If Jennifer Westcott’s animated kids’ movie “Elliot the Littlest Reindeer” was a Christmas gift, it’d be the toothbrush at the bottom of your stocking. It’s well-intentioned, and you might get some use out of it, but let’s just pray it’s not the highlight of your holiday season.
“Elliot” takes place in a world where everyone knows Santa Claus is real and the world has adjusted accordingly. “Reindeer trainer” is now a respectable occupation, more or less, and when Blitzen retires — to open his own juice bar — with only three days until Christmas, those trainers all scramble to the North Pole with their finest stock to compete in an emergency session of reindeer games.
Unfortunately for Elliot (voiced by Josh Hutcherson), a miniature horse with dreams of holiday glory, only reindeer are allowed to hoist Santa’s sleigh. So he steals away onto his trainer’s rocket sled (which people simply have, and which nobody questions) along with his goat friend Hazel (Samantha Bee). Together they dress him up like a reindeer and sneak their way into the competition.
On the surface, “Elliot the Littlest Reindeer” is a very straightforward kids’ flick, complete with familiar storytelling beats like ditching your old friends as soon as you become popular, poop jokes and outdated pop-culture references. One of the horses is painted up like William Wallace from “Braveheart,” an R-rated movie from over 20 years ago, so the little kids in this film’s target demo are obviously going to love that one.
But the world that “Elliot” builds is bizarre and confusing, and audiences might have more fun overanalyzing the mythology than by following the actual plot. If you ever wondered why Santa only employs reindeer to drive his sleigh, “Elliot” answers the question, and the answer is institutionalized prejudice. Literally anyone can fly if they eat Santa’s magic cookies, and the reason why they don’t isn’t completely addressed. It’s just mean to horses, goats and any other animal who might theoretically want to have a go at it.
So you’d think reindeer, being in a position of great authority and respect, upon whom the Christmas holiday depends, would be treated rather well. Instead, the elves actively hate them, call them stupid and resent the fact that they can’t segue to a more reliable form of transport at the North Pole. Head elf Lemondrop (Martin Short) berates the reindeer to their faces, yelling that “Reindeer are unreliable, self-absorbed, egomaniacal quitters with nary a hint of social responsibility nor personal honor!”
One reindeer shouts back, “Not all reindeer, man,” which gives you some idea of how delicately all this subtext is handled.
The concept of treating Santa’s workshop as an exclusionary workspace goes at least as far back as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and it’s always made the most magical place on Earth look pretty gross. It’s tempting to give “Elliot” some credit for addressing these issues head-on, without losing all of the story’s obvious kid appeal, but the movie fails to come up with meaningful conclusions.
“Elliot” also tries, unsuccessfully, to create a meaningful parallel between performance-enhancing drugs (read: eating more magical cookies than you’re supposed to) and pretending to be something that you’re not. But of course, there’s a big difference between being judged on your ability alone, in a system specifically designed to exclude you, and cheating. (And come to think of it, if every reindeer has to eat those cookies in order to fly, then who cares if they eat more than one of them? The goal is to pull Santa’s sleigh from one place to another, not win the Super Bowl.)
Even the basic myths at the heart of “Elliot” lead to frustrating questions. In this world, literally everyone knows that animals can talk, ergo all of them are sentient beings, but only elves can understand them. And yet everyone eats them anyway, as we see in a subplot where a weird “Llama Jerky” entrepreneur wants to buy the petting zoo for the purpose of deliciousness. They even have translating software so humans can understand goats and reindeer. Why doesn’t everybody have that? I, for one, would love to talk to my cat and beg him to stop knocking glassware off the counter. Who wouldn’t?
Again, “Elliot the Littlest Reindeer” begs the big questions because there’s not much else to think about. It’s competently, albeit unremarkably, animated. The voice-acting is efficient. The jokes are present, but not altogether funny. The plot is pabulum, and falls apart under any scrutiny. If you’re stuck watching “Elliot” with your kids, you might fall down a snowy rabbit hole of confused social commentary and contradictory narrative logic.
But if all you want is to distract your children while you wrap some Christmas presents, “Elliot” might just save the day.