darling in this. This was her first (and only, really) movie and I think she did a good job for a movie where she's the lead at nine-years-old. I found her to be very earnest and sincere which worked quite well for her character. I was never sure exactly what state this movie was set in - I just assumed Washington. Maybe Michigan since the movie was filmed there. Her mother died, presumably of cancer, but the movie never tells us when, but I would assume in the last year. Things are tough on their farm and the Riggs family is barely scraping by. John is often short with his daughter because she's always going off on her own and getting in trouble. Like the time she and her friend, Carol (Ariana might know her best as Lex from Jurassic Park), go sledding down a huge hill that takes them through Mrs. McFarland's (Cloris Leachman) front lawn and they knock over her potted plants. Mrs. McFarland is a reclusive old woman and has a very witchy vibe to her because she has really long hair (no person should have hair that long once they reach a certain age) and is wearing this billowy outfit. She chases the girls, calls them "terrorists"(!), and exclaims, "I'll get even with you!" I half expected her to end that line with, "my pretties!" and cackle. The whole scene is pretty laughable especially since it's obvious they sped up the girls sledding to make it look like they were going a lot faster than they really were.

Jessie is also often prone to walking alone through the woods. This is where she first comes across a reindeer, which she is surprised to see (and in another scene we learn this is pretty far south for a reindeer to be). As far as I know, the only U.S. state where reindeer are native is Alaska (makes sense to me!) Also, did you know reindeer that live in North America are known as caribou? I thought that was an entirely different species! Stupidly, Jessie goes up to this wild animal (with antlers!) but the reindeer seems to not be scared of humans. This is probably one of two reasons: 1) the reindeer belongs to a Christmas show and escaped, or 2) the reindeer is one of Santa's and somehow got lost. Guess which one Jessie believes? Bless her soul! The reindeer trots away and when Jessie returns home, she tells her dad, but he could care less.

Jessie starts piecing clues together and comes to the conclusion that the reindeer is THE Prancer. The previous day, when she and Carol were walking home from school, a wooden reindeer from one of the town's decorations fell onto the street. Jessie was naming all the reindeer in the display, and when she got to Prancer, the third named reindeer, that particular reindeer fell onto the street and smashed. Jessie is very concerned and asks someone if they're going to repair the reindeer and his reply is something like, "Santa's only going to have seven reindeer this year." (Obviously Rudolph was not part of this display!) So Jessie believes there's some kind of cosmic connection between the wooden reindeer and the real one. Also, she noticed the reindeer has a white mark on his forehead and so did the third paper reindeer she cuts out of a magazine to hang all eight reindeer up in her room. Coincidence? I don't think so!

I feel like Prancer is the only reindeer they could have used, because if they had used one of the other seven reindeer and named the movie after that particular reindeer, this is what the choices would be:
Dasher - Well, maybe that would work, but I would think the movie is about a really fast person.
Dancer - I would not think of a reindeer if I saw a movie titled this.
Vixen - Haha, I would not think of a kid's movie!
Comet - I would either think of a space movie or the dog from Full House.
Cupid - The naked baby shooting arrows at people to fall in love first comes to mind when I hear that name.
Donner - Nope, a reindeer is not the first thing that comes to mind.
Blitzen - This one maybe could work, but it doesn't have the same ring as everyone remembers Prancer when reciting the names of all the reindeer. I feel like Blitzen probably gets forgotten.

Jessie shares her theory with Carol the next day at lunch. Carol is having none of it (she's also having a really bad hair day; see photo) and tells Jessie she doesn't think she believes in Santa anymore because of the impracticality of it all, but Jessie says it's magic and some things can't be explained. She asks Carol if she believes in God, since, like Santa, there is no physical proof of his existence and Carol shrugs nonchalantly and says maybe she doesn't believe in God either which therefore she thinks heaven doesn't exist which greatly (and rightly) upsets Jessie. Carol is such a bitch in this scene! Your best friend's mom is dead and you're going on about how you don't believe in heaven? She does apologizes and tries to take everything back when she realizes her faux pas, but by then the damage is done. (They do becomes friends again, only Carol will piss off Jessie once again, but in Carol's defense it wasn't even her fault).

Later that night, John picks up Jessie and yells at her when he finds her once again walking along the road by herself. She was looking for Prancer, but doesn't come across him until she's in the car with her dad who's yelling at her and she has to scream at him to stop the truck so they don't hit the reindeer who has a wounded leg due to being shot. To Jessie's horror, her dad gets out his rifle, prepared to kill the wounded animal and give his family a winter's amount of food. While they are arguing, the white mark on the reindeer's forehead twinkles and when they look over, the reindeer has vanished, kind of like magic! John tells his daughter that he is planning on sending her to live with her Aunt Sarah who lives thirty miles away. He thinks a young girl should have a woman in her life and her aunt can afford more things for her. Jessie begs her dad to let her stay and starts crying, but he's already set on it because it will be what's best for their family.

That night, Jessie hears a strange sound coming from the barn and discovers Prancer has made himself at home there. She lures him to another shed with a plate of sugar cookies - that the reindeer oddly likes. (Santa must feed his reindeer cookies whenever he visits houses that don't leave carrots for the reindeer!) This way her dad won't be able to find and shoot him. She takes him across a frozen pond and I thought for sure she was going to fall through the ice and Prancer would save her (a la Free Willy), but that doesn't happen.

She skips school the next day to stay with Prancer and calls the vet, Dr. Benton (Abe Vigoda) who, once he sees is a wounded reindeer, doesn't want to help it because he doesn't deal with wild animals. He believes the reindeer has escaped from a Christmas show. He gets back in his car and when Jessie starts screaming in his face about how "Doctors are liars...they never make anyone better!" (which gives me the clue her mother must have died from cancer), he has a change of heart and looks at Prancer's hurt leg and bandages it. A thrilled Jessie tells him, "History's going to love you for this!"

Jessie needs to find a way to buy some oats for Prancer because sugar cookies aren't the best diet for a reindeer...even if they are ONE of Santa's. She goes to Mrs. McFarland's house to apologize and tells her she will clean any room in her house for five dollars because she's trying to raise money for an animal shelter. Mrs. McFarland takes her to the most cluttered room in her house and Jessie exclaims that it looks more like a ten dollar job. Honey, I think you're getting the shaft here....that looks like a FIFTY dollar job! Mrs. McFarland tells her she said ANY room for $5, so Jessie is stuck cleaning it. They make Mrs. McFarland look so creepy because after Jessie comes in, the older woman looks around outside to make sure no one has seen them and locks the door. The whole thing is shady. There's a montage of Jessie sorting all the junk and dusting and vacuuming the room. This easily had to take all day. Jessie finds some old Christmas lights and decorations in the room and strings up the lights to surprise the old woman. Mrs. McFarland tells Jessie to take them down immediately. We learn that Mrs. McFarland used to win Best Lit House every holiday, but hasn't put up her decorations in a very long time. I'm not really sure why (or why she became a recluse for that matter) because the movie never tells you any of that information. However, after Jessie pleads for her to put up the lights and decorations, she agrees. This child has some magic power to plead and whine to adults and she gets what she wants! The only adult it doesn't work on is her father! Jessie puts up the star on top of the three story house and I have to wonder how an eight-year-old got on the roof? Something tells me her dad wouldn't be thrilled about this if he found out. Mrs. McFarland gives Jessie ten dollars more than she asked for and tells her it was $15 job. I still maintain that Jessie got the shaft since she cleaned that ridiculously cluttered room AND risked her neck to put up the decorations on the roof. I think fifty bucks would have been just the right amount in 1989 money. The two become friends as Mrs. McFarland invites Jessie to stay for cookies and milk, but Jessie runs off, telling her she has something important to do. Mrs. McFarland goes back to her old ways and shouts, "Be that way!" to Jessie. She is so petulant for an old lady!

Jessie shows Prancer to Carol, only to discover that her brother, who's a complete jerk, has also found the reindeer and is teasing her about how much meat the animal will give them and is threatening to tell their dad. Jessie goes to the mall with a Polaroid of Prancer and waits in line to see Santa Claus where a little boy is sitting on Santa's lap and telling him he wants a slime kit and Skeletor for Christmas - how very '80s. Jessie starts her convo with Santa by telling him, "I know you're not the real Santa..." I would have said she stole this line from Kevin McCallister, but this movie came out a year (pretty much to the date!) before Home Alone. I do think it's amusing both movies deal with eight-year-old kids who need help from Santa with something so they tell a mall Santa to put in their word for the real one. Like Kevin, Jessie also believes this Santa works for the real one and she wants this Santa to give the photo and note she wrote to the real Santa so he can pick up Prancer on December 23rd (so he has plenty of time!) at Antler's Ridge. This mall Santa also happens to work at the town's newspaper so he writes an editorial called "Yes, Santa, There are Still Virginias"and includes the photo and letter Jessie gave him. The piece is in the paper the next day and this is a great example of how this movie could never be made today. In the movie, Jessie has no idea about the editorial and she is angry at Carol because she believes she told three of their classmates about Prancer because she finds them in his stall the next day and tells them to scram. Funnily enough, one of her classmates is played by Johnny Galecki - shouldn't he be helping Chevy Chase putting up Christmas lights? That movie came out the same time as this one! In this day and age, she would have found out about it as soon as it was up through social media. She goes to church with her aunt and brother (and it is mentioned that her aunt is married, but we never see her husband...I guess he stays at their home which is thirty miles away) while John stays at home. He reads the paper and there are many close calls where he reaches for the "Living" section which the article about his daughter is in, but he always goes for another part of the paper. We also see that Prancer has gotten out of his stall (and managed to let the other farm animals out as well) and is wandering around outside, unbeknowst to John. Meanwhile, during church, Jessie has no idea why people are coming up to her and telling her she's inspired them. That is, until the minister reads the article about her.

She's worried that her dad has already seen the article, but he never does because Prancer has entered the house and is destroying everything which makes John pretty angry. A bunch of people from church have come over, wanting to see Prancer. When Jessie comes home, she sees the destroyed house and notices Prancer is gone and thinks her dad has killed him, but he has sold him for $200 to the butcher which freaks Jessie out. While the town butcher doesn't make flank steaks out of Prancer, he does have him in a cage with a harness of bells around his neck for children to view (for a fee, of course!) Her brother, Steve, stops being a jerk for the first time in the movie when he sneaks out with Jessie that night to free the reindeer. Jessie climbs to the top of the cage and encourages Prancer to fly out after she lifts the top off. The reindeer attempts to jump many times, but never flies out. Instead, he rams the door and breaks out that way after Jessie has fallen from a tree and hits her head. While Prancer could have easily escaped, he stays next to the unconscious girl, keeping her warm while Steve runs for help. Just one of the many scenes that made me cry.

Jessie is fine, physically, but emotionally, she is a wreck. She tells her aunt that Prancer is just a reindeer (since he didn't fly out of his cage) and that Santa Claus probably isn't real and that it's time for her to grow up since she's almost nine. Everyone in town comes to her house to sing carols to her (including Dr. Benton and Mrs. McFarland) and that made me cry. But the scene that made me cry the most is the next one when she and her father have a heart to heart and he tells her he's not going to let her live with her aunt because he had almost lost her and didn't ever want to have that feeling again and she says, "I'm sorry, Daddy" and he says, "I'm sorry, Jessie" and I am tearing up so much! She wants her dad to read her a passage from a book that her Mom always used to read to her. There's a scene earlier in the movie where Jessie brings the book into the stable and reads it to Prancer. It's from "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" which makes sense since the article in the movie about Jessie and Prancer is a play-on of that article. He reads the passage and I am just bawling on my couch. I was a total emotional wreck watching this movie!

Her dad has bought Prancer back from the butcher and he and Jessie take the reindeer to Antler's Ridge. Prancer is still wearing his harness of bells which I'm just sure an animal in the wild would just LOVE to wear to attract all the hunters and wild animals! But there is a reason for the bells. A very tearful Jessie says goodbye to the reindeer and tells him she'll never forget him. (And if I was't already still crying from the previous scene, I would start welling up again!) Prancer prances off and Jessie and her dad follow the hoof prints until they reach a cliff where the prints stop. Jessie looks down, but can't see anything because it's a long drop. A still tearful Jessie exclaims, "He couldn't have jumped...and lived!" This poor child! Her dad tries to cheer her up and says, "Maybe he is Christmas Eve, after all." He tells her to listen for Prancer's sleigh bells and Jessie strains to hear them. She can't at first, but then there's a slight jingling in the distance. Now from this point on the movie was much more steeped in reality than I thought it would be. I wasn't sure if this would be a movie where Santa Claus really does exist. They don't cut to scenes of Santa in the North Pole putting up MISSING signs for Prancer or any of that kind of stuff. And Prancer doesn't talk or exude any magical elements, save for the time he vanishes in thin air. It's really the story of this girl who still believes in the Christmas faith that gets to everyone in her town. I like that Santa isn't real in this world; I like that this is a "realistic" Christmas movie. But then the last scene kind of cheapens it because you see a silhouette of Santa and his seven reindeer, soon joined by the eighth. I groaned out loud at that. I wished they had kept it more ambiguous and all you needed to know that Prancer was THE Prancer was hearing his sleigh bells. Because he obviously flew. Jessie is right: there is no way any living thing could jump off that cliff and survive. I suppose they had to add that scene in for the young kids so they would know for sure that Prancer was back with Santa. But other than the last five second of the movie, I really liked it. This is a very underrated Christmas gem.

Here is the passage from "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" that Jessie reads to Prancer and Jessie's father reads to her:

You may 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 the curtain and view and picture the
supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real?
Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is northing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and he 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.

End scene. Cue tears. Merry Christmas! 

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