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'Prancer' : (G)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1989

What would Christmas be without curmudgeons? Why, crabs and crusty old buzzards are as seasonal as mincemeat pie. There wouldn't be any holiday movies if some crank didn't try to steal Christmas -- be he grinch, Scrooge, Mr. Potter or merely a grumpy parent. Luckily there are Virginias, Tiny Tims and second-class angels to save the season of receiving for all eternity.

This year's yuletide heart-tugger, "Prancer," is in keeping with the beloved formula. Actually, it's got more churls than a pudding has plums, and most of them are taking out their anti-Santy attitude on a 9-year-old farm girl who has just lost her mother. Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) fiercely believes in Christmas, Santa and all the trappings, which she equates with God and her mother's heavenly home.

Her father (Sam Elliott) is a surly, near-bankrupt apple farmer who ignores his daughter unless he is forced to reprimand the spirited child. Her aunt wants to take her away from her father, and her brother is a cruel tease. Everywhere she turns, Jessica finds a crosspatch -- the witchy, reclusive, stingy Mrs. McFarland (Cloris Leachman), the grumbling, insensitive veterinarian (Abe Vigoda) and even the priggish music teacher who hates it when Jessica sings the carols too loud.

Boy, are they mean.

Last year, Ernest Saved Christmas. Who will save it this year? What of fruitcake, shopping till you drop and being disappointed with your gifts? You've probably guessed it already, o Christmas story lover. Who but a child who still believes, who else but freckle-sprinkled, braid-bedecked Jessica? She's a bit on the depressed side, mind you, but she is also a likably pugnacious youngster.

It's when all the world seems sad and dreary, when her father has threatened to send her away and her best friend stops believing in Santa Claus, that a little bit of much-needed magic limps Jessica's way. Boo plays a wounded reindeer whom Jessica believes to be Prancer, partner of Dancer and absolutely essential when it comes to pulling a sleigh round the world in one night. Jessica's father threatens to shoot Prancer, but the heroine hides the reindeer away, determined to heal him in time for Christmas Eve.

The pace, like Prancer, tends to limp, but by story's end, surely the cynics in both the town and the audience are convinced that reindeer can fly, given little girls' faith and a sprinkling of fairy dust. Oh, occasionally it's maudlin, which is also traditional, and the broken hearts of innocents bring sniffles. However, Harrell's brash debut, the use of animism and the story's sincerity add interest.

Greg Taylor, a costumer turned screenwriter, created the story for his own 7-year-old daughter. Also a co-producer, he joins a team of losers made up of producer Raffaella De Laurentiis and director John Hancock, whose filmography includes everything from "Bang the Drum Slowly" to "Let's Scare Jessica to Death." "Prancer" falls somewhere in between. It's not a case of dash away, dash away to the cineplex. But what the heck, let's be charitable. God bless 'em, every one.

Prancer is rated G

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