While most people are probably still sorting out their plans and recipes for Thanksgiving, the Christmas movie season is arguably already upon us. Holiday-themed romances are continuing to have a bit of a resurgence, whether they be on basic cable, the big screen, or a streaming service. Netflix has quickly become a bit of a powerhouse in the subgenre, thanks to the runaway hits they had with original movies A Christmas Prince and The Princess Switch. This year, the platform is offering up The Knight Before Christmas, a film filled with tropes so specific that the logline alone set Twitter ablaze a few months ago. While The Knight Before Christmas doesn't get nearly as absurd and unpredictable as its concept would justify, it offers up a charming and heartfelt entry into the holiday rom-com canon, which is anchored by the performances of its two leads.
The Knight Before Christmas opens on Sir Cole Christopher Frederick Lyons (Josh Whitehouse), a 14th-century knight who is preparing to take part in an epic tournament. Through an array of circumstances that almost feel too specific to spoil, Sir Cole (yes, his name sounds more and more like "circle" as the film goes on) is magically sent to the present day. While there, he literally runs into Brooke (Vanessa Hudgens), a science teacher who is incredibly empathetic to those around her, but wrestles with whether or not to open her heart to romance again. With just days until Christmas, Brooke and Cole form a closer relationship, as he attempts to fulfill the "quest" that sent him to the present to begin with.
Like nearly all good Christmas movies, the plot of The Knight Before Christmas is an enigma -- it's both too simple, and so complex that thinking about it will make your head hurt. At times, the film feels like a gender-bent take on Disney's Enchanted, albeit more festive and with more modern technology to make jokes about. But The Knight Before Christmas' approach to its more fantastical elements is so touch-and-go, to the point where you could very well forget about them for stretches of time. The fish-out-of-water plot - and the way the characters react to it - floats in a space between completely straight and completely self-aware. While that doesn't really become a severe setback for the film, it makes the experience of watching it occasionally befuddling, especially once the plot beats get easier to predict and the dialogue gets more expository.
Even with the foibles in its plot and execution, the performances from Hudgens and Whitehouse elevates The Knight Before Christmas into a delightful viewing experience. To an extent, Hudgens' Brooke feels very aspirational — she's a kind-hearted teacher who seems to spend nearly all of her free time volunteering, but also boasts an impressive outerwear collection and a kitchen that would make Nancy Meyers proud. But there's an incredibly relatable quality to Hudgens' performance, and her empathy really shines in every scene she's in. Between this and her Orphan Black-like performances in the Princess Switch franchise, it's easy to see why Hudgens (who also executive produced The Knight Before Christmas) is becoming one of the powerhouses in Netflix's holiday repertoire. By comparison, Whitehouse's Cole is a little underdeveloped, as his defining quality for nearly half of the film is "confused", and his 14th-century competence and skills are really only revealed as the plot requires. But Whitehouse's puppy dog eyes and charming demeanor make him an endearing — if a little vanilla — romantic foil.
By and large, the film's supporting cast is trying their hardest, although that results in performances that are all over the map. The standouts are Emmanuelle Chriqui and Isabelle Franca as Brooke's sister and niece, who anchor the world of the film while also playing into the fun of it. Many of the other players — including Harry Jarvis as Cole's brother and Mimi Gianopulos as one of Brooke's nosy neighbors — mainly exist to move the plot along. From a technical standpoint, the film makes some impressive, but not genre-bending, choices. The costumes — both in the past and the modern-day — are practical but aesthetically-pleasing, and look especially vibrant when juxtaposed against the snow-filled set design. The cinematography gets genuinely beautiful in certain moments, but not in a way that will alienate the film's target audience.
The Knight Before Christmas doesn't reinvent the Christmas rom-com genre, but there's a surprising amount to love about the film. Even with plotholes and lines of dialogue that will occasionally leave you scratching your head, you can't help but admire the film's sense of earnestness and its message about love and empathy. Between that and the adorable performances from Hudgens and Whitehouse, The Knight Before Christmas proves to be the perfect kind of cinematic comfort food for the upcoming holiday season.
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Knight Before Christmas is now streaming on Netflix.