A Boy Called Christmas, review: where there should be magic and charm, there's nothing but gloop

Henry Lawfull stars as Nikolas, a Finnish boy who discovers a flying reindeer and a hidden village of elves - Alamy
Henry Lawfull stars as Nikolas, a Finnish boy who discovers a flying reindeer and a hidden village of elves - Alamy
  • Dir: Gil Kenan Starring: Henry Lawfull, Maggie Smith, Michiel Huisman, Jim Broadbent, Toby Jones, Sally Hawkins, Joel Fry, Zoe Colletti, Kristen Wiig. PG cert, 103 min

This British festive family adventure is an unlovely hybrid of the garish and the mawkish: imagine Santa Claus: The Movie crossed with an inspirational lavatory book. At a glance, A Boy Called Christmas looks delightful enough, with its snowy landscapes, cosy knitwear, and scenes of Jim Broadbent larking around in a periwig and frock coat. But beneath its Paddington-meets-Potter storybook exterior, its bloodstream runs with purest gloop.

Adapted from a recent Matt Haig novel by Ol Parker and Gil Kenan, who also directs, it’s essentially a Father Christmas origin story: Lapland Begins. The main plot concerns a pink-cheeked Finnish lad called Nikolas (Henry Lawfull), who travels north into the wilderness to find his missing father (Michiel Huisman) and discovers a flying reindeer and a hidden village of toy-making elves.

But this tale is framed by a second, set in present-day London on Christmas Eve, in which kindly Aunt Ruth (Maggie Smith) relays Nikolas’s escapades to her two grand-nephews and grand-niece, who have recently lost their mother, and whose father (Joel Fry) is short on Christmas spirit.

“Grief is the price we pay for love, and worth it a million times over,” Aunt Ruth glibly consoles her young charges after Nikolas watches a loved one perish in an avalanche. Yet such a seismic loss causes barely a ripple of emotion or consequence in Nikolas’s own story: it’s just another step to tick off on the road to Santahood.

Just as deflating is the casting, which strikes some satisfying notes (Broadbent’s blustering Finnish monarch, Toby Jones as a leader of the Elf Resistance) but more often borders on self-sabotage. It’s hard to think of anyone who sounds less like a mouse than Stephen Merchant, the 6ft 7in co-creator of The Office – and yet here he is, voicing Nikolas’s rodent companion, Miika, in his Bristolian baritone. Elsewhere, Kristen Wiig plays Nikolas’s wicked aunt, and Sally Hawkins is a villainess who dresses like Evil-Lyn from He-Man.

The world of the film is beautifully constructed, with the kind of intricate, gingerbread-house sets that younger viewers will dream of exploring, and sturdy visual effects.

But it’s also flimsily conceived, without ideas to cause an audience to lean in in wonder, and too many characters less liable to charm than grate. Even the notion of a boy turning up at an elf village and commandeering their toys for a national morale-boosting delivery scheme just plays as irritatingly presumptuous, rather than the humble beginnings of a cherished yuletide rite. Netflix’s 2019 animated film Klaus covered a similar premise with real artistry, wit and flair: alas, this Claus is very much subordinate.

In cinemas and Sky Cinema from Nov 26