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Case Number 01522

Buy Prancer at Amazon


MGM // 1989 // 103 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // November 16th, 2001

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All Rise...

The Charge

A Christmas adventure for the whole family!

Opening Statement

Possibly the harshest, most depressing Christmas movie ever.

Facts of the Case

Christmas is fast approaching, but things are looking pretty grim for Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell—A Piece of Eden, Suspended Animation). Her dad, John Riggs (Sam Elliot—Tombstone, Gettysburg, The Contender) is a struggling apple farmer in Michigan. He is so preoccupied with his financial struggles that he has little time for Jessie; he doesn't even show up to see her play an angel in the Christmas pageant. In fact, about the only time he talks to her at all is to scold her (quite harshly) when she does something wrong. To make matters worse, her dad feels that he is unable to support her any longer, and is planning to ship her off to live with her Aunt Sarah (Rutanya Alda).

As Jessie is walking home from school one day, she sees the city workmen struggling to put up the town's Christmas decorations. One such decoration is a sleigh with eight reindeer that stretch out across Main Street. She lists them by name; Dasher, Dancer, Prancer—but as she does so, "Prancer" falls out of the display and shatters on the street. Much to her chagrin, the workmen cast the broken decoration aside, leaving a gap in Santa's harness team.

On the way home, Jessica encounters a strange deer in the woods. It is larger than any deer she has ever seen, and it is not afraid of her; it has been wounded and seems to be asking for her help. Her dad tries to shoot it, thinking that it would be best to put the deer out of its misery. The two argue, and when they look up the deer has vanished. Little Jessie becomes convinced that this deer is none other than the legendary Prancer, even though she is at an age where most of her friends have stopped believing in Santa.

Soon the deer shows up at the Riggs farm, and Jessie takes it upon herself to nurse it back to health. Her letter to Santa to let him know that Prancer is okay attracts the attention of the local newspaper editor, who runs it under the title, "Yes, Santa, there are still Virginias." Soon Prancer is attracting all sorts of local attention and it is up to Jessie to set him free so that he can rejoin Santa and his sleigh in time for Christmas.

The Evidence

I'd like to find the sick, tortured SOBs who made this movie and roast their chestnuts over an open fire. I was prepared to watch an innocent, joyful "Christmas adventure for the whole family," and instead I got this dysfunctional, psychotic mess. Prancer is nothing short of appalling. It is a film almost completely devoid of kindness until it hits the 60-minute mark in its 103 minute running time. In a plot lifted more or less intact from Steven Spielberg's E.T., it is not surprising that there should be some tension between Jessie and her father. However, I felt uncomfortable seeing this realistic depiction of their family strife; using this sort of dysfunction as fodder for entertainment seems cruel and voyeuristic. Make no mistake; in the right sort of serious film, this depiction of hostile, alienated family relationships might be valuable and even enlightening. However, this is not that kind of film, nor, apparently, is it intended to be. It's a movie about a kid and a flying reindeer for crying out loud.

Adding to the overall harshness and general unpleasantness is Sam Elliot's performance. His performance is 100 percent believable and genuine, and 100 percent wrong for this movie. Elliot portrays his character like he walked in from some Oscar-contending family drama, not a holiday movie for the kiddies. Did he read the script? Was there no one on the set brave enough to take him aside and tell him, "Yo, Sam, this is a family picture, so try to lighten up a bit?" So complete is his mean-spiritedness that at the end of the movie, when John finally warms up to his daughter and tries to patch things up, we do not trust him. Suffice it to say he's no Bob Cratchit.

So pervasive is this depressing, hostile atmosphere that when the inevitable uplifting, "happy" ending comes, it rings completely hollow. This movie does such a number on us in the first 60 to 70 minutes that the last 30 to 40 minutes are powerless to lift us out of the doldrums. I know that in many situations in life, it truly is darkest right before the dawn, but did we have to see quite so much darkness that we couldn't appreciate the dawn?

Prancer is an MGM Home Entertainment release. The video transfer is almost uniformly terrible, marred only by occasional moments of adequacy. The picture overall is a bit too dark (not unlike the script) and is for the most part a bit muddy and very grainy. Backgrounds, such as a blue sky, are so full of artifacts that they seem to pulsate before our eyes. Fine textures are nonexistent, and we even see some blurring/smearing effect in Prancer's coat as he moves about on the screen. There is ample edge enhancement and haloing, enough to make one want to go to the eye doctor and get an updated prescription. The image flickers occasionally, and there were a few minor instances where colors in the red area of the spectrum seemed to bleed a bit. Colors overall are faithfully rendered, including the tricky reds, blacks, and flesh tones, but given everything else that is wrong with this transfer that comes as small consolation. To sum up, the image is sub broadcast quality, and adds to the general sense of despair this movie engenders.

On the other hand, the audio was better than I expected. The English track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, and is one of the better 2.0 tracks I've heard in a while. It was used a lot for music and some very realistic outdoor sound effects. The winter winds in particular were convincing; I kept shivering and looking out my living room window to remind myself that it was actually bright and sunny in the real world.

Extra content is virtually nonexistent. There is a theatrical trailer which is so grainy and generally terrible-looking that it makes the feature itself look like the recent DVD release of The Phantom Menace. Also, this trailer is a crass exercise in false advertising, as it presents Prancer as a bright, cheerful, uplifting holiday film for the whole family. Yeah, right—the Manson family, maybe.

Oh, and as one final insult MGM has not included English subtitles on this disc. Looks like we're scrooged again.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

In defense of this movie, I have only one thing to say: Rebecca Harrell. Her performance as Jessie is wonderful, and almost manages to save the movie from its own darkness. Harrell is a very rare thing indeed: a child actor who is believable as a normal child. Well, except for the scene where she chases the other kids out of Prancer's shed with a sickle, but that's hardly the actress's fault. She makes Jessie a real kid, plucky and adventurous and full of mischief, but also scared and prone to cry on more than one occasion. She exists on a different spectrum altogether from the likes of Jake "Mannequin Skywalker" Lloyd and the creepily precocious, supremely talented Haley Joel Osment. It seems that her more recent projects have met with little success; this is unfortunate, but since even now she has only reached the ripe old age of 20, we can still hope to see more of her in the future.

Closing Statement

If you want to give your children nightmares and ruin Christmas for them for years, then by all means at least be honest about it and rent Silent Night, Deadly Night. On the other hand, it is often said that the holidays bring out the worst in families. If you think Prancer is just what you need to distract you from your own family's imperfections, then go ahead and rent it.

The Verdict

Guilty! I sentence Prancer and those who made it to several years of hard labor in Santa's polar slave-labor gulag making cheap knockoffs of quality toys. Rebecca Harrell is acquitted of all charges against her; she remains the one bright spot in this movie, and is just capable of making us believe that there is a Santa Claus. Or at least a Virginia, at any rate.

We stand adjourned.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 56
Audio: 82
Extras: 3
Acting: 81
Story: 62
Judgment: 22

Perp Profile

Studio: MGM
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated G
• Bad
• Christmas

Distinguishing Marks

• Theatrical Trailers


• IMDb
• MGM Home Entertainment

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