Rudolph has nothing to fear from Elliot. Neither does Babe, or even “Arthur Christmas”—to mention only three of the children’s tales that writer-director Jennifer Westcott has blended into her Christmas-themed animated movie “Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer,” which joins the multitude of other utterly mediocre attempts to play off the holiday season. Very young viewers might be taken with it, but anyone over the age of six or so will find it an annoying addition to the banality that afflicts such dubious seasonal cinematic gifts.
Elliot (voiced by Josh Hutcherson) isn’t a reindeer at all; he’s a miniature pony. But he wants desperately to take a place among those that carry Santa’s sleigh through the sky on his yearly journey, just as Babe wanted to do the job of a sheepdog. At the North Dakota Whitty Bitty reindeer farm and petting zoo recently inherited by Walter (Rob Tinkler), Elliot practices diligently under the insistent guidance of his trainer, a goat named Hazel (Samantha Bee, a bit too strident for comfort), despite the ridicule of loudmouth reindeer DJ (Christopher Jacot, like Bee coming on awfully strong), whose father is the famous Donner (John Cleese).
Both Elliot and DJ hope their time come have come when it’s announced that yet another of Santa’s reindeers has retired and a competition is to be held at the North Pole to choose his replacement. To get there, Elliot and Hazel stow away on Walter’s speedster, and Elliot dons fake antlers to compete in the races being overseen by Santa’s chief lieutenant, a surly elf named Lemondrop (Martin Short).
Things won’t go smoothly at the Pole, particularly because there’s a nefarious movement afoot to modernize the Claus distribution system (echoes of “Arthur Christmas”) and a nosey reporter (Morena Baccarin) is snooping around (though she also serves as a romantic interest for Walter). But matters aren’t much better back at the ranch, which financial problems have put in the crosshairs of a potential purchaser, a Natasha Fatale type named Ludzinka (also voiced by Short), whose plans for the animals are not exactly nice.
The computer-generated animation in “Elliot” is okay, though hardly groundbreaking; the gaudy colors will probably keep the littlest kids entranced. The voice work is fine as well, with Short bringing lots of energy to his multiple roles, even if Bee and Jacot overdo things.
But the material proves just too bland even for the best of the behind-the-camera voice talent. The most obvious victim is Cleese; you might think that he could make almost any dialogue funny, but this movie proves you’d be wrong—Donner’s a dud. There are a few scattered laughs here and there, but for the most part Westcott’s writing is limp—witness the explanation she’s contrived for the means by which Santa’s reindeers fly, and its use to draw a comparison to contemporary sports scandals. Even the most talented voice actors would find it difficult to do much with it.
Of course, the movie closes—as you could easily predict—with Elliot’s joining Santa’s team, just as Rudolph did. That’s exactly what you’d expect of a story that keeps intoning that “big dreamers dream big” and, apparently, never give up, however long the odds. But it’s certain that “The Littlest Reindeer” won’t beat the odds and become a holiday perennial, except perhaps as a time-filler on some kiddie cable channel.