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A fresh face on Christmas fantasy arrives in the form of a small, saucy equine with the spirit and gumption to dream big. His name is Elliot, and he's adorable in the role of a miniature horse who aspires to become one of Santa's reindeer. Never mind that there's never been a non-reindeer in the jolly old elf's sleigh-pulling stable.

Along with out-of-the-box thinking like this, the best part of Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer is that it's sweet, funny, fast-moving, and holiday-heavy without being overly sentimental.

Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer

87 Cast: Animated with voices of Josh Hutcherson, Samantha Bee, Martin Short, Morena Baccarin, Jeff Dunham

Director: Jennifer Westcott, John Cleese

Rating: PG

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Available on demand.

Voiced by Josh Hutcherson, Elliot (don't offend him by calling him a pony; miniature horses are just that -- built like a regulation horse on a small scale -- and ponies are stockier, fuzzier, and bigger) with lots of other animals at Whittick's Witty Bitty Farm and Petting Zoo in rural North Dakota, where owner Walter (voice of Rob Tinkler), a washed-up minor league baseball player who inherited the family business, is struggling to pay the bills.

Elliot is OK with entertaining youthful human visitors, but his ambition, fueled with encouragement by his feisty goat pal Hazel (voice of Samantha Bee) is to head to the North Pole for the annual reindeer tryouts -- more important than ever this year, as veteran reindeer Blitzen intends to retire and open a juice bar in Florida.

Walter is already planning on taking smart-mouth DJ (voice of Christopher Jacot), a full-size muscular athlete of a reindeer, to the tryouts, so Elliot and Hazel scheme to smuggle themselves along for the ride and figure out how to enter the competition once they arrive. Which they do, along with experiencing stadium-style adventures, highs and lows, and cleverly figuring out how to function in a cutthroat environment along the way.

By sneaking around and paying attention, they realize that Santa, disgusted with the elitist ways of the obnoxious superstar reindeer (their shenanigans caused Christmas to arrive seven hours late last year), has constructed a stable of mechanical sleighs that don't require pampering, reinforcing, or personalized attention to operate on Christmas Eve. Does this mean the traditions of Christmas Eve are in peril?

The film doesn't look like an elegant Pixar product; the computer animation has a synthetic, bouncy, color-blasted and cartoony feel. (Pixar has been getting closer and closer to realism over the years.) Not all the other characters are convincing; an odd miniature horse named Peanut Butter (voice of Jeff Dunham) struts around in Braveheart makeup and barks orders in a Scottish accent, and a huge draft horse named Clyde (also voiced by Dunham), who serves as DJ's coach, scowls and grumps more than necessary.

Then there's Lemondrop (voice of Martin Short), an evil, power-wielding elf who controls the tryouts, complete with a secret weapon to make his favorites more likely to come out on top. Unbeknownst to him, his antics are being closely observed by journalist Corkie (voice of Morena Baccarin), who doesn't like what she sees and isn't afraid of being accused of spreading fake news.

Was Blitzen forced to retire? Is there a cheating conspiracy going on? Does all this sound familiar to fans of professional sports?

The ending won't be a surprise, but don't expect an overdose of schmaltz. Elliot has the heart of an athlete, the focus of a competitor, and the empathy of a true friend. That's what makes his movie a contender.

MovieStyle on 12/07/2018

Print Headline: Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer

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