Cult Christmas Classic 'Prancer' Deserves to be a Holiday Tradition

The 1989 cult classic "Prancer." Orion Pictures

Christmas movies tend to take one of two approaches to the holiday. There are the realistic films, where Santa doesn't exist, and the fantastical ones, based in worlds of magic. Neither can quite capture the spirit of the season—they either sacrifice nostalgia for believability (Home Alone, Jingle All the Way) or they take place in worlds where magic does exist, but makes the stories harder to believe (Elf, The Santa Clause).

Then there's Prancer. The 1989 cult classic achieves something rare for a Christmas movie: It successfully straddles the line between realism and magic, creating an unexpectedly emotional and affecting experience. But it's one that far too few people have had, since Prancer's often ignored in the conversation about Christmas classics.

Prancer is set in hardscrabble Three Oaks, Michigan, where 8-year-old Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) still believes in Santa and her widowed father (Sam Elliott) is on the verge of losing their apple farm. Things are so difficult that Jessica's father decides to send her off to live with an aunt. But shortly before Christmas, Jessica comes across an injured deer—she believes it's Prancer, one of Santa's—and begins secretly nursing it back to health so it can help Santa deliver toys on Christmas Eve.

Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) reads to the injured reindeer she believes is Prancer. Orion Pictures

Jessica's rescue mission has bigger stakes than saving a deer, though. She's at the age when she's supposed to stop believing in Santa. If the deer turns out not to be Prancer, then maybe she's wrong for believing in Santa. And if Santa isn't real, she reasons, then maybe God isn't real, either. And that would mean there's no Heaven, where she's told her mother has gone.

That's pretty heavy for a Christmas movie, and Prancer was called out by critics upon its release on November 17, 1989. The New York Times, for example, deemed Prancer a "mediocre" film, noting that the existential questions it raises about Santa—and God—"might disturb small children."

There's evidence that the movie did just that. "That a kids' movie even asked if Santa was real actually upset a lot of parents," Harrell told Newsweek. "They were saying 'I had to turn this off.' Lots of kids, it hadn't occurred to them to wonder is Santa real or not."

Kind of incredibly, that also included Harrell herself, who said she only discovered the truth about Santa when she started making the movie; she loved it so much she kept the realization to herself. "I was reading the script and I was like, oh my gosh," Harrell said. "But I didn't want to spoil it for anyone else."

The Times' central gripe, though, was that the movie was overly sentimental. Sure it is. And it works. Prancer is about Christmas, but also the ways grief and loss often drive people apart before something like the Christmas spirit brings them back together.

"That scene in Jessica's bedroom, her and Sam—and that's Rebecca just making up lines there—when he's saying he can't promise everything's going to be alright, that's actually a line from my mother," director John Hancock told Newsweek. "I was 6 years old and we were flying from Havana to Key West, and it looked like the plane would crash in a storm, and I said, 'What if we die?'"

"Prancer" discusses subjects that some critics found controversial for a children's movie. Orion Pictures

Hancock's memory—and the way he drew on it for Prancer—speaks to the kind of sensibility adults don't always appreciate in children. They may not have as much life experience, but they're also not hung up on whether they should ask a question or believe in something. They just do, because that's how they make sense of the world.

Which brings us back to the balance Prancer finds between realism and fantasy. By framing the story around the question of whether Santa exists or not, Hancock creates a world firmly rooted in all-too-recognizable issues—poverty, loss, grief—while allowing viewers to bring as much magic as they want to their experience.

It's a delicate act, to be sure, but it's one that sets Prancer apart in a sea of unbearably bad Christmas movies. (Seriously, how did A Christmas Story get a 24-hour marathon?) And while you might not want to be reminded of such light-hearted subjects as mortality and abandonment at Christmas, give yourself the gift of Prancer. It might rekindle a little of that dormant childhood magic.