Netflix Holiday Movie Review: “A Boy Called Christmas” (2021) & “A Castle for Christmas” (2021)

The Netflix equivalent of putting up your Christmas tree and/or starting your holiday shopping the day after Thanksgiving, this year, the streaming service's version of Black Friday comes in two new high profile, high caliber Christmas movies which are scheduled to premiere on Friday, November 26.

Inspired by the question “was Father Christmas ever a boy?” which was posed by author Matt Haig's son, the first film, from “Monster House” director Gil Kenan, is a gorgeously crafted, old-fashioned fairytale adaptation of Haig's bestselling 2015 British children's book “A Boy Called Christmas.”

Tonally a cross between C.S. Lewis, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, and Roald Dahl in its balance of darkness, magic, heart, and light, Kenan's film begins with a framing device straight out of “The Princess Bride.”Arriving at their home late at night, a great aunt played by the irreplaceable Maggie Smith tells the tale of the brave boy we'll all eventually know as Father Christmas to her young relatives at bedtime. Next, switching to a different time and place, we move away from contemporary London as Smith's fable starts to play out before our eyes.

Still reeling from the loss of his mother, which is something shared by the characters in the modern setting as well, “Christmas” chronicles the plight of Nikolas (portrayed by top-notch relative newcomer Henry Lawfull). Fearing for the safety of the sole parent he has left (Michiel Huisman), Nikolas sets out on a perilous journey to the north to find his dad when he fails to return from his search for the village of Elfhelm in order to bring hope to us all.  

Populated by a who's who of great character actors, including Sally Hawkins, Kristen Wiig, Jim Broadbent, Toby Jones, and Stephen Merchant (priceless here as the voice of Miika the Mouse), the film looks and sounds like a dream, thanks to the effects team and production designer behind the “Paddington” movies, and a lovely score courtesy of the great Dario Marianelli. Additionally, it's fun to see the actors let loose, particularly Hawkins and Wiig who relish their Wicked Witch-like moments to eat up the screen. 

The type of film you could leave on in the background when you make cookies or put up your tree, while it's easy to lose yourself in the snowy spectacle of it all, disappointingly from a narrative standpoint, “A Boy Called Christmas” runs out of steam quickly. With episodic plot points, as the indefatigable, ever-determined, delightful Lawfull encounters one new character or problem after another in a by-the-numbers fashion, it grows increasingly repetitive as it continues on.

Although I am unfamiliar with the source material, I can't help but ask if perhaps its error might be an early “Harry Potter” franchise-style case of staying far too faithful to the book. Needless to say, of course, young fans of Haig's novel are sure to love seeing every moment come to life. For the rest of us, however, despite some beautiful revelations that come to light near the end of the movie, its muddled second act makes it feel twice as long as the first, and I think most viewers who don't know Haig's novel will grow restless as soon as the storyline begins to wander.

Still, from the jaw-dropping 4k presentation where even the opening sequence of Smith walking down a light-filled city street feels painterly (and indeed I wondered but really didn't care if it was CG), “A Boy Called Christmas” is a stellar technical achievement from these talented craftsmen, even if it doesn't fully work for me as a film overall. Not nearly as successful as “Monster House” or Kenan's wonderful adaptation of “City of Ember,” (of which I might be the only fan and still wish for a sequel), he's such a great director that regardless of the film's shortcomings, I look forward to seeing what he'll do next.

Incidentally, it turns out that looking forward is exactly what romance author Sophie Brown (Brooke Shields) realizes she needs to do at the start of director Mary Lambert's picturesque holiday romcom travelogue “A Castle for Christmas.” 

Whereas “A Boy Called Christmas” was made for the kids, “A Castle for Christmas” is Netflix's present for teens and adults. It comes in the form of a fun, fluffy, snowflake light hybrid of the kinds of seasonal romances that Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel produce with alarming frequency and the sassier UK romcoms that Hugh Grant made popular back in the '90s. 

Centered on Shields' Brown, the plot of "Castle" is incredibly straightforward.  Having killed off the romantic hero of her dozen bestselling novels after a messy divorce, Sophie Brown incurs the wrath of her heartbroken legion of fans who want their dream man back. In desperate need of a change of scenery, she journeys to Scotland to not only hide out and write the next book in her popular Emma Gale romance series but also visit the castle that her late father loved while growing up as the son of the groundskeeper there. 

Having barely arrived in her new surroundings, Sophie finds new friends quickly when she joins the knitting club in the pub of the inn where she's staying. The same dynamic we encountered in Netflix's outstanding (and much more substantive) adaptation of the acclaimed novel “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," in “Castle,” the scenes that producer-star Shields shares with her motley knitting crew are absolutely delightful.

Still, as the romance author she's portraying here knows, you can't have a love story without a male lead, and thankfully, for that we have Cary Elwes getting his scowl on as the sour, curmudgeon-like Duke of said castle, who eventually melts under Sophie's charms.

Phenomenally predictable to anyone who's ever seen a romantic comedy before, while the pair are excellent in their roles, Sheilds and Elwes' chemistry does leave a little something to be desired, although that's likely more the fault of their underdeveloped characters than the actors in question, who aren't given a whole lot with which to work.

One of those movies where the credits reveal that it was written by a committee of four different writers, it feels like certain screenwriters were hoping to emphasize the knitting club as well as develop a potential B or C romantic subplot, and others were more clearly focused on the castle angle. All in all, it's a bumpy yet nonetheless, above-average cheery holiday romance.

Featuring a welcome cameo by Drew Barrymore that bookends the film as she first appears in a slightly cringeworthy over-the-top introduction to Sophie Brown who loses it live on Barrymore's talk show (which Shields plays too broadly), Barrymore returns at the end during the final credits in a very funny two-hander between the two women.

Targeted to Gen X, it's ideally suited to those from the era who grew up watching Shields and Barrymore, were dazzled by Lambert's iconic Madonna music video “Like a Prayer,” and frightened by her adaptation of “Pet Semetary,” and fell in love with “Castle” leading man Cary Elwes in “The Princess Bride.” And indeed, Netflix is smart to aim for this demographic. 

Usually overlooked in seasonal fare that's often developed with late teens and early twenty-somethings in mind, “A Castle for Christmas” is just the pleasantly diverting, if ultimately forgettable thing to settle in with after you spend Thanksgiving in the kitchen and Black Friday setting up that tree and/or starting to shop. With so much holiday stress on the horizon, 'tis the season for snowy movies after all.

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