Disclaimer: Just like real 9 year-olds, a fictional one has to grapple with religion, economic status, and the existence of Santa Claus.

Filmmakers often entice families to theaters around the holidays with the promise of enough cheer to take them clear through the winter’s harsh weather and mounting bills. The films almost always begin with something bleak that poses a challenge to a family or holiday spirit. The main character or characters must then overcome those challenges to restore their spirit, familial bond, and/or the holiday season. Some of the films and stories that use this sugarcoated formula work wonderfully, while many might as well be strewn into the incinerator with Rosebud. Though essentially of the same ilk, Prancer adjusts the formula slightly with open-ended resolutions to the many hurdles the young heroine must face.

Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) Prancer2doesn’t love Christmas like your average child; she’s obsessed with it. She listens to Christmas records year-round, and sings carols louder than anyone else – so much so that her teacher asks her to tone down her tone-deaf festiveness. She doesn’t listen. Nor does she let a mean shut-in (Cloris Leachman) bar her from sledding on the best hill in town. When a reindeer falls from a sled decoration on Main Street, it’s devastating. “Aren’t you gonna fix him?” the talkative 9 year-old asks. “Santa needs all his reindeer.” And, of course, she swears upon the existence of Santa Claus despite her best friend’s (Ariana Richards) skepticism of how one person could physically do it.

“I’ve never seen Santa Claus, and I’ve done a lot of looking,” she says.

“Well you’ve never seen God, either,” Jessica concernedly retorts. When her friend says she’s not too sure about God, either, Jessica takes it personally. After all, she recently lost her mother and if she’s not in heaven, then where is she?

“All right Carol Weatherby, you’re not my friend anymore,” Jessica resolves, strutting off with her hands at her sides (if you’re worried, they soon make up, exchange broken heart BFF necklaces, and all is well again – whew, that was close).

When Jessica’s father (Sam Elliot) Prancer3doesn’t show up to her school Christmas pageant, and she doesn’t look surprised, we know he’s not quite as festive as she is. Not only is he a widower, but a stern no-nonsense farmer in challenging times. “We’re not poor,” he assures Jessica and her brother (John Duda), “we’re just down on our luck.” He loves his children as he’s giving increasing consideration to passing Jessica over to her aunt because he can’t buy her things, educate her, or provide motherly advice. The film cleverly presents their relationship mysteriously to reflect Jessica’s increasing doubt about whether or not her father really loves her. The mystery is emotionally eleviated, of course, in a tearful climax. “Thirty miles is like a trillion,” Jessica weeps. “I’m gonna run away if she comes for me.”

Added to these hard times is Jessica’s discovery of an injured reindeer (quite rare for this area) silhouetted against a mysterious full moon. Knowing that her father would shoot it, Jessica schemingly hides the tame animal in the barn and nurses him back to health with the help of a surly, quiver-lipped doctor (Abe Vigoda).

Jessica is a character with the spirit of Elf and faith of Simon Birch, but we get the feeling that those two important beliefs are growing brittle with the absence of hard evidence and increasing number of people around her expecting her to grow up. Jessica also has the gladness of Pollyannna – and the film has very similar characters and scenes – but it begins to wane as well. That is, until a humbling visit to Santa’s lap leads to an inspirational newspaper editorial (“Yes, Virginia …”) and Jessica successfully restores the entire town’s Christmas spirit. Though the ending is a happy one, Jessica won’t wake up to find presents under the tree. The family farm could, and likely will, fold. Her relationship with her father will still be hard. And she’ll still have to grapple with religion. The movie may be sweet, but there’s hardly sugar. Still, as her pageant costume suggests, Jessica is indeed an angelic character. But that doesn’t mean she won’t come at you with a sicle if you threaten a reindeer.

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