Prancer (1989)


USA. 1989.


Director – John Hancock, Screenplay – Greg Taylor, Producer – Rafaella De Laurentiis, Photography – Misha Suslov, Music – Maurice Jarre, Miniature Supervisor – Barry Nolan, Special Effects – Mike Menzel, Makeup Effects – Lance Anderson, Production Design – Chester Kaczenski. Production Company – Rafaella


Rebecca Harrell (Jessica Riggs), Sam Elliott (John Riggs), John Joseph Duda (Stephen Riggs), Cloris Leachman (Mrs McFarland), Ariana Richards (Carol Weatherly), Rutanya Alda (Aunt Sarah), Abe Vigoda (Dr Orel Benton)


Eight year-old Jessica Riggs is walking home when a plaster Christmas decoration of one of Santa’s reindeer falls in front of her. Later, while walking in the woods, she sees a reindeer and is certain that it is Prancer. She brings the reindeer home and tends it. Her insistence on doing so pits her against the adults around her who insist on trying to take Prancer away from her. She makes all effort to get Prancer better and back to Santa in time for Christmas.

I have an inbuilt resistance to films based around the Christmas season and the usually insipid sentiments they have. That said, Prancer is a surprisingly good children’s film – especially when one considers that it is a live-action film centred around the incredibly lame premise of one of Santa’s reindeer. And moreover, it is not an animated film. You go in expecting the usual round of Yuletide nausea and a pandering to the sentiments and humour of family entertainment. Films of this ilk are usually drowned in sugary sentiment but contrarily Prancer‘s sweetness is countered by a downbeat realism. It is nice, for once, to see a kiddie film that seats itself among some of the starker economic realities of the modern world.

The basic premise is somewhat dubious – the bit about having faith in what looks only like a reindeer and with no evidence it is one of Santa’s reindeer other than Rebecca Harrell seeing a plaster model falling hardly convinces. Far better is the side of the film that uses Rebecca Harrell’s belief to change and bring out the softer side of the adults – the transformation of Cloris Leachman as Rebecca Harrell drapes her house in Christmas lights, or how Harrell’s pleas and finally the talk of the reindeer being Prancer manages to win over Abe Vigoda. Sam Elliott gives a typically gruff performance but one that is nicely haunted by seriousness. Rebecca Harrell, with a winning line in whiny pleas, is the standout – when she cries you can almost believe they are real tears.

Children’s films always have an inability to cope with unhappy endings. As such, Prancer is trapped by its genre, unable to do anything but avoid a fantastical ending that gives the film its sole means of inclusion here. It would have been a far more interesting film if it had ended on the turning point in the script where Rebecca Harrell realises that she has been a fool to believe and that giving up belief in Santa Claus is part of growing up – but alas …

Director John Hancock first appeared with the eerily haunting horror film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), which has become a minor cult classic. Hancock went on to make the acclaimed baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) before being hired and then fired as the director of Jaws 2 (1978). For Hancock, the 1980s and 90s were filled with sporadic tv work and occasional films that never attained much profile, although he did return to the horror genre with Suspended Animation (2000).

There was a made-for-tv movie sequel Prancer Returns (2001).

Full film available online here:-

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