It’s mid-November, which in marketing terms means that it’s basically Christmas, and for the second year in a row Netflix has recruited Vanessa Hudgens for an ooey-gooey holiday romance.
This year’s offering is “The Knight Before Christmas,” which sees a dreamy 14th-century knight (Josh Whitehouse) transported by a witch through time and space to modern-day Ohio. There, he promptly woos high school science teacher Brooke (Hudgens) who, after a recent breakup, has given up on love. He has until Christmas Eve to complete his strangely unspecific knightly quest, or he risks never being able to return to his own time.
There’s something about the time travel element of this film that prevents it from becoming too treacly. Perhaps featuring a man out of time, who is incredibly earnest and sincere as a romantic stereotype of a knight, they can get away with dialogue and situations that would otherwise feel stilted or false. Whereas it’s tough to buy a modern man delivering a long, serious speech about the nature of love, a charming time traveler who already seems prone to monologuing somehow makes it work.
Whitehouse fully commits to the character of Sir Cole but never takes himself too seriously, imbuing his chivalrous knight with a mischievousness that is entirely charming. He does most of the heavy lifting in terms of character work, as Brooke is a good-natured slice of plain, unbuttered toast and Hudgens seems either unwilling or unable to add any depth to the role.
But as cute as Whitehouse is, and as much potential as the basic storyline of “The Knight Before Christmas” has, there are also plenty of problems. Chief among them the fact that there are shockingly few problems, for them at least. They’re essentially two perfect people. Sir Cole adapts to modern civilization with the greatest of ease; technology, culture, even slang represent no more than minor stumbling blocks for him.
Meanwhile, Brooke has the patience of a saint and no discernible flaws. Although the film tries to paint her as “jaded,” she really doesn’t come across that way. She just gets one scene where she tells a broken-hearted teen that Prince Charmings and knights in shining armor only exist in fairy tales, so not to let romantic fantasies distract from her academic goals. It’s not terrible advice and doesn’t exactly establish her character as a cynical anti-love activist. So with these two well-adjusted, attractive adults who click instantly, where is the drama? Neither character has to grow or change as people, so their sweet relationship lacks the depth to make it truly compelling.
Furthermore, they encounter few external impediments to their relationship. For this story to really work, there either needs to be something in the present day that complicates their relationship or a concrete reason why Cole absolutely has to return to the past. “The Knight Before Christmas” has neither.
Everyone in Ohio is almost comically in support of their relationship, and they all seem a little too OK with the idea that this man either has a serious brain injury or is an actual time traveler. Where there could have been conflict over Cole’s very uncertain status in their world, the film drops the whole “concerned about his mental health” subplot after about a scene and a half.
The muddled concept of Cole’s so-called quest doesn’t help matters. It’s supposed to be the narrative device that drives the story forward, but they don’t really seem to know what to do with it. His seemingly all-important quest ends up serving as little more than an annoying distraction from the romantic tropes that are the reason why people watch this kind of film in the first place.
If there’s anything to like about “The Knight Before Christmas,” it’s Josh Whitehouse’s adorable performance as Cole. He brings a lot of life to a role that in other hands could be merely a cardboard cutout in chainmail. But ultimately, the film feels like the very first draft of a potentially promising project. There are so many little things that could have been done to improve it immeasurably, so its unnecessary failures are disappointing more than anything else. Nevertheless, it’s a perfectly acceptable contribution to the developing Netflix Christmas romance genre.