If you’re immune to the charms of a small child admitting that he’s heartbroken over the loss of his mother but “still loves her with all the broken pieces,” then suffice to say that “A Boy Called Christmas” probably isn’t for you. For those who don’t mind a bit of saccharinity in their holiday viewing, however, Netflix’s tall tale about the origins of Christmas will make for better background viewing than a yule-log loop. Directed by Gil Kenan (“City of Ember”) and based on Matt Haig’s novel of the same name, “Christmas” is a cut above the usual holiday dross.
Said cherub, along with his two older siblings, is in the care of his great aunt (Maggie Smith) for the evening, their father having been called into the office on Christmas Eve. After insisting that “the universe is made of stories, not atoms,” the wise elder treats her wards to the tale of a Finnish boy named Nikolas (Henry Lawfull) who lived long ago and may or may not be responsible for the holiday they’ll wake up to in the morning. Smith, who at this point is constitutionally incapable of being anything less than delightful, occasionally has her story-within-the-movie interrupted by her niece and two nephews so they can ensure that their bedtime story won’t compound their grief — a reminder that the holidays aren’t so merry for some, as well as an excuse for the film to underscore its message of seasonal hopefulness.
Cuteness abounds, from a talking mouse named Miika to a “truth pixie” who can’t lie, as do talented actors in small roles — Jim Broadbent, Sally Hawkins, Kristen Wiig and Toby Jones, among others. The banter is, somewhat surprisingly, up to this ensemble’s level, as when the king (Broadbent) rhetorically asks his subjects what their land is missing, only for them to answer, “Monty Python”-style, healthcare, a living wage and fair governance. (Another good one: “Finland was a very dangerous place in those days,” Smith explains after revealing that Nikolas’ mother met her end courtesy of a bear.)
The film is less convincing when it gets into inspirational mode, with far too many lines of dialogue extolling the power of believing in something in order to see it, though one supposes that kind of sentimentality comes with the territory. What most needs to be believed in order to be seen here is Elfhelm, the mythical land of (you guessed it) elves, which Nikolas sets off to find after his father (Michael Huisman) does likewise and doesn’t return. It exists, of course, but is in disarray when our young hero arrives. The Resistance (led by Jones) wants to continue celebrating Christmas, while the once-festive village’s newly elected leader, Mother Vodal (Hawkins), has canceled it along with all forms of merriment in response to the recent kidnapping of an elf child.
You can surely guess what happens from there — though you may be surprised at how little effort was put into making the elves look different from their human counterparts — but the film isn’t as marred by its predictability as you might expect. That’s thanks largely to its genuine sweetness and the strength of its screenplay, which Kenan co-wrote with Ol Parker. Movies of this sort are pumped out like so many toys in Santa’s workshop each year, most of which will be forgotten by the following year. “A Boy Called Christmas” is a welcome exception to that rule, if a minor one.