I hate Christmas. It’s a huge stressful occasion in which we are all expected to put on multiple emotional performances, all of which must appear to our friends and family to be completely genuine, and which are supposed to inspire similar performances from the people around us. This is easy if your feelings are genuine, but it’s hell if anything is going on in your life that stands in the way of your unchecked happiness. The Christmas Spirit is a lot of pressure.
Paradoxically, I love Christmas movies. They ARE performances. Performers, who were paid for their work, performed on camera for me to watch when it gets dark, which is approximately twelve minutes after I get out of work at this time of year. I can feel things or not—totally up to me, no pressure. The trailer for The Knight Before Christmas made me fairly certain I was going to feel a lot of things. And I was not wrong.
The film features Vanessa Hudgens and Josh Whitehouse. Hudgens first came to my attention when she appeared in High School Musical in 2006. Last year, she starred in Netflix’s runaway holiday hit The Princess Switch. That movie was SFF in a very gentle sense because it featured a scene in which a character used a stand mixer to puree fruit, which was then added to a cake that was already decorated with fondant. A Knight Before Christmas is much more obviously SFF because there is time travel. Josh Whitehouse has never before crossed my radar; I understand he had a role in the BBC series Poldark, which I have not seen.
The plot of this thing is a chaotic blend of holidays, happiness, and the limitations I presume were imposed by Netflix’s budget. The film opens in Norwich, England in 1344. (That’s during the Truce of Malestroit in the early-ish days of the Hundred Years War.) There’s a Christmas hawking competition. Josh Whitehouse’s character—Sir Cole—is taking part. He’s wearing armor (so necessary for hawking). There is only one hawk involved in this competitive hawking event.
The film also opens in Bracebridge, Ohio, where Vanessa Hudgens’s character, Brooke, is talking to a kid about her midterms. Kid tanked the exam because of a bad breakup. Brooke tells her that true love is a fantasy and those feelings are less important than your GPA. This is a pretty harsh standard. Feelings happen! They aren’t always convenient! And a midterm is one test on one day—it’s not a measure of everything a person knows, is, or will ever be. Also, Brooke’s classroom has furniture for approximately 20 students. Bracebridge is doing a great job with class size.
Deep in the forest of 14th century Norwich, Cole meets an older woman who is cold despite wearing a huge collection of cloaks. He offers her a ride back to the castle. She’s so grateful she promises him he’s going to get to watch TV (“the magic box that makes merry”), but she enigmatically declines the lift and tells him that he needs to fulfill a quest before midnight on Christmas Eve or never become a true knight. It looked to me like Cole was a knight already and this woman has interrupted him in the middle of his chivalrous knightly offer of practical assistance to inform him that he’s crap at his job and can only get better by jumping through some arbitrary and as-yet-unidentified hoops. So Christmas-y! And then he’s enveloped in blue fog and his (quite nice-looking) horse gallops off alone back to the castle without him.
Cole finds himself in Bracebridge, where the Christmas Fair is playing a creepy version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The weird lady from the woods has bobbed her hair and is dressed as Mrs. Claus. Brooke is there with her niece, who is planning to ask Santa for a puppy. Brooke’s ex is also present. Mrs. Claus calls Brooke’s niece precious, and the kiddo asks for a new boyfriend for her aunt in addition to the puppy. Cole approaches Mrs. Claus, but suddenly she’s replaced by someone else with an entirely different hairstyle. HOW MYSTERIOUS. And then Brooke accidentally spills hot chocolate on him, and it’s his first encounter with chocolate ever because chocolate is an American agricultural product and no one in 14th century England had ever had any, let alone combined it with sugar. He’s stunned by the deliciousness of the trace amount of hot chocolate he has now licked off a metal gauntlet after wiping it off his chain mail. Indeed, this age is full of wonders.
Brooke and Cole part ways, but are reunited when Brooke hits Cole with her car. At the hospital, an MRI shows that he’s fine, despite his apparent disorientation. He insists on being called Sir Cole, possibly because of the way Mrs. Claus impugned his professionalism earlier. Brooke’s police officer friend, Arthur, who knew Brooke’s dad, is planning to take Sir Disoriented back to the station to sleep off his delusional beliefs about being from the 14th century but Cole says he would prefer to sleep under a tree. Brooke offers her guest house as a compromise. At Brooke’s house, Cole takes a bath, puts on her ex-boyfriend’s ugly Christmas sweater, starts a bonfire in her backyard and tries hunting a skunk with his sword. Oh, Netflix. Brooke takes him to a diner where he goes all Thor over hot chocolate.
- Sir Cole was knighted by King Edward III six years ago. Probably in preparation for fighting in France.
- Cole never, ever mentions fighting in France. Not once.
- He calls Brooke’s ex The Douche on all occasions, and offers to defend her honor with his sword.
- Cole talks trash pretty loudly for a guy drinking hot chocs in a diner.
Back at Brooke’s guest house, Cole tries to figure out this Brave New World and what his quest might be. How? He LITERALLY WATCHES another Netflix holiday movie on TV. (It’s Holiday in the Wild, which I have TOTALLY BEEN PLANNING TO WATCH, not because I want to see Rob Lowe’s abs, which I understand are featured, but to evaluate Netflix’s ability to work a plot around a sick and orphaned baby elephant. I’ve held off because I need to reach out to some family members about how much it costs to film baby elephants. Christmas is all about reconnecting with family.) The next day, Cole persuades Brooke to spend the entire day watching more Netflix with him, and it’s the first day of school break so, of course, she does. I feel really seen and understood.
The most exciting aspect of this film is the revelation that all the Netflix holiday movies (with the possible exception of Holiday in the Wild) exist within a single cinematic universe. Brooke’s sister shows her daughter an enormous acorn ornament that their parents picked up on a trip to Aldovia, home of another series of Netflix Holiday movies: A Christmas Prince, A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding, and this year’s A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby (coming up in early December). There’s also a scene about banana nut muffins that is definitely ringing a bell with something I watched last year. In fairness to other aspects of the movie, Cole looks great in sweaters, and Brooke’s sister seems compelled to provide him with an infinite supply. Cole is especially cute when he’s sneaking hot chocolate into Brooke’s shopping cart like a naughty toddler (she’s momentarily distracted by the student from the opening scene who accosts her in the supermarket to ask for extra credit). Cole further endears himself by having strong opinions about bread, and then making a ton of it from scratch.
But Cole isn’t always my favorite guy. He criticizes Brooke’s artificial Christmas tree and insists on a real one. (“Fuck you, Cole!” —a message from allergy sufferers everywhere.) Then he asks if Brooke’s ex, The Douche, has ruined her. But before we can explore the clash between 14th- and 21st-century sexual mores, he asks to borrow her car. AND SHE’S COOL WITH THAT. He has never ever claimed to be a licensed driver! Never! At all! He calls the car a steed! He knows literally nothing about Ohio’s traffic laws! At least practice in a parking lot first!
Here’s what else we could live without:
- Slut-shaming. This was a theme in The Princess Switch as well. It’s sloppy writing. There are a lot of ways to create or explain tension between two female characters—it doesn’t always have to be about someone sleeping with someone else years ago when they were in school.
- Plots built around people somehow failing to notice that they could help other people. The royal family of Aldovia just got clued in to the PR benefits of doing charity work. And the good people of Bracebridge who already run an annual charity benefit at the holidays need the help of a knight from 14th-century England to point out that a recently widowed father of four who works two jobs is struggling to make ends meet.
The most serious issue here is a subplot about police as twenty-first century knights that falls flat because the film doesn’t spend enough time building the relationship between Cole and Arthur, the police officer. Arthur has some understandable concerns about what he sees as Cole’s persistent delusions about being from the 14th century. It’s not clear whether Cole admires Arthur on a personal level or is just jealous of his job. Cole isn’t sure what’s going to happen in his personal future, and he’s the kind of guy who hacks up someone’s Christmas decorations for sword practice. However you feel about law enforcement, I think it’s hard to argue that Cole should be entrusted with its duties or privileges. And I’m extremely uncomfortable with the scene where Cole body slams a teenage pickpocket and then proposes killing him to spare the hangman the rope. Threats of extrajudicial killing are not good reflections of the Holiday Spirit.
So when Cole disappears in another cloud of blue fog, I was perfectly happy to see him go. My hope was that Brooke’s time with Cole would help her recognize how much she admires the knightly qualities she sees in Arthur (whose work seems to focus more on public safety and community outreach than body slamming teenagers) and we’d wind up with a cute little teacher/cop romance. Or something. But no. Brooke faces a sad Christmas morning with a great big lump of No Cole in her stocking. Her sister tries to get her to talk about it, but everyone is distracted because Brooke’s niece has gotten a surprise puppy from neither of her parents. (The kid says it’s Christmas Magic while the adults in the household try to figure out what asshole is distributing puppies.) Meanwhile, back in 14th-century England, Cole tells his brother that he’s in love and has left a woman behind. His brother sends him off to tend to the important matters of the heart and find his Fair Lady. Cole finds the old woman, who sends him back to the twenty-first century again to become a cop in suburban Ohio. Or maybe a baker. That’s also mentioned as a possibility.
Cole’s brother is excited to be a knight and the crone does something mysterious to him in the credits, so one day we’ll have a team of time-traveling knights working together to save Christmas with their baking skills and perhaps a little sword-fighting in sweaters. And hopefully not with their work in law enforcement.
Originally published on December 2, 2019.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.