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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Prancer’ an Unapologetic Christmas Heart-Tugger

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Prancer” (citywide) is the perfect Christmas gift for the whole family, but it’s arriving awfully early. Couldn’t they have waited at least until after Thanksgiving?

Anyway, Christmas is fast approaching in the film’s Grandma Moses-like setting, a quaint snow-covered Midwestern farming community. At the grade school, a teacher is rehearsing her students in the songs they will sing in the Christmas pageant, and she is having no luck in getting 8-year-old Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell) to sing softer.

It’s a shrewd introduction to our little heroine in that we’re not asked to find her adorable. She is a bright, headstrong child, pretty rather than beautiful, with auburn pigtails and no-nonsense clothes. She has the appearance of a girl who lacks a mother’s touch. She is going to win our hearts, not by coquettishness, but by her faith and courage.

There is considerable strain in the Riggs household. Jessica’s father John (Sam Elliott), a widower, is a struggling apple farmer. He’s an overburdened, decent man of few words, not much imagination and considerable irascibility, much of it provoked by his daughter. Jessica’s older brother, Steve, (John Joseph Duda) gives her a hard time, as older brothers will. There may be love in the shabby Riggs household, but it remains beneath the surface.

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In this hardly unusual but rather tense family situation, Jessica comes upon a beautiful, wounded reindeer, which she becomes convinced is really one of Santa’s reindeer. She’s determined to heal him and return him to Santa Claus in time for Christmas.

Written by Greg Taylor, “Prancer,” which has a shimmering Maurice Jarre score, is the story of how an innocent but strong-willed child’s belief in God (and Santa Claus) transforms her family and her community. Director John Hancock is ideally cast for this material, for in films from “Bang the Drum Slowly” to the recent “Weeds” he has revealed an ability to deal with highly charged emotions with directness and without apology. Of course, “Prancer” (rated G) is a sentimental Christmas season heart-tugger, but it’s not ashamed to be so, and it is not unduly manipulative.

Harrell carries the film with an impressive performance for a child whose only previous experience was as a singing litterbug in a school play. Her Jessica, a fully developed portrayal, expresses a wide range of emotions as she meets one challenge after another. Elliott’s underplaying pays off in a splendid climactic scene. Duda is just right as the brother, and so is Rutanya Alda as Jessica’s concerned aunt. Cloris Leachman is fun as a witch-like reclusive neighbor, but her part has been either trimmed or was underwritten in the first place.

Occasionally, the dialogue for Jessica is not merely precocious but adult. What 8-year-old, however smart, would say “History is going to like you for this”? You could wish, too, that the world of Jessica was not so absolutely WASP. Even Abe Vigoda, cast as the overworked local vet, plays a character named Orel Benton.

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