For a moment, let's agree to put aside the perfection of "It's a Wonderful Life". It's in a league all its own, and including it would make all discussions of a favorite holiday movie pointless.
I'm puzzled why a little known 1989 film called "Prancer" doesn't routinely top these lists. It's about much more than the bond that forms between a little girl and a stray reindeer, and goes to the heart of understanding, loss, and family. It gets to me every year.
Rebecca Harrell stars as precocious young Jessica, and it remains one of my favorite child performances in any movie. She's maddeningly single-minded, the kind of kid that sings too loud in the school play and listens to Christmas music all year. Jessica finds an injured reindeer and decides, without question, that he belongs to Santa and that she must nurse him back to health and return him before Christmas Eve.
This all sounds incredibly corny. But what gives this film it's emotional heft is that the central story is surrounded by dark and gritty details of real life. We learn early on that Jessica's mother has recently passed. She's left in the care of her father (Sam Elliott) who is distant and distracted, dealing with the daily concern for providing for his family while operating the family apple farm. Times are tough, and he knows that they will eventually lose the farm, and he doesn't have time for stories about lost reindeer and Santa Claus. Jessica is a sweet, misunderstood kid, and her occasional rebellious act and attachment to this reindeer are all rooted in the loss of her mother.
I acknowledge a few flaws (the soundtrack is dated in a way that many 80's movies are), but by the end it has earned the lump in your throat and remains a quiet gem of a holiday movie.
"Prancer" isn't shown on television very often, but it's available on DVD (but sadly, not Blu-Ray). You can also find the entire film on You Tube.