I think it’s important to own up to our mistakes. It doesn’t feel great, but that’s how we grow. So I’ll admit it: I blew it with my review of The Spirit of Christmas. Why did I pretend I was above the whole thing? The Spirit of Christmas is a delightful ride. It’s acted and directed well, the locations are gorgeous, and the script commits fully to making the most of its haunted Christmas premise.
I’m bringing this up because I’ve been expanding my knowledge of the genre and realizing that I really, really did not need to go so hard on what may be the gold standard of a made-for-TV Christmas romance. To explain my point, let’s look at a new Netflix original, The Knight Before Christmas.
I will give credit where credit is due: I love how they name these movies. I absolutely adore it. I picture writers sitting around making lists of Christmas terms and trying to reverse-engineer a plot out of them. I want to try it!
- The Twelve Baes of Christmas: a frazzled career woman hires a matchmaker to set her up on 11 dates in December. They’re all cuties — but it’s her matchmaker who captures her heart!
- Jingle All the Wave: a Christmas-weary beauty flees to Hawaii for the holidays, determined to enjoy some alone time away from all the stress of the season. But she gets back in the spirit when she falls for her hunky surf instructor, Jesús.
- Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree: two geologists fall in love on a holiday mining trip.
Anyway, The Knight Before Christmas has a very similar premise to The Spirit of Christmas: an unlucky-in-love lady finds true love with with a time-traveler. I didn’t realize this was a trend! But where The Spirit of Christmas had a mystery element, this film is a lot closer in tone to Elf, with wacky hijinks following our fish out of water. I’m sorry to say that The Knight Before Christmas is not as good as either of those Christmas classics.
Vanessa Hudgens plays Brooke Winters, a high school science teacher in present-day Ohio. We meet her telling a heartbroken student that fairy tale romances don’t exist and in real life you don’t get a knight in shining armor. What specific and on-the-nose advice! Meanwhile, back in medieval England, a real knight in shining armor encounters a mysterious old crone in the woods, and she transports him to present-day Ohio to fulfill a quest before Christmas. We could have used a lot more setup there. Why did the old crone send him to Ohio, of all places? Why 2019 specifically? Why did she choose him for this journey? What is his quest? Why is her wig so glamorous?
Regardless, that’s what happens and the knight appears in Brooke’s town of “Bracebridge,” Ohio. (The fictional town presumably got its name because the movie was filmed in Bracebridge, Ontario, a decision so lazy I almost respect it). Brooke takes her niece to a Christmas market and bumps into the knight, who she assumes is just a normal part of the Christmas market. This doesn’t make as much sense as, say, a real-life elf showing up in a Santa display at a department store. I don’t expect medieval elements at a Christmas market. But Brooke decides this is normal and fine, a stance she will take on almost everything that happens to her for the rest of the film.
As she’s driving home in the snow, the knight wanders in front of her car and she hits him. He’s not injured, but he introduces himself as “Sir Cole,” so she assumes he banged his head and is imagining that he’s a real knight. I’m beginning to suspect that head injuries are another trope of the genre, as the protagonist of The Spirit of Christmas assumed that the supernatural plot devices were the result of knocking a vase onto her head. Seeing ghosts or believing that you’re a knight are much more whimsical side effects than what I personally experienced when I got a concussion, but I guess I see why Brooke chalks the whole thing up to a medical problem. I, too, would want a reasonable explanation for a knight named Cole, a name that feels very modern to me.
Oooh, but maybe it’s like she’s getting Cole in her stocking this year! Haha! That’s so stupid!
Anyway, she decides to take Sir Cole home until he regains his memory. (Note to the ladies out there: absolutely never do this with a stranger, under any circumstances, because this is a true crime podcast waiting to happen.) They fall in love as he attempts different good deeds in search of his quest, and when they finally kiss he gets transported back in time because his true quest was falling in love. He asks the old crone to return him to the future so he can be with Brooke, so the entire quest thing was pretty pointless. She sends him back to 2019 (with his horse! Where do they expect a public school teacher to store a live horse!?) to presumably live happily ever after. You may note that this plot is pretty simple, without much conflict. You’d be right. You may also notice that this is nonsensical and kind of dumb. You’d be right again.
It’s not complete garbage. Our leads, Vanessa Hudgens and Knockoff Rob Pattinson, are both very attractive and have pretty good chemistry. Knockoff Rob Pattinson has especially good comedic timing and gets some funny moments. (I particularly liked him just calling the old crone “Old Crone” and gasping “A magic box that makes merry, just like the old crone foretold!” upon seeing a television set.) And… hmmm. That’s all the compliments I can come up with.
And then some things about this film simply cannot be remedied. Sir Cole should certainly be about 5’6 and have at least 20% fewer teeth. He would definitely smell awful and I cannot imagine that he would understand present-day English, nor would he be able to FIGURE OUT HOW TO DRIVE A CAR using his CONFIDENCE IN HORSEBACK RIDING, which is A THING THAT HAPPENS IN THIS MOVIE. I assume they cut a scene of Brooke teaching Sir Cole to use a toilet instead of hurling his waste out the window onto the street. And I don’t have a lot of faith in the central couple here. What a Scrooge I was to scoff at the pairing in The Spirit of Christmas. “He won’t understand a SINGLE one of her references,” I grinched in my review. Well, at least the time-traveling lover of that movie had some familiarity with the ENTIRE CONCEPT OF AMERICA!
So yeah, this one requires a lot more suspension of disbelief. But I think it could be a fun romp if the script were punched up a bit. I have come up with some edits that I think would have improved the movie vastly:
- Let us get to know anything about the leads before the inciting incident. Sir Cole gets sent into the future at the 7-minute mark, at which point we have only seen him participating in a pointless “Christmas hawking competition” that teaches us nothing about his character. Old Crone says that he needs to complete a quest in order to become a true knight. But we know from his title that he’s already been knighted, and we didn’t get any indicator that he’s struggled with feeling legitimate. Once in 2019 Ohio, he wants to return to the past to see his younger brother knighted — but why not just make him the character who is trying to earn knighthood? And then he could learn that love is more important than titles. And that would subvert a trope of the genre: now the man is the one too focused on his career to find love!
- Give Brooke any remotely interesting backstory. Things we learn about Brooke: her last boyfriend cheated on her, her mom died of some illness, her dad (a cop) died shortly after, and she is a science teacher. Nothing about that says to me that this is a character who would readily accept a time-traveling knight into her life. She could at least be an English teacher who loves reading fairy tales, or a history teacher who’s excited to hear how prepared Cole’s village would be for the impending Black Death. Or, to take another angle…
- Really lean into the small-town thing. There are some dim-witted townsfolk in Bracebridge. After Sir Cole claims to have been knighted by King Edward III, Brooke takes several days to realize that King Edward III is not the name of the current monarch of England. Later, Sir Cole stops a thief with his sword and barks “Where I come from, thieves are strung up by their thumbs and hung!” One would expect the thief to be seriously confused by this, but I guess he just heard Sir Cole’s accent and assumed that that’s what British people are like. Absolute lads, always whipping out their medieval weaponry when it’s time to string up a thief by the thumbs! Likewise, a waitress seems unbothered by Sir Cole addressing her as “wench,” presumably also chalking it up to that classic British cheekiness. Not to cast aspersions on Ohio, but also to do that: this could be a scathing indictment of small-town ignorance if played a little darker. Open with Brooke teaching her class that evolution isn’t real, and end with Sir Cole contracting measles and dying because he never got modern vaccinations.
- Make the script funnier! Okay, so Sir Cole dying of measles wouldn’t be fun. And this movie could be quite fun, but it needs another pass on the script to make it more comedic. I do think it would be great if Brooke were just dumb as hell. She’s a science teacher and she accepts that magic spells can cause time travel? No way. Make her a dummy who’s applying for a reality show where men have to compete for her hand in marriage, throw in a real knight to dazzle her with his actual code of chivalry, and now we’re cooking. Also, there are so many missed opportunities for jokes here! At one point, Brooke frets to her sister that maybe Cole isn’t who he says he is, and I desperately wanted her to say “What if he’s lying? What if he’s one of those Renaissance Fair weirdos?!” and despair like the worst case scenario here is that he’s actually a fuckin nerd.
- Cut Slutty Allison. As much as I love representation, Brooke’s neighbor is a completely pointless addition to this movie. She’s a character who sees Sir Cole staying over at Brooke’s house and invites him to go caroling with her. That hussy! Brooke gripes about how Allison was voted Biggest Flirt in high school. (Why in the actual hell does Brooke live next door to a nemesis from high school? Even in a small town, that’s unhinged.) Slutty Allison appears later in the film to invite Sir Cole to kiss her under the mistletoe, a request she barely gets out before giving up and saying that she can tell he’s into Brooke. No shit, Slutty Allison. The guy who Brooke brought home is with Brooke. You should have realized that when you first saw him, walking into Brooke’s house with Brooke. The character appears for perhaps a cumulative two minutes in the movie and the actress doesn’t even use those two minutes well, blandly delivering her lines instead of chewing on them with the vigor of a seasoned flirt since high school. If I got be the slutty Allison next door in this film, I would play her like I hadn’t felt the touch of a man in years, and I would request that the costume designer put me in a Christmas sweater with trompe l’oeil cleavage crocheted on the front.
- Cut the kid while you’re at it. There’s a damn kid in this movie, always a bad sign. Brooke’s niece is the type of child who only exists in movies, a wise-beyond-her-years moppet with a heart of gold who talks like she’s 4 but is played by an actress in middle school and does little more than beam angelically whenever the camera is on her. This kid also gets a very confusing plot line when her ideal gift, a puppy, appears under the tree on Christmas morning and neither of her parents know where it came from. Is the movie positing that Santa is real and it just hasn’t been a factor in this plot up to this point? Did Old Crone sneak into 2019 for the sole reason of giving one kid a puppy? Why is a medieval sorceress so obsessed with one family in present-day Ohio?
- Fuck outta here with that meta bullshit. There’s a scene of Brooke and Sir Cole flipping through a few Netflix original Christmas movies and ultimately binge-watching Netflix for an entire day. Boo! Boo, brand! I hate it! Don’t pretend that you’re self-aware when this movie isn’t campy or ironic. If you want to go meta, commit. I dare you, Netflix! Make a movie about two actors filming a made-for-Netflix Christmas movie early in the year. There’s a spark, but it doesn’t quite work out — until they reunite at the premiere (around the holidays, of course) and confess their love. It can be called As We Stream By the Fire, and I would like a check in the mail once production is wrapped. Oh, and the sequel can be about them filming the sequel to their movie and getting snowed in on location, and you can call it Streaming of a White Christmas. You’re welcome!
- While I’m suggesting things….there’s a scene in the credits that sets up a sequel about Sir Cole’s brother traveling to the future. I propose that he fall in love with someone Jewish and refuse to come back, so seven of his compatriots have to come get him. It can be called Eight Crazy Knights and again, Netflix, you’re welcome but I do expect a check.
Was this movie terrible or amazing? More terrible than amazing, I’m afraid. If The Spirit of Christmas is a 10/10 for the genre, I’d give this one a 6.
Was this movie romantic? No. Knockoff Rob Pattinson is a cutie, but Brooke is just too bland for their relationship to ever sizzle. Plus it gives me the same sense of anxiety as the ending of Elf, where I get genuinely worried about a young woman tethering herself to someone she’ll have to guide through every interaction with the real world. I’m not even sure Sir Cole can read. And who knows what 14th century venereal diseases the man has contracted!
Do I recommend this movie? Ehhh… if you’re a fan of the genre, give it a shot. It’s goofy enough that you’ll have a fun time making fun of it with your roommates. But The Spirit of Christmas is the superior time-traveling Christmas romance here.