It may be “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the song goes, but let’s face it, not all things Christmas are created equal. There are the tree ornaments you cherish, and others that can fill space in the back. There are movies that become classics, like “Miracle on 34th Street” or “Elf,” and those which seem to have been created as holiday time-fillers — harmless if charmless mediocrities parents can use to distract the kids for a couple of hours while they get some Christmas shopping done in peace.
Such is the generic ilk of “Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer,” a Canadian toon whose animation isn’t the only thing that seems to have been handled by computer. A would-be new “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” it’s energetic and polished enough to avoid feeling like a rip-off — “Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny,” this is not — but there the compliments pretty much end.
Jennifer Westcott’s feature is a combination of the arch and formulaic that isn’t witty enough to pull off its grownup “cute” cynicism (when somebody here says, “Reindeer are jerks,” they mean it), sufficiently warmhearted to sell its rote inspirational content (the groan-worthy tagline is “Big dreamers dream big”), or imaginative enough in design to succeed as simple, antic eye candy. There are worse Yuletide kidpics, but “Elliot” has that particular by-committee quality which can suck the goodwill right out of the room. Already released in several overseas markets, “Elliot” opens standard runs on about a dozen U.S. screens Friday, Nov. 30, with Saturday-only shows on approximately a hundred more.
The concept here is that Santa (who, as visualized, looks less like a jolly old soul than an aging-warrior denizen of Valhalla) is short a reindeer this year. Fortunately there are annual “North Pole Tryouts” of Olympic-style athletic competitive heats in a stadium, where such vacated slots can be filled. Hoping to make the cut is Elliot (voiced by Josh Hutcherson), a plucky miniature pony who lives on Walter’s (Rob Tinkler) inherited North Dakota reindeer farm/petting zoo. Elliot and his omnivorous goat bestie Hazel (Samantha Bee) stow away on Walter’s rocket-car (yeah, whatever) to participate in the games, where our hero dons fake antlers in order to compete alongside the likes of egomaniacal young buck DJ (Chris Jacot).
Subplots include Cruella De Ville-type figure Miss Ludzinka (one of several characters voice by Martin Short) purchasing the petting zoo whole, without noting that she intends to turn its residents into jerky. We also get DJ’s bad relationship with his even snottier father (John Cleese), Walter’s flirtation with snarky journalist Corkie (Morena Baccarin), and the machinations of scheming chief elf Lemondrop (Short again).
Indeed, apart from Elliot, Hazel, Walter, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, and precious few others, just about everyone here is some kind of “jerk.” “The Littlest Reindeer” fast becomes one of those movies that bets poorly on ill-humor being inherently humorous, with a lot of bitchy, unfunny would-be repartee. It’s also a little quease-making when we realize that the secret to flying reindeer are “magic cookies” treated very much as a drug here, and later as fodder for a “doping scandal” (we kid you not).
Such ideas might really be funny in a hipper movie. But this one straddles an awkward position of seeming to disdain the child audience it nonetheless panders to. Even the basic rooting value seems a bit off — sure, we’d like Elliot to win the competition, if only because his rivals are, well, jerks. But this is the kind of film whose tapping into a particular zeitgeist translates weirdly into an un-Christmas-like spirit suggesting that winning is the only thing that matters. It’s not enough for underdog Elliot to be accepted. He must “be best,” grab all the glory, make the stadium spectators roar, and (of course) save the world from the action climax’s late-breaking peril. While Westcott’s script ridicules “egomania,” it seems to tacitly celebrate it, too.
Though animation director Sean Coghlin’s character designs are rather ordinary, their facial expressiveness does justice to a talented voice cast that could’ve used better material. Production designer Naeim Khavari contributes settings that are sometimes impressive without being particularly inviting or idiosyncratic — this is a cartoon where one expects the cozy whimsy of Santa’s Village, and instead gets the impersonal ambiance of a hockey arena. The most satisfying single element here, perhaps, is a decently frolicksome, old-fashioned orchestral score by Grayson Matthews.